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Bernie Staller as a young agriculture teacher at Janesville High School in Janesville, Wis.
Bernie Staller, chief operating officer of the National FFA Organization, has been named the 2004 Agribusiness Leader of the Year. This award honors outstanding leaders in agribusiness, education, government service or other agribusiness-related areas that exemplify excellence in agribusiness by their significant contributions to the industry.

Few great gifts eclipse those of providing and demonstrating leadership, especially to America's youth. Bernie Staller has afforded more than a generation of students the chance to realize and embrace their potential through strong and thoughtful leadership.

His insightful leadership is perhaps Staller's greatest skill. With it he has championed agricultural, career and technical education. During 37 years of self-effacing service, he has touched the lives of thousands of youth across the nation.

Four years in FFA and "an absolutely incredible teacher" who knew how to unearth students' personal strengths nudged a timid farm boy in the right direction many years ago. Staller, acquiring the same skill, never forgot to pass along the favor.

Armed with bachelor's and master's degrees in education, Staller taught high school agribusiness and was the FFA advisor for 11 years in Janesville, Wis.

During his first year, there were only five students with farm backgrounds in the entire school system. Entrepreneurial and resourceful, he promptly secured one of the first agribusiness teaching grants and attracted the interest of the school's urban youth.

The grant enabled him to develop and help build an urban ag business program that included classes in horticulture, school land labs, orchards, a whopping 11 football fields' worth of school gardens and an 88-acre school forest.

Staller's students operated their own apple orchard, and they sold apples under the FFA brand. They marketed greenhouse plants and a variety of other products as well. Under his eye, students acquired retailing, grading and food processing experience. Chapter members reinvested generated funds not only back into their programs but also into scholarships for graduates as well. The entire process mirrored the FFA motto - learning to do, doing to learn, earning to live and living to serve.

The program grew to more than 500 students, attracting dozens of school boards and education class tours from neighboring districts, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota.

Staller was one of the first ag instructors to admit female students into the FFA.
Before the National FFA admitted women, Staller's program opened its doors to them; more than half the chapter's membership roster listed female names.

Twice he was named "Outstanding Young Teacher in Wisconsin," and his inspirational methods were widely copied. In his last year of teaching, seven of the top 10 academic students in a graduating class of 500 were in the school's agricultural education/FFA program.

Staller joined the National FFA Foundation as assistant executive director in July 1977 and was subsequently tapped as executive director in April 1979. He assumed the combined chief operating officer responsibility for the National FFA Organization and Foundation in March 1991.

The national FFA staff has long recognized Staller's consistent ability to address serious issues in personnel, organizational structure, financial solvency, board management, program quality and industry responsiveness.

His leadership and vision ensured agricultural education and FFA met the agribusiness industry's needs by providing future workers, managers and leaders.

Staller has consistently shared the facts with decision-makers, stakeholders and staff, fostering informed decisions on the issues.

Through that sense, and aware of technology's role, Staller convened an internal task force that developed a long-range information technology management strategy, which in turn led to a multimillion-dollar, five-year implementation underwritten partially by business and industry.

His financial skill in turning the FFA books around netted more than stable financial footing - it enhanced customer service and education programs. It also boosted agribusiness confidence, increasing support for FFA and agricultural education, further augmenting foundation fundraising efforts.

Staller's fundraising experience provided a unique perspective on the economic, social and cultural forces affecting the industry. He expanded educational products and initiatives offered through FFA and agricultural education. Under his leadership, FFA expanded career development programs that addressed the growing needs of agriscience, technology, business and leadership.

His assessment of agribusiness' needs led FFA to redesign the FFA National Agricultural Career Show. Today, it assembles more than 360 industry and higher education exhibitors face to face with talented students.

His efforts afford numerous initiatives in youth mentoring, community development, entrepreneurship, rural youth development and advancements in agricultural education. In but one example, through the Foundation, Staller helped acquire project funding from the Kellogg Foundation for pairing at-risk elementary students with mentoring FFA members.

Staller has consistently maintained that agricultural education's success is tied directly to the quality of local teachers. Recognizing a burgeoning shortage of agriculture teachers, he championed sponsorships to address teacher recruitment, recognition and training. By attracting the best and brightest to study agricultural education, Staller then positioned FFA as an integral part of the human resource development chain.

Always receptive to bettering the organization, Staller responded to a sponsor who asked, "How does FFA make a positive difference?" by asking more questions
of his educational staff.

His insightful questioning of the FFA mission led the FFA education division on a three-year study that produced LifeKnowledge™ - an innovative leadership-teaching curriculum that defines the 16 precepts necessary for students to develop premier leadership, personal growth and career success, fulfilling the FFA mission. Staller worked directly with agribusiness, resulting in the industry validation of the precepts outlining the characteristics for future employees. In turn, students who experience LifeKnowledge will leave school armed not only with the academic and technical skills desired by industry but also character/people skills necessary to be successful in today's world. The program will be launched this fall in high school agriculture classrooms across the country.

Through the FFA Local Program Success (LPS) initiative, developed a decade ago under Staller's watch, successful teachers identified key requirements for operating successful local agricultural education programs and FFA chapters, strengthening and enhancing agricultural education's ability to meet agribusiness' needs.

In Staller's opinion, LPS is one of the most important FFA programs. He compares it to the corporate world's dealer development programs.

The teacher-designed material aids teachers and strengthens the entire local chapter network. "We're only as strong as our chapters and state associations," Staller notes. "I don't know of other nonprofit groups that have anywhere near the emphasis on building strong local chapters as FFA does."

As he steps down from his FFA post, Staller, who will retire from FFA this year, is learning the depth of appreciation from all quarters.

Retired Dow AgroSciences CEO Charles Fischer calls Staller "a true professional. Those are sometimes overused words, but Bernie is so committed to the purpose of the association. We all felt the commitment and sincerity."

Fischer, a former chairman of the Foundation's Sponsors' Board, quickly realized Staller is "so intellectually honest that you really have no trouble knowing where he is on things. He is transparent as a person and a leader. He goes out of his way to include others to the benefit of the overall purpose.

"Bernie is a determined individual," Fischer asserts. "When he sees something that needs to be done, he's certainly not a shrinking violet - always for the benefit of the association."

Fischer recognized Staller as "a great people person. He knows when to be out front and he knows when to be in the shadow, to be the power behind the throne." Staller's ability to assemble and lead a talented staff at FFA did not escape Fischer's notice, or that Staller understands when to let staff run with a project.

In Fischer's opinion, the efficient relocation and consolidation of the FFA Center and operations would not have happened without Staller at the helm.

Staller admits to several successes himself: a development of the understanding of what agriculture represents (it is more than production; it is food, fiber and natural resources); the continued diversity of the student base in agricultural education and FFA, including female membership and minorities; and broadening membership into junior high while expanding collegiate-level work.

He is particularly proud of LifeKnowledge. "LifeKnowledge is the most innovative curriculum tool impacting agricultural education and FFA; it has long-term potential to revolutionize the agricultural industry by changing the type of people employed.

LifeKnowledge adds character dimension to the student product, based on the challenge that FFA makes a difference," said Staller. AM

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