A family built through FFA tradition
SALEM — They've held mock interviews, judged livestock and volunteered their time.
They've sponsored one of the state's top Future Farmers of America awards since 2002 and driven countless miles to help local students for state and national competitions. And they've held those student accomplishments up for everyone in Salem and the McCook Central School District to know about.
Dan and Karen Streff have done all of those things to support FFA in South Dakota for more than 30 years, including for the past 15 years with their three children out of high school. And when they were selected as the South Dakota FFA Foundation's Family of the Year for 2019, the Streffs were shocked.
"I didn't think we were doing anything out of the ordinary," Dan said. "But we were pretty excited when we found out."
But talk to their family for a few minutes and it's clear the Streffs are among the state's biggest advocates for agricultural education and FFA in South Dakota. Mainly because they rarely say no when an individual or group asks for help.
"I could be flat broke and I'd keep doing it," Dan said.
The Streff family received the honor earlier this month at the State FFA Convention in Brookings. Their family has sponsored the State Star Award in Agricultural Placement since its inception, and they're the only non-corporate entity to do so, something the Streffs are proud of.
The family's three children—sons Brock and Nick, and daughter Ashley—were all naturally inclined to participate in FFA. And the children showed a propensity for success, as well, earning officer leadership positions, FFA degrees, state and national proficiency awards. In 2001, Nick Streff was the first winner of the American Star Award in Agricultural Placement, a highly competitive honor won at the national level.
He now works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service in Lincoln, Nebraska. He recalls his parents helping to set up meetings with local community leaders to practice job-like interviews.
"There was a banker and a veterinarian and they'd throw questions at me," Nick said. "(After that), I was very well-prepared, and at nationals, part of the interview you do in front of the rest of the contestants and later, one of the other kids said to me, 'You did really well at this, did you practice?' And, I said, 'Uh, yeah, my parents made me.'"
"I don't know if that helped me win the award but my parents were the ones that were behind me," he added.
The star award category is built around a supervised agricultural experience, or SAE, projects, which require detailed record-keeping and detail to judges the individual's roles and responsibilities, challenges faced, management decisions, along with an individual showing how they grew, progressed and learned.
At the state convention, four finalists in each category are on hand, and those individuals interview with a panel before a winner is selected.
"The actions of the entire Streff family through multiple generations have modeled the FFA mission: developing premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agriculture education," said SD FFA Foundation Executive Director Gerri Ann Eide, in announcing the award.
All in the family
The FFA story starts for Dan when he was in high school, a graduate of Salem High School in 1975. When he was in FFA, there was a revolving door of advisers in the program—he counted eight in his time—so Dan took on a larger role as a student to help make the program go.
Karen, who went to school in Montrose, dated Dan when he was in FFA and quickly learned what it meant to him. In the 1980s, the Streffs visited with the local school board and spoke frequently about how important ag education was to them, letting them know they needed a good teacher.
They met Terry Rieckman in 1984, who was hired to teach ag education and lead the FFA program, and Dan Streff admits he held the new guy to a high standard.
"It took me a few years, but he won me over," Dan recalled.
When the spring FFA banquet was being organized on short notice with Rieckman's approval, Streff wasn't sure the teacher knew what he was doing. But they've been friends for 30-plus years now, in part, because Rieckman empowers students to do the work on their own.
"How he can pull it from all of these kids, I'll never know," Karen said.
It's one of the reasons, Dan said, the McCook Central FFA program is the envy of other chapters.
"The passion and dedication they give to our chapter along with other activities and organizations in our community is what small-town America is all about," Rieckman said of the Streffs when the award was announced. "I can honestly say I am so lucky to have had them in my corner and supporting our chapter for over 30 years, but mostly I am proud that I can call them friends."
The Streffs — with Dan and Karen now married for more than 42 years — had more than 4,000-head of hogs in their sow-to-finish farm for decades, with Dan leading the way for expanding and growing. The family's three children all went to South Dakota State University and all came home on the weekends while in college to help with chores.
In 2008, Dan and Karen retired from farming and made the difficult decision to sell land that had been in the family since homesteading in the 19th century. Since then, Dan continues to help operate a hog farm near Parkston and the family lives a few miles west of Salem.
The Streffs said the personal stories shared with them about the organization's impact are a main reason why they support it so much. When Nick was up for the national Star Award, Dan said, leaders of companies like John Deere and Ford that wanted to meet students in FFA because they knew what the organization meant for building quality young people.
Nick Streff said the biggest skill he got out of FFA was becoming a strong public speaker, and his dad spoke about having students deliver speeches in the mirror and doing it without laughing, breaking or mistakes, and ending up putting in hours of practice to get it right.
Dan Streff said he believes fully in FFA students, even with farming being a difficult career for young people.
"Because the numbers are against them. That's just the reality," he said. "I believe farmers are the most powerful people on the planet. Someone has to feed the world and (as farmers) we're not getting any younger."
Regardless of their future career path, South Dakota FFA students have the Streff family on their side. Nobody knows that better than their children.
"I'm 20-plus years out of high school and they're still helping," Nick Streff said. "They're my parents but I can't think of anyone more deserving of an honor like that."