Tapping into a Historic Rivalry to Fund FFA Activities
October 13, 2021
Written By Neal Fandek
Brookfield wins! Brookfield FFA, that is. The prize: a cowbell.
Not just any cowbell; the FFA version of the Bell Game prize. The annual Bell Game, between the high school football teams of Brookfield, Mo., and nearby Marceline, is one of the oldest sports rivalries in America. It is called the Bell Game because the winner gets to keep a 1930s brass fireman’s bell for a year. The game was voted the No. 1 high school football rivalry in the country by USA Today about a decade ago, and thousands attend the game every year rain or shine.
While the Brookfield 11 don’t always triumph, Brookfield FFA consistently does, thanks to Jessica Dobrzenski, agriculture educator and FFA advisor with the Brookfield R3 School District.
Dobrzenski grew up in Linn County and went to high school in Marceline, so she was acutely aware of the rivalry before she began teaching.
“And I thought, ‘Why can’t FFA do something with this?’” she said. “We decided to do a cookoff before the game.” The FFA chapter that sells the most food wins the coveted cowbell, and Brookfield FFA rakes in more than $1,000 every year. That’s good, because going to county and state fairs; buying supplies for the ranch, barn, greenhouse and welding shop; and all the other FFA activities cost money.
But the money is only part of the benefit.
“The students don’t always realize they are also being taught real world skills,” said Dobrzenski. “Then, later, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah! I learned that in ag class.’”
Food science is one area where Dobrzenski teaches practical life skills. She runs ham curing clinics with her students, who take the hams home to cure. The students then enter their hams into the competition at the Missouri State Fair, where the hams can be sold at a hefty profit. In her first year of teaching, her students cured 15-20 hams. This year, the number was well over 100.
The ham curing also teaches students about history. “Curing hams gives them some idea of how their grandparents and great-grandparents lived,” Dobrzenski said. “They couldn’t just go to the fridge and get what they wanted.”
As the number of producers declines and each generation gets further from the farm, staying in touch with these rural roots is important, she said. Dobrzenski estimates one in five of her students will be employed in some capacity in the ag industry, and of those, less than 2 percent will become farmers. So, she’s learned to be flexible in her teaching, meet students halfway and teach them to advocate for the industry.
It’s an approach that works. Brookfield FFA was recently awarded an FFA Gold Emblem, placing third out of 351 Missouri chapters. Only 10 percent of state chapters are awarded gold, those that fulfill the FFA mission and emphasize “growing leaders, building communities and strengthening agriculture … providing educational experiences for the entire membership,” according to FFA.
Jenna Stark, now a freshman in biomedical sciences at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, is one of those members. She credits Dobrzenski with pushing her outside her comfort zone.
“Oh, she pushed me,” Stark said. “Pushed me out of my shell to do stuff I was not that comfortable with, pushed me to be the best person I could be.” Stark was ultimately elected chapter FFA president. “And I ended up loving every minute of it! She takes the time to sit down, practice with you, stay after school. She will push you to be the best you can be.”
“I try to teach them life is not all about money,” Dobrzenski said. “You have to have meaning in life…. I don’t teach ag with the intent of making farmers but what will suit them as human beings, make them happy and productive.
“This is what I want to do in life,” she said. “This is it.”