Professor emeritus devotes more than 70 years to FFA

Tracy Tucker

Ken Larson’s office is cluttered with not only his paperwork, but also the paperwork of five other agronomy department retirees who share the office space. Seed and soil samples are strewn across the desks.

Larson, professor emeritus of agronomy, hasn’t fully retired.

Two picture frames sit on a shelf above his desk. His two daughters are posed next to him, the picture taken on his 60th birthday. Photos of his granddaughter Krista and grandson Eric grin from behind the glass of the other picture frame.

As a college student, Larson tried out for the football and basketball teams at the University of Northern Iowa, but didn’t make either team. Larson said he had planned to coach after playing in sports, but after being cut, he decided the dream of coaching wasn’t in his future. Larson transferred to Iowa State, where he received his degree in agricultural education. Larson said agricultural education is closely aligned with FFA. Since then, he has spent more than 70 years making contributions to the FFA program.

In honor of his service to FFA programs, Larson received the Honorary American Farmer’s Degree at the National FFA Convention Nov. 1 in Louisville, Ky.

Larson’s daughter, Linda Donalson, and his granddaughter, Emily Donalson, will accompanied him on the trip to receive the award. Emily is a freshman in high school and active in FFA. If she has questions about seeds or soils, she calls her grandfather, Larson said.

After graduating from Iowa State, Larson was commissioned to be a Second Lieutenant for the Air Force and became a pilot. With strict instructions from his mother to “fly low and slow,” he was in the service for three years, Larson said.

Larson received his Ph.D. in agronomy in 1961 from the University of Wisconsin. He worked as an assistant professor at North Dakota State University for nine years and was a part of various judging contests which immersed him into FFA He continued his efforts with FFA at the University of Missouri for eight years.

In 1978, he became the associate dean of agronomy at the University of Missouri. There, he headed the Agronomy club’s fundraiser selling packets of seed to an instructional materials lab that provides seed samples for educational purposes, Larson said.

In 1984, Larson came back to Iowa State as an assistant dean of agronomy. He helped start the FFA judging teams at Iowa State and chaired the contests for eight years, he said.

“I’m excited that [judging contests] has continued. Some events die when the leader retires,” Larson said. “The faculty has realized the importance and kept it alive.”

He has also helped found biotechnology scholarships at Iowa State. These scholarships award 10 full-tuition scholarships, and has since been named Scholarships for Excellence in Agriculture.

While he was a professor of agronomy at Iowa State, he took several classes on trips to South and Central America as well as Europe and Australia to learn about agronomy there, Larson said. He also headed up research on Crambe, a crop producing seed that is used to create oils and lubricants for industrial, rather than human use.

In addition, Larson still gathers seed and soil samples to sell to FFA clubs and agricultural classes. He contributes half of the profits to the Iowa State Agronomy Club, Larson said.

“I enjoy crops and soil and know how important they are to production and ag as well as the general public,” Larson said.