As Blue Ridge High School's agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, Jacalyn Meisner dedicates her life to opening up students' perspectives regarding careers in agriculture and utilizing FFA to equip them with skills that will support them throughout life, whether they enter the agriculture field or not.
Jacalyn's passion for her field has grown within her since her formative years on the family farm east of Jerseyville. Growing up, Jacalyn could be found wandering around the Meisner farmstead with her family's shorthorn cattle, traveling with her siblings and cousins to cattle shows all over the country.
"My grandpa got the family into purebred Shorthorn cattle. He and my dad and uncles showed, so when we were little, we went to cattle shows. So I grew up showing cattle and working with them on the farm."
Jacalyn learned a lot from her cattle. They taught her about the circle of life, managing business ventures, an animal's purpose, developing healthy coping mechanisms in the face of loss, compassion, and other competencies. When Jacalyn turned eight years old, she joined 4-H. During her years in the East Side Kids 4-H Club (which her mom started and led), she participated in various projects and events related to baking, woodworking, sewing, arts and crafts, and public speaking. But, given that it was a natural extension of her family's way of life, livestock showing was her mainstay focus. She dabbled in swine showing and learned a lot about the swine industry in the process, but her heart was with her shorthorn cattle.
Her cattle showing career was launched in 4-H with a shorthorn steer she showed at area county fairs and breed-specific shows, like the Tri-County Shorthorn Preview Show. Finding she was intensely interested in showing, Jacalyn began investing more time into her animals and attended even larger cattle shows. Some of those shows included regional state fairs, the National Junior Shorthorn Show and Youth Conference, and, her favorite, the North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE).
"Most families took vacations, but we took 'show-cations.' Our show-cations were going to cattle shows and hanging out and running around with kids our age. Of course, there weren't cell phones when we grew up, so to pass the time, you got really good at playing card games, which is funny because now I teach those games to my students."
When Jacalyn started her high school career, her level of involvement increased all the more. In addition to her 4-H projects, Jacalyn joined FFA and began raising boer goats for show and meat production as an FFA project, developing a strong herd that broadened her understanding of animal agriculture.
Funny enough, Jacalyn secured a spot for herself in Jersey County Fair history by being one of the inciting reasons why non-dairy goat classes were introduced to the fair's open goat show. When Jacalyn decided to show her goats at the county fair, no boer goat classes existed at the time. "It was a sanctioned dairy goat show, so what we did was we found a class no one entered in, and that's the class I showed in. Then, after a while, we started seeing more classes open to boer goats."
Aside from 4-H and FFA, she also started getting more involved with representing the shorthorn cattle breed, stepping into leadership roles that enabled her to represent animal agriculture and the people that comprised the industry in Illinois.
Like county fair queens, many livestock breed associations have royalty to represent them to fairs, legislators, and other interests in the agriculture industry. Some breed associations dub their royalty with titles like queen, princess, and ambassador, while others hold titles such as Holstein Duchess and Swiss Miss. Jacalyn, too, bore a creative name, having been selected to represent the Illinois Shorthorn Association as one of their Shorthorn Lassies. Jacalyn served as the 2004-2005 Tri-County Shorthorn Lassie Princess from the West-Central Region, the 2005-2006 Illinois Shorthorn Lassie Queen, and was a 2006 contestant for the National Shorthorn Lassie Queen. Known for their characteristic plaid shawl and tartan styled after Britain's royal House of Stuart, the official dress of the Lassies pays homage to the breed's origins in the British Isles and its improvement through Shorthorn cattle imported from Scotland.
"I absolutely loved serving as the Illinois Shorthorn Lassie Queen. I got to represent the breed at really cool events, went to sales, spoke with breeders, and met with different politicians and talked to them about the ag industry, specifically what the Shorthorn breed was doing to contribute." Those leadership roles paved the way for Jacalyn to become even more deeply involved in both the Illinois Shorthorn Association and American Shorthorn Association.
"I currently serve as the Illinois Shorthorn Lassie President, overseeing our queen and princesses. It's funny because my mom is also involved at this level, serving as the association's treasurer, so I help her out. At the same time, I run our social media sites and keep our queen and princesses in the loop." Additionally, Jacalyn serves on the National Shorthorn Lassie Board of Directors as the public relations chair. "I'm in charge of the social media coverage of our Lassies. I started in 2020 and began my second term on the board last year."
Given her track record, it's interesting that Jacalyn originally wanted to be an elementary school teacher. She obtained her Bachelor's of Science in Elementary Education from Eastern Illinois University and even picked up a minor in trumpet. But she also found ways to stimulate her interest in agriculture by taking some ag classes at nearby Lakeland Community College. Interestingly, she knew one of her instructors at Lakeland as a livestock judge before sitting under his lectern in class. Upon graduating, she set out to find a job. With an endorsement in junior high math, social studies, and music, one might think getting a job wouldn't be too difficult. But, there was a surplus of teachers at the time, and employment opportunities were scarce.
While it seemed like she was at the end of her rope when it came to finding a job, she started noticing a pattern emerge. She substituted at Jersey Community High School, where her FFA experience came in handy. She'd help students in the Jerseyville FFA Chapter prepare for contests and help them with their record books they maintained for their projects. At about the same time, a friend at a different high school who was an FFA advisor asked her to judge a district parliamentary procedure contest. Then, she started noticing positions popping up for middle school agriculture teachers around the state. Her mom encouraged her to look into it, so she contacted the University of Illinois for information on becoming an agriculture teacher. "I said that if I didn't have a job by June 1st, I was going to stop looking and go back to school, and sure enough, in July, I went up to get my ID at U of I."
Aside from her career and involvement with the shorthorn breed, Jacalyn is also actively involved in Illinois county fairs, which hold a special place in her heart. She serves on the county fair pageant committee in DeWitt County, Illinois, and is deeply involved with her “alma mater fair” in Jersey County. At the Jersey County Fair, Jacalyn has volunteered at the front gate and track entrance, judged for the Agricultural and Garden Products department, and has lent a helping hand during the talent show and fair queen pageant. For over ten years, she's taken photos for the annual Jersey County 4-H Auction, has superintended the Jersey County 4-H Goat Show since roughly 2010, and since 2022, has served as one of the superintendents of the Jersey County Fair Goat Show.
"I absolutely love the fair. With showing cattle, I've had the privilege of visiting many county fairs in Illinois, and absolutely, hands down, Jersey County is one of the best county fairs I've been to. One of the neat things about the fair is that it's like a good family reunion each year– coming back every year and seeing people you grew up with."
The opportunities in Jacalyn's life hit with significant impact as she grew into adulthood. Now, she can invest in her students (and Lassies, too) in similar ways that her mentors invested in her. The culture and worldviews associated with the agriculture industry place a high value on young people and opportunities to pour into them through such means as organizational involvement. Now a leader and educator, Jacalyn is proud to be an ag professional and to be that person that has the power to make a significant impact not only for the agriculture industry but in the individual lives of her students.
In the official opening of an FFA ceremony, a chapter advisor will be asked why he or she is "stationed by the owl." The advisor will respond, "The owl is a time-honored emblem of knowledge and wisdom. Being older than the rest of you, I am asked to advise you from time to time as the need arises. I hope that my advice will always be based on true knowledge and ripened with wisdom." In being stationed by the owl, Jacalyn has recited this statement many times in her career, but at the end of the day, it was the shorthorn who escorted her there.