FFA hits record numbers, fills educational gaps in West Virginia

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students cut up pig at Tyler HS
Students work around a table cutting up pork to be ground into sausage during a meat processing class at Tyler Consolidated High School in Sistersville, West Virginia. [Lucy Schaly photos]

SISTERSVILLE, W.Va. — Membership in West Virginia’s FFA is at an all-time high.

Agriculture education is the fastest-growing career-technical education program in the state. The number of agricultural education teachers has grown in the last decade.

Future Farmers of America was established in 1928 to prepare future generations for a life in agriculture. But agriculture makes up a relatively small part of West Virginia’s economy.

Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting contributed about $290 million to the state’s 2018 Gross Domestic Product, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Compare that to $10.8 billion from financial, insurance and real estate, $8 billion from mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction and $7.9 billion from manufacturing.

Agriculture makes up 2% of the full time and part time jobs in the state, according to bureau data.

So what is the FFA and agriculture education programs preparing all these students for, if not a future in agriculture?

For Shiann Jones, a senior at Tyler Consolidated High School, it’s a future in radiology.

Her passion with her high school’s agriculture program is the plants and greenhouses. She’s on the nursery/landscaping team that competed at the recent National FFA Convention.

Practicing for the nursery/landscaping event requires things like learning to deal with customers and memorizing plant names. She can already see how those skills will translate into studying and interacting with the public.

“It’s helped me a lot with different responsibilities in life,” she said.

Agriculture education is preparing students for life. It’s giving them practical skills that will translate to almost anything.

“Kids strive and yearn for that hands-on experience and those life skills they can use in any career,” said Annie Erwin, agriculture education teacher at Tyler Consolidated High School.

Growth mindset

The West Virginia FFA has seen staggering growth in the last several years, adding a record 1,109 students during the 2018-19 school year. It was the second consecutive year the FFA broke state membership records and the highest membership numbers since 1963.

The FFA also gained six new chapters in 2018-19.

The growth is due, in part, to a change in the way membership is counted with the FFA affiliation program, said Nathan Taylor, West Virginia state FFA adviser.

A chapter can join through the affiliation program and pay one fee for the entire chapter. This eliminates the need for students to pay individual dues and allows all students enrolled in ag classes to be FFA members.

At Tyler Consolidated High School, 140 of the high school’s nearly 300 students are in the FFA through the affiliation program, Erwin said.

Something to rally around

But that’s not just it. Agricultural education is making a comeback in many high schools throughout the state. Taylor said they’ve added about 17 teachers in that discipline in the past decade, with some schools now supporting two teachers. There’s 107 ag teachers in the state.

“When I was hired as an ag teacher, the superintendent told me that ‘the two more important hires I make is who I hire to coach the football team and who is the ag teacher,’” Taylor said.

In West Virginia’s small rural communities, these active FFA chapters are something for the communities to rally around, Taylor said.

For example, when the Ripley FFA won the state livestock judging contest in September, the FFA alumni made sure the streets of the town were lined with supporters when they returned home, Taylor said.

In some places, agriculture teachers have been found to be good replacements for career and technical education positions.

“A lot of the growth we’re having, it’s all based on the quality of instructors we have. There’s a push in West Virginia to realize the value of career technical education. But the old tech ed teachers, as they’ve retired, we’re not licensing those teachers as much,” Taylor said.

A look at Tyler County

In Tyler County, the FFA may be strong. But the county is not particularly agricultural.

Erwin said there’s a lot of hobby farms. Of the 3,202 jobs in Tyler County, 256 are agriculture jobs, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s 7%.

In the past, forestry was a big economic driver for the county, Erwin said. Now there are more manufacturing jobs with plants running along the Ohio River.

“A lot of people went to school, graduated and went to work in a plant,” she said.

And like students all around the tri-state area, there’s the allure of the oil and gas industry.

But the district has invested in the agricultural program. It’s what the community wants, Erwin said.

Culture change

Leon Ammons is the longtime agriculture teacher at Tyler Consolidated High School. Erwin was hired in 2016 to beef up the program.

It includes general agriculture courses, as well as horticulture, floriculture, forestry, greenhouse production and management. Through the FFA, students complete hands-on supervised agricultural experiences through FFA to explore related career paths and compete in contests, like public speaking and meeting conduct.

Ag mechanics courses teach students welding, metal fabrication, carpentry, basic construction and equipment repair skills in a shop at the back of the school.

The district built a meat lab, complete with two walk-in coolers and a walk-in freezer, in 2005 for the animal processing classes and the FFA’s ham and bacon program.

This year 35 Tyler students raised 73 hogs that will be processed at the school’s meat lab into hams, bacon, pork chops and sausage. The hams and bacon are auctioned off at a sale in March, with proceeds going back to the students.

Garrett Ammons, a sophomore and son of the ag teacher, said he already knows he’d like to pursue a career in agricultural engineering or sciences. He’s learned to weld and worked in greenhouses through his classes at school. He raised hogs for the ham and bacon program and has seen an animal through from piglet to pork chop.

“It’s helped me make the decision on what I want to do easier,” he said. “It’s opened fields for what I want to do.”

Through FFA, students have the opportunity to compete in state and national agricultural contests. Tyler FFA’s land judging team took first place at the National Land and Range Judging contest in Oklahoma in May.

Erwin and Ammons say there’s been a shift in how FFA is viewed in schools. There has been a change in culture. Now it’s cool to be in FFA, Erwin said.

“Kids can see the things they can do and be successful compared with how it was years ago,” Ammons said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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