(Part I of a three-part series.)
WOOSTER, Ohio — More than 80 years ago, in a hotel in Kansas City, Mo., a small group of 33 young farm boys met to form an agricultural program for youth. Today, that same organization — known as FFA — is still growing with more than a half-million members from every U.S. state, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Millions of American youth have learned to recite the FFA creed and pledge their belief “in the future of agriculture.” Through projects known as Career Development Events — students compete in state and national contests to sharpen the skills the farm community needs — job interviewing, sales, public speaking, mechanical repair, livestock judging and record keeping.
For the next couple weeks, FFA chapters across the country will conduct activities in their schools and communities to celebrate National FFA Week — Feb. 20-27. (Scroll down for a special FFA Week video message from Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs.”)
During this time, Farm and Dairy will highlight some of the accomplishments of this historical organization, taking a closer look at how these youth and their advisers continue the motto of “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve.”
The FFA was founded in 1928 as the Future Farmers of America. (A timeline of FFA historiy can be seen at the bottom of this page.) At that time, it was only available to boys and young men interested in vocational agriculture. But in 1969, women were allowed to participate, and in 1988, delegates changed the name to National FFA Organization — a more accurate title for what it had become.
Over the years, its membership has included millions of everyday American students interested in agriculture, and a few who have risen to the top.
Before he was President Jimmy Carter — before winning the Nobel Peace Prize — young Carter was an active FFA member in Plains, Ga.
Country music singers Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw, Willie Nelson, Trace Adkins and Lyle Lovett — all are alumni, and so is West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus Douglass, Garfield comic strip creator Jim Davis, and a host of Olympians, professional athletes and coaches.
In Ohio, the past academic year saw more than 23,400 FFA members from more than 300 chapters. Pennsylvania has nearly 8,000 members, and Indiana FFA membership is now more than 9,500 members strong.
In addition to their high school agricultural education classes, students participate in local, state and national contests and activities.
Ike Kershaw, Ohio FFA Association adviser since 1996, said the program remains strong because of an evolving curriculum and the organization’s focus on leadership.
“The fundamental principal of FFA, just the leadership focus is sound,” he said. “The activities — the awards system — is something the students tend to gravitate to.”
During FFA week, he wants Ohioans and beyond to understand the opportunities provided through FFA for America’s youth.
“I would love them to walk away thinking that the FFA organization continues to be a vibrant, healthy exciting program for young people who are interested in studying agricultural areas,” he said.
Mike Brammer — an FFA alumnus– is now executive director of Pennsylvania FFA Association. He said FFA week is a time to remind people the program still exists, and is “still an intra-curricular part of agricultural education in our schools.”
Although agricultural education teaches production agriculture, and many graduates are prepared for farming, many more choose ag-related careers or non-ag careers. But whatever they choose, the practical skills they learn are important.
“It prepares our students of today for future careers and to become the leaders of our towns and our counties and our national government,” Brammer said.
Like any organization that survives the test of time, FFA is consistently changing to make it relevant to today’s students, and to the ever-changing landscape of agriculture.
Kershaw, who also is an assistant director in the Office of Career Technical Education for the Ohio Department of Education, said FFA is working to adopt curriculum in the areas of energy and alternative energy, bioproduct development and sustainable environmental systems — areas that represent the future of agriculture.
With projects in landscaping and forestry, dog care and business management, today’s FFA is much more than “cows and plows,” a criticism once shared. In fact, a growing number of its members do not come from the farm.
“A continuous challenge is to stay connected with young people who are coming into ag education with different backgrounds,” he said.
Brammer said today’s programs are sometimes challenged to secure funding to offer agricultural education in high schools — a cause he said is worthy, but not without a price. FFA programs also face competition from other student programs with competing schedules activities.
But new programs like those Kershaw mentioned, biofuels and renewable energy — industries many predict will be the future of agriculture and the country — promise continued opportunity for the FFA.
“We have to be a step above and beyond,” Brammer said. “Even after 82 years, I think we’re still getting better and stronger.”
(Next week: Part II: A closer look at an urban FFA chapter and a rural FFA chapter. They have more in common than you think.)
— FFA is a youth organization that is a part of agricultural education programs at middle and high schools. The National FFA Organization and National FFA Foundation operate from the National FFA Center in Indianapolis. The National FFA Headquarters is located in Alexandria, Va.
— There are more than 7,400 chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. All of them wear the National FFA Jacket, a blue and gold combination that was first made in Fredericktown, Ohio.
— Collectively, FFA members earn more than $4 billion annually through their hands-on work experience. To date, more than $30 million in FFA collegiate scholarships have awarded to students pursuing higher education.
— Each October, nearly 55,000 FFA members and guests attend the National FFA Convention, where they participate in speaking events, competitions, educational tours, a career show and much more. The event is one of the largest annual youth gatherings in the country.