FFA 579,678 strong nationwide
ANKENY – They’re seen in high schools and colleges all across the nation.
The blue and gold jackets with the “Agriculture Education” emblem prominent on front and back. They’re worn with pride and show the world that agriculture has a future as promising as those who dare to choose it as a career.
Josh Remington was an FFA student in his high school and college years, and he went on to become the executive director of the Iowa FFA Foundation in Ankeny.
Though FFA has changed over the years, he said, the misnomers are still around.
“A lot of people still believe FFA kids are all farm kids, but we have a lot of members who don’t live on farms, but who are interested in ag careers,” he said. “Ten years from now agriculture will have more than 300 different career pathways, with companies like Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer, Kinze, John Deere and others needing skilled workers and leaders.
“And along with food science areas and cover crop careers like agronomy, we need to try to create the skills and the leaders for all of those pathways through ag education.”
The National FFA began modestly with a group of 33 farm youths from Virginia who met in Kansas City in October 1928.
Iowa followed close behind, chartering its first FFA chapter in April 1929. The FFA jacket – with the colors of “national blue” (taken from the U.S. flag) and “corn yellow” (since corn is produced in all 50 states) is 60 years old this year, Remington said.
Today there are 579,678 FFA members aged 12 to 21 belonging to 7,570 chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
FFA chapters are in 18 of the 20 largest cities in the U.S., including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The top five membership states are Texas, California, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Iowa recorded 220 chapters in the 2011-2012 school year with 13,750 members.
Iowa has 800 collegiate FFA members, and 300 ag teachers on college and high school levels.
While agriculture continues to evolve and change, FFA organizations and agricultural education needs to reflect that and design education around those changes, Remington said. He said agriculture faces the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by the year 2050 and that it will necessitate the use of science, technology, engineering and math to make that happen.
“People didn’t used to think FFA or ag education needed to be part of the governor’s STEM initiative, but you tell me what part of being a seed researcher doesn’t need to use science and math,” Remington said. “We have tractors that now drive themselves, and with GPS, seed hybrids, genetics, variable rate seed spacings on planters and monitors in tractors to keep track of field data, it’s all very much part of the STEM initiative.
“It’s very high tech. Technology has changed everything.”
Remington said he hopes ag education teachers become certified in STEM training, with its rigorous curriculum to better prepare ag students for the world of science and changing technology that awaits them.
He hopes that someday the STEM curriculum will allow ag education students to replace some of their traditional curriculum with this specialized instruction in science, technology, engineering and math, since agriculture is headed strongly in that direction.
Writing for the curriculum began in 2006, and two ag education teachers took the training first in 2009, and last year more than 100 ag teachers became certified.
A study he referenced showed that 24,000 students in the Midwest are majoring in agriculture at four-year institutions.
“In the next four years there will be more than 56,000 jobs in agriculture opening up, and it’s almost to the point where students will have two jobs for every one of them,” he said. “With a 2-1 job margin, I think that’s exactly where I would want my kids to be looking for a job.
“All of the major companies are hiring.”
He went on to say that one in six jobs come from agriculture in some capacity, and that many companies will need highly trained workers and leaders in the near future.
“As the baby boomers begin to retire, companies will need people with the knowledge and good leadership skills,” Remington said. “Those with leadership skills will find that they will be promoted quickly and move up through the ranks.”
Just as importantly, he said, there are a host of ag education teachers who will be retiring soon, and an upcoming FFA challenge will be making sure there are enough qualified teachers to take their places.
Remington said one of the most important facets of ag education and FFA is to educate future consumers.
“How often do you hear mixed statements of people saying GMOs are bad for you or that they’re good for you, and that organic production is bad or good,” he asked. “We’re blessed to live in a country where we have those choices, and FFA believes there’s a home for both.
“We need to educate our students about those things first, then let them make the choice.”
Remington said ag education is important for young people because they will be tomorrow’s consumers.
“We live in a state that still doesn’t understand agriculture’s value within our state,” he said. “At a recent Farm Bureau conference a speaker said Iowa is the only state where the vast majority of the economy is driven by agriculture, yet the majority of Iowans don’t understand or support it.
“How many people – especially in our larger, urban areas – think about where their food comes from?”
Chance to travel
Brad Aronson, a senior at Sioux Central High School and president of its FFA chapter, said he found great value in being part of FFA and ag education.
“It got me to China one year to learn about their economy and their agriculture practices,”Aronson said, “and it got me to Haiti twice to do community service.”
He said his FFA chapter helped provide Sukup Safety Homes that were delivered there.
“When I was in Shanghai I also got to see a barge of U.S. corn come into port,” he said. “It had an American flag on it. It was a really cool experience.”
Aronson said FFA has taught him leadership skills, interviewing skills and how to talk to people. He plans to enroll in the ag systems technology program at Iowa State University.
But, he said, the best part of FFA is he learned to set goals for himself and follow through with a plan.
“Without a plan you won’t reach your goals, and without goals you have nothing to reach toward,” he said.
More than row crops
Nick Grandstaff, a sophomore at Emmetsburg High School and vice president of his FFA chapter, said FFA is giving him the opportunity to explore the larger world of agriculture.
“It adds on to what we are already doing at home,” he said. “It widens our horizons, and shows us that there’s more than corn and soybeans and cattle-there are things like dendrology, which is the study of trees.”
One of his supervised agriculture experience projects was to work with a larger-scale organic vegetable producer near Emmetsburg, which, he said, was extremely informative.
He said he’s most interested in learning about ag economics.
Rachel Meyer, a freshman at Graettinger-Terril High School, said her FFA experience has led her to study soil and do ag DNA experiments that have given her much insight.
She said it’s also helping her to come out of her shell.
“It seemed like a good opportunity to meet people and learn new life skills like leadership, good communication skills and learning about agriculture. I’m proud to be in FFA,” she said, adding that she would like to stay involved in FFA throughout high school and into college.
She is considering becoming an ag education teacher.
Allison Bueltel is a freshman at Spirit Lake High School and a charter member of its FFA chapter.
Previously, their school shared ag education with neighboring Harris-Lake Park High School, in Lake Park, but she said it took a lot of time for students to drive between school districts.
She has attended the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Ken., and said she has learned that FFA is much larger than just her school.
Her hope is that FFA remains alive and well at Spirit Lake.
“I hope I get a lot out of it,”she said. “At nationals I went to a leadership workshop about the beef industry and they showed us how to explain to people that beef isn’t bad for you.
“It’s been a positive experience for me. I hope more people join so our group can grow.”
Bueltel said there are 20 members in this first year of FFA at her school. She attended the sub-district FFA contest in January and placed first in FFA Creed speaking, which was exciting for her, being brand new to FFA.
As FFA and ag education officials hone in on world hunger issues and teach students how to use the STEM components to answer that call, Remington said agriculture should be something that interests everyone.
“If you like to eat,” he said, “wear clothes and or live in a house with wood in it, then you need to place value on agriculture.
“We need to create leaders and skilled workers, and educate our consumers of tomorrow.”
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