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650,000 blue jackets

Future Farmers of America brings more young people into agriculture, and gives them the tools to succeed

There are almost 650,000 of them spread across the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and they can be found everywhere from large, urban cities to small, rural towns.

Every single one of the 650,000 is also a unique individual, with their own background and interests. But there is at least one thing they have in common. They all wear a blue corduroy jacket, because they are the Future Farmers of America (FFA).

If the only things you’ve heard about FFA have been in country songs, you may be surprised to learn that many FFA members are not farmers. In fact, some don’t have any connection to agriculture at all.

That was certainly the case for David Townsend. “Having not come from a farm or any kind of agricultural background, I was unaware of where our food, fibre and clothes come from,” Townsend tells me when we met recently.

I had wondered how he came to join the FFA, and he says it wasn’t actually a decision; it was an accident. “I was placed into an animal science class by mistake,” he laughs.

Once in the class, though, he quickly got involved in the variety of activities offered by FFA.

“I stayed involved in agriculture education because of these incredible experiences and opportunities, along with the amazing people who have impacted my life for the better,” Townsend says.

Those experiences and opportunities have led Townsend to his current position as the national FFA president, and it’s the kind of story that gives you faith in the leadership abilities of our future generation.

However, it turns out that these stories are not uncommon for FFA members. Townsend’s peer and colleague DeShawn Blanding, national FFA vice-president, is another young man who has risen through the ranks of FFA.

After enrolling in his freshman year with no agriculture experience, Blanding eventually got elected as president of his local FFA chapter as well as state vice-president for South Carolina during his high school career.

It begs the question: is there something special about Townsend and Blanding that brought them to their leadership positions? Or is there something special about the FFA experience? Are leaders born, or are leaders made?

A formula for development

The national FFA organization mission is all about developing potential in youth, including their potential for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success.

How do you develop a leader? According to FFA, the formula is a robust school-based agricultural education model, which is comprised of three main components:

  • Classroom/laboratory
  • Supervised agricultural experiences
  • FFA activities

Members must be enrolled in an agricultural education program in their local school where they learn about agri-food topics such as horticulture, veterinary medicine, food science, etc. These classes look different in each school and are largely dependent on local resources and the teacher’s area of expertise.

Agricultural educators teach the classes but are also the advisers for the local FFA chapter.

The classroom/laboratory component is often the gateway into the world of FFA. For Victoria Harris, who is serving as the national FFA secretary, her entrance came in the form of an elective course in her sophomore year. “I took veterinary assisting. This is how I found myself in an ag class, and I quickly joined FFA,” Harris recalls. “Pretty soon, I found myself shadowing a veterinarian and raising livestock with my FFA chapter.”

Opportunities like job shadowing are another part of the agriculture education model. Hands-on supervised agricultural experiences (SAEs) allow FFA members to apply the skills they have learned in the classroom and try out careers in a low risk way. Experiences range from internships and research projects to community service days.

The entrepreneurial payoff

Many of the experiences also have an entrepreneurial element. FFA members can develop their own agricultural business or collaborate on a school-based enterprise where they make financial and management decisions.

These are popular options and feed into the entrepreneurial drive of many young people. In fact, a study conducted in 2015 found that 42 per cent of teenagers surveyed intend to be entrepreneurs or self-employed.

With first-hand experience running these ventures, FFA members are ready to take on the business world for themselves.

The third component of the agricultural education model engages members in FFA competitions and development activities at local, state, and national levels. The variety of activities is impressive, with career and leadership development events incorporating options including agronomy, marketing, and public speaking.

While technical skills are important, a major focus for FFA is to foster employability skills, also called soft skills. However, according to Townsend, there is nothing “soft” about communication or teamwork abilities. “Josh Bledsoe, COO of the national FFA organization, who I greatly look up to, dislikes the term ‘soft skills,’” Townsend tells me. “Instead he refers to them as ‘power skills’ because they give you the power to be successful in a career and in life.”

These skills have certainly served Blanding well. As a freshman, he described himself as painfully shy. But he had an adviser who believed in him and invested time and energy to break that shell. Blanding now credits the career and leadership development activities of FFA for the growth of his voice and his passion for agriculture.

Says Blanding, “I now understand the importance of using my abilities to take the initiative to make an impact, motivate, and empower.”

Inspiring careers in agriculture

Involvement in FFA does more than foster business and “power skills.” Sometimes it informs career aspirations. For instance, her veterinary assisting class exposed Harris to new career opportunities, and she now intends to pursue a career as a food animal veterinarian.

Blanding also had his mind opened to new opportunities through his agricultural education experience.

He had entered high school planning to become a doctor, but through his FFA experience he had a shift in his thinking. “I recognized the importance of agricultural diversity,” he says, “and the need for environmental sustainability.” He is now majoring in natural resources and engineering.

Townsend says there are many ways to “engage with food production and processing even before it gets into a kitchen for chefs to use.” After completing his degree in plant science, agriculture and natural resources, his hope is to “own and operate a farm growing specialty crops — fruits and vegetables.”

FFA members (as well as other non-FFA youth) can also learn about careers in agriculture on a new website called agexplorer.com.

The website was developed in collaboration between FFA, AgCareers.com and Discovery Education. Over 235 unique careers in agriculture are profiled and include information on education requirements, typical employers and even salary recommendations.

Through AgExplorer.com, youth can see that agriculture careers align with interests including environment, technology and business, and they also see that all 235 careers are valuable opportunities for FFA members to apply their knowledge and skills.

As the strategic career success partner of the national FFA organization, AgCareers.com believes those FFA members will help fill agriculture’s shortage of skilled labour. “This is a key pipeline of talent as North America prepares to lead the way in feeding 10 billion people” says Eric Spell, president of AgCareers.com.

The 650,000 blue jackets are not only the future farmers of America, they are part of the future of agriculture around the world. Blanding, Townsend and Harris know their career prospects are bright. The technical knowledge, and the power skills they have fostered through FFA will enable them to tackle current challenges and grasp future opportunities.

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