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FFA: Beyond bib overalls to an expanding job market

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2010 - Yesterday, high school students from across the state - about 8,500 teenagers and their guests - began converging on the University of Missouri in Columbia for the 82nd Missouri FFA Convention. The two-day program will include agricultural leadership and career development events, meetings of student and faculty leaders, interviews, contests and, this evening, celebration.

After months of preparation, Rob Calvin's students, members of the FFA chapter from Troy Buchanan High School, will compete in a total of 18 contest events at this year's conference. Expectations, Calvin says, are high.

Participation in an FFA chapter (National FFA Organization - formerly Future Farmers of America) is one component of our nation's highly structured agricultural education system, which includes classroom instruction in the public schools, leadership development through FFA, and Supervised Agricultural Experience programs: long-term, hands-on student projects in agribusiness, production or lab work, closely monitored by teachers and agricultural professionals.

'You Can't Quit'

Laura Cooley, agriculture teacher at Montgomery County High School, 80 miles west of St. Louis, believes this three-part mission - which extends educational opportunities into teens' lives outside of school - is key to the success of her students and her department. With 90 organized events year-round, FFA provides more extracurricular activities than any other program in her school.

This year, Cooley's students showed livestock at the Montgomery County Fair, where they sold 130 gallons of homemade ice cream. They took a ski trip; raised $51,000 through sales of fruit, ham and cookies; collected 2000 used tires, and heard from guest speakers about community-supported agriculture, veterinary medicine and biofuels.

Robert Gaines, a freshman at Montgomery County, says FFA teaches students that "you can't quit," while it pulls back the curtain on our agricultural systems. "City folk," he says, "don't think how much work went into that little can of corn."

Agriculture, brought to young people through FFA and 4-H, is  "everywhere, a connection you have with everyone," says Jonathan Hoer, a colleague of Cooley's at Montgomery County and a 24-year veteran agriculture teacher, who got through college raising sheep. "Nobody does the things that FFA does."

This high level of student involvement, in turn, requires the same of agriculture teachers, of whom there are nearly 500 statewide. On March 20, the morning of the Area 5 contests at Centralia High School - a Saturday - it was windy and snowing, Cooley was seven months pregnant, and in addition to her students, she was in charge of her 2-year-old son.

Because of the depth of their involvement - in the case of the best teachers, anyway - agriculture instructors like Cooley, Hoer and Calvin can loom large on their campuses. "Either we need to have our heads examined, or we're the best people on earth. Every day is a performance," Hoer says, continually recalibrated to reach a changing student population.

Beyond Farm Kids

As of December 2009, only 27 percent of FFA members lived in rural farm areas, with 34 percent in cities or suburbia. (Urban FFA chapters in the St. Louis area include Gateway Academy in Chesterfield, South County Tech in Sunset Hills, and Clyde C. Miller Career Academy on North Grand.) The remaining 39 percent come from what are called "rural non-farm areas," a growing segment of the American population. As Hoer puts it, in 2010, FFA members are no longer "your traditional ag kids."

Case in point: At the time of the 2000 census, there were 6,737 residents of Troy, Mo., about 55 miles northwest of St. Louis. A decade later, that number has neared 11,000.

"Troy is a rural community turned suburban over the past 20 years," says Calvin, who was a member of Troy Buchanan's FFA chapter as a student there (he now teaches alongside one of his former instructors). "At least 80 percent of our students come from either a town setting or a suburban setting," meaning they live on three to five acres.

According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural Education, "rural youth tend to have lower educational and career aspirations than their urban peers"; at the same time, though, they're more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities, which provide alternative avenues for recognition and a sense of place within their community.

Calvin reports that, like himself, students frequently have connections to the farm through grandparents, and some come to FFA seeking to strengthen those ties. Others hear about the successes of fellow students and "come looking for that leadership component. While they're here, we get them hooked on agriculture."

Variety of Classes

At Troy Buchanan, four teachers work with about 385 of the high school's 1,900 students in a dedicated facility Calvin describes as "our own world that we get to control a little bit," where instructors cultivate an atmosphere of "problem solving, hands-on learning and high expectations."

In the classroom, Troy offers a tiered curriculum, each course building upon the next. A typical student might take Agricultural Science I as a freshman, Agricultural Science II as a sophomore, followed by four electives, for example, Agricultural Construction (in which students build a 16-foot tandem axle trailer), Greenhouse Operation/Management or Agricultural Communications.

"People think of farming as a dum-dum operation - bib overalls - but agriculture has definitely changed, and I think we're embracing that, developing people who can think, as well as do," Calvin says.

Recently, the Department of Education asked members of the food, fiber and natural resources industry to consider which trends were likely to shape the future of our agricultural systems. They pointed to economic globalization, environmental protection, the rapid advance of technology, declining public understanding of agriculture, and the need for a more highly trained agricultural workforce.

In the words of Sam Cope, a sophomore majoring in Agribusiness Management at Mizzou's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, "Just being a good old boy is not enough anymore."

"Teachers teach current issues," says Terry Heiman, director of Agricultural Education for the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education in Jefferson City, including topics of popular debate like genetically modified organisms. Launched in 2007, a National Council for Agricultural Education program called CASE - Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education - aims to further "enhance the rigor and relevance of agriculture, food, and natural resources subject matter."

To that end, Missouri FFA began sponsoring a new contest this year, Agricultural Issues, for which student teams research both sides of a controversial topic, presenting their findings to a panel of judges. Students are penalized when they stray from facts into opinion.

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"We emphasize understanding," explains Calvin, whose team this year considered the economic benefits of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) versus the environmental concerns, making public presentations on the subject in both Lincoln and St. Charles Counties.

According to Heiman, placement studies performed six months to a year after graduation show that 58 percent of students involved in agricultural education in high school go on to pursue careers in agriculture or further education in the field, a wise choice considering that 52,000 job openings are added each year in the food, agricultural and natural resources industries, with the USDA forecasting that, in 2010, there will be more agricultural jobs than graduates to fill them.

Tonight in Columbia, the coveted prize is the State Degree, awarded to the top 3 percent of FFA members, based on their long-term performance in all facets of their agricultural education. This year, eight of Calvin's students have qualified, setting the bar for their futures, and for next year's senior class.

By the numbers

Founded: National FFA Organization - formerly Future Farmers of America - was founded in 1928

Federal charter: 1951

National members: more than 500,000

Missouri members: 24,898

Missouri's ranking: 4th (2007-08)

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a free lance writer.

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