Organic Broadcaster

FFA provides opportunities for farmers to help shape future ag leaders

By Lauren Langworthy, MOSES

Ripon dairy farmer Chris Pollack holds a workshop on dairy judging for Natasha Paris’s FFA students.
Photo by Natasha Paris

There are over 600,000 American youth involved in FFA chapters across the country. The renewed interest nationwide in FFA represents an opportunity for all of us who farm.

“Somewhere near you, there is a high school with an ag department, and youth who are interested in engaging with their community through agriculture,” said Natasha Paris, an ag-science teacher and FFA advisor in Ripon, Wis. Paris is actively involved in engaging youth in agriculture and leadership opportunities. She and her husband also have a farm in Green Lake, Wis. where they raise grass-fed beef, lamb, and pastured pork.

She will be the first to point out that the kids she works with sometimes tease her for farming differently than what they’re used to seeing. She takes it all in stride saying, “We’re all in ag together!” She takes time to explain what she loves about farming in a grass-based system, but not at the expense of other systems. She makes space in her classroom for the many different reasons that farmers use many different systems. While sustainable agriculture is close to her heart, she’s very aware of the fact that many of the students in her classroom with relationships to farms have learned the values associated with conventional systems. Rather than attacking these belief systems, she explains the pros and cons of all types of farming systems, and lets the students decide which make the most sense for them.

Many of the teens she works with in FFA do not live on a farm. In 1988, the program changed its name from “Future Farmers of America” to the “National FFA Organization” as it started to focus more broadly on developing leadership and less on growing new farmers. Paris said she has plenty of students with family ties to a farm, but the majority are a step or two removed from a farm. Some have no relationship at all to a farm.

Whatever reasons students have for taking her courses, they all seem to find the subject matter fascinating– even if they originally took the course simply because it fit their schedule. Animal husbandry and the promise of providing food for their community are enticing subjects, Paris said. Students are quickly drawn into learning more.

Because there are such varied backgrounds in agriculture, it is important that youth are shown many different ways of participating in agriculture and leadership. Offering the opportunity to select their own path provides some neat opportunities for youth to get curious and engaged with a variety of farm systems. The FFA program has several different ways that farmers of all sorts can share their different considerations and techniques with the youth that will someday own and operate the farms blanketing our countryside.

Paris sees a lot of ways in which farmers from the organic and sustainable farming community could get involved in FFA to further enrich the agricultural education of students. She points out that the easiest way to get involved is to join your local chapter’s “FFA Alumni” group—you don’t have to be an alumni of an FFA program. The group acts as a sort of booster club for the FFA chapter. They often fundraise, offer scholarships to students, coach, and develop mentoring relationships with the students. Besides doing some great work for the youth of your community, this role offers you an opportunity to get to know the local teens who are looking into agriculture. This role might put you in a position to help provide mentorship to aspiring farmers or to help share what you love about your style of farming.

The next most helpful thing is to reach out to your local ag instructor and offer yourself as a guest expert to speak to a class. As an ag instructor and FFA advisor, Paris pointed out that teachers like her are usually very busy running the chapter and a classroom. Don’t get discouraged if you have to reach out a couple of times, she added.

If you’re particularly familiar with a certain area of agriculture or production, you could also offer to be a coach or judge. FFA has quite a few different competitions, and local chapter leaders are often looking for experts in subjects ranging from floriculture to agronomy to sales.

Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) is another area of agricultural education in which local farmers can get involved. These out-of-class projects require a little more effort for students and local farmers, but can develop some extremely fruitful results. Some students use farm animals or pets from their own home, houseplants, or a home garden to meet the requirements of SAEs. However, area farmers can also set up opportunities for students to come and spend some time on their farm working (paid or unpaid) in several different areas that can help students meet these requirements.

The SAEs can be used by students to apply for awards called proficiencies. Within the SAE program’s grading system, it doesn’t matter whether the work was done on an organic or conventional farm, so all farms become an even playing field for learning necessary skills.

Inviting youth onto your farm to learn your system would give them a different perspective about what an organic or sustainable farm might look like. Students will have requirements to complete their SAE including documentation of their work, what they’ve learned, and how they’ve grown. You can offer to help by encouraging them to try new things and expand their responsibilities, as well as taking photos to chronicle their experience.

There is one really neat opportunity within the SAE and proficiency awards system of FFA for organic farms. Because organic certification has had such a strong presence in Wisconsin, and thanks to the backing of Organic Valley, this state was the first to offer a specific Organic Proficiency that students can apply for. Ohio and Iowa now have similar awards. To earn an Organic Proficiency, students need to spend time on an organic farm, work in an organic feed mill or processing facility, or start their own organic farming business.

If your farm is certified organic, you might be able to set up SAE opportunities through your local FFA chapter leader that could help students achieve their Organic Proficiency. This might be a neat way to mentor local students, and share what you find to be most valuable about your organic farming system. Adult leadership opportunities like this can create youth leaders who have confidence in their chosen form of sustainable agriculture.

Paris has also created opportunities for youth such as bringing select FFA students to the Grassworks Grazing Conference where those who are interested in ruminant production can see what research is being done in the field of grass-based nutrition, meet other grass-based farmers, learn in workshops, eat grass-fed and organic foods, and participate in conversations with vendors in the exhibit hall. If you know of local soil health events, field days, pasture walks, or other agricultural events you’d be interested in bringing youth to, reach out to your local ag instructor to see if you can work with FFA to bring students along.

As we look at these various ways to get involved in our local FFA chapters, it is important to remember that each of us has the power to shape the future and share our passions in a positive light with the next generation of farmers and leaders. If we can focus on developing relationships with youth, rather than converting them to our way of farming, there is no end to the opportunity.

Whether you want to join your local FFA Alumni group, donate some organic produce from your farm for a taste test in the classroom, or develop an SAE opportunity on your farm, there’s room for you to engage with youth in FFA.

“Today’s youth are very inspiring,” Paris noted. “If we can help them harness their potential for sustainability, the future of agriculture will be in great shape.”

Lauren Langworthy is a certified organic farmer and the events and education specialist for MOSES.

From the March | April 2017 Issue

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