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Published October 12, 2010, 10:56 AM

FFA: Not just for farm kids today

LARIMORE, N.D. — Dave Stave, an FFA lifer, has seen a lot of changes in his organization through the years.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

LARIMORE, N.D. — Dave Stave, an FFA lifer, has seen a lot of changes in his organization through the years.

“There’s so much that’s different. I don’t think some people (outside FFA) realize how much we’ve changed,” says Stave, 57, FFA adviser to the Leeds, N.D., chapter for the past 33 years.

Welcome to the new and improved FFA.

National membership reached a record high of 523,000 this year, and FFA continues to beef up its science, business and technology components.

Once known as the Future Farmers of America, the organization was created to help young agricultural students become better farmers and ranchers.

The organization sometimes was described as “cows, plows and sows,” says Bill Jimmerson, Montanta FFA state adviser.

Today, FFA — its name for the past 22 years — still works through ag education program in middle schools and high schools. But its mission has evolved and broadened to prepare young people for a wide range of careers both in and out of traditional production agriculture.

The organization seeks to connect its members with the science, business and technology of agriculture, better preparing them for career opportunities ahead, says Larry Case, national FFA adviser.

Roughly 22 million Americans work in some phase of agriculture, and FFA prepares members for more than 300 ag careers, the organization says.

Nationwide, more than 11,000 ag education teachers offer courses and training in subjects ranging from agriscience and biotechnology to horticulture and the environment, FFA says.

FFA isn’t only for farm kids anymore; in fact, they’re in the minority.

Twenty-seven percent of FFA members live in rural, farm areas, with 39 percent in rural, nonfarm areas and 34 percent in urban/suburban areas.

FFA has chapters in 11 of the nation’s 20 largest cities. Among the cities with chapters are New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. There are chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Twenty-five years ago, FFA’s membership was declining and there were questions about whether the organization still was relevant.

Record membership and broadened focus have answered those questions, Case says.

Northern Plains’ challenge

FFA membership is unlikely to set new records anytime soon on the Northern Plains, say officials in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

Many farm communities — FFA’s lifeblood on the Northern Plains — continue to decline in both population and school enrollment.

In Montana, for example, K-12 enrollment in public schools stands at about 140,000, down more than 20,000 from the 1995 to ’96 peak, according to information from Montana’s Office of Public Instruction.

In other words, the state now has about seven public school students for every eight it had 15 years ago.

But Montana has added nine FFA chapters in the past few years, pushing the number to a record 83.

Adding chapters has largely offset the smaller pool of potential FFA members in schools that already had chapters, Jimmerson says.

Montana FFA membership stood at a near-record 2,556 last year, he says.

The new chapters attest to FFA’s expanded focus and school districts’ greater awareness of what FFA offers, he says.

Holding their own

FFA also is holding its own in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.

North Dakota has 4,481 FFA members, the most in a dozen years, in 77 chapters across the state.

Schools with FFA chapters seem to recognize its value and continue to support it, says Steve Zimmerman, state FFA supervisor in North Dakota.

FFA clearly benefits small schools and communities, says Terry Trosen, a Larimore, N.D., businessman who spent 19 years on the Larimore School Board.

Trosen, a former FFA member, continues to support the organization, including serving as a judge at a recent FFA district leadership convention in Larimore.

About 150 FFA members from eight chapters participated in the convention.

Stave brought about 20 FFA members from his Leeds chapter.

The Leeds school has about 125 students altogether in grades 9 to 12 , and its FFA chapter has 34 members. So roughly one in four Leeds high school students belongs to its FFA chapter.

Minnesota has 8,700 to 8,880 members in 170 chapters this year, says Joel Larsen, state FFA adviser.

Membership has been holding steady for about a decade, he says.

It’s the same story in South Dakota.

The state has about 3,300 FFA members in 79 chapters, with both numbers holding steady in the past decade, says Tiffany Sanderson, state FFA advisor in South Dakota.

The organization is attracting more members interested in the science, business and technology of agriculture, offsetting a drop in the number of members with a farm background, she says.

Teachers and funding

FFA faces two potential obstacles going forward, officials say.

The first is finding a new generation of ag education teachers/local FFA advisors.

“We’ll have a lot of (ag education) teachers retiring over the next 10 years,” says Sanderson, the state FFA advisor in South Dakota.

FFA’s greatest challenge is a shortage of qualified ag teachers, according to information from the national organization.

Some ag education programs even have had to shut down because qualified instructors weren’t available, the national FFA says.

Many school districts also are struggling to find money to pay for ag education. Funding is a major concern in Minnesota, says Larsen, the state FFA adviser.

Minnesota is facing a projected $5.8 billion state budget gap, which affects state aid to schools

Gain to students

Neil Iverson of Larimore was among the 150 FFA members from eight chapters attending the recent FFA leadership convention there.

The high school senior, whose family farms, joined FFA as a freshman.

He wants to make agriculture his career, but hasn’t decided yet what aspect of it to focus on.

“I have severe allergies to dust. What I like best would be to farm, but I’m not sure how that will work out. I love agriculture, though, and I want to be part of it,” he says.

FFA has helped him prepare for whatever he ends up doing, most notably by improving his leadership skills, he says.

The organization benefits anyone interested in careers in or out of agriculture, he says.

“People think that if you’re in FFA, you have to be in farming. That’s just not true anymore. So if you’re interested in FFA and you’re not in farming, check it out,” he sways.

Janna Rice, a high school senior in Maddock, N.D., joined FFA in seventh grade.

“It’s really helped my public speaking skills, for one thing. It keeps me really busy, so maybe I’ve learned to manage my time better because I’m in sports, too,” she says.

“It’s been an enjoyable experience. I’ve made a lot of friends from other towns, too” she says.

A horse enthusiast, Rice hopes to go into equine science, equine business management or a pre-veterinarian equine program.

“FFA has been great in helping me prepare,” she says.

Grant Gullicks, now a senior, joined the Finley-Sharon (N.D.) FFA chapter when he was a freshman.

Gullicks, a town kid, says he doesn’t know yet what he’ll do after high school. But he’s confident FFA will help him achieve whatever he decides to do.

“It’s just a great organization to help you with people skills, social skills, public speaking,” he says.

Stave, the Leeds FFA adviser, was an FFA member himself in high school. His father was an FFA adviser, too.

One thing hasn’t changed at FFA though the years, Dave Stave says.

“We’re still committed to helping our members be successful. We’re just doing it in some different ways than we used to,” he says.