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Published June 11, 2012, 10:48 AM

FFA's broad focus

FARGO, N.D. — FFA member Preston Gilderhus plans a career in industrial engineering.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — FFA member Preston Gilderhus plans a career in industrial engineering.

Jodi Boe, another FFA member, is studying to be an agronomist, even though her father, a farmer, once tried to steer her away from both FFA and agriculture.

Welcome to the modern FFA, an organization that values production agriculture but increasingly stresses preparation for other careers, both in and out of agriculture

“Our roots are in production agriculture. It’s still our backbone. But we have so much diversity in what we offer,” says Aaron Anderson, assistant state supervisor of agricultural education/FFA in North Dakota.

Gilderhus, Boe and Anderson were among the roughly 1,500 people who attended the annual North Dakota FFA state convention the week of June 4 in Fargo, N.D. FFA has about 4,400 members in North Dakota.

FFA was founded in 1928. Known then as Future Farmers of America, the organization worked to train young farmers and ranchers.

But its mission has evolved through the years. Beset with falling membership in the 1980s, the organization in 1988 changed its name to FFA and broadened its focus to connecting its members with the science, business and technology of agriculture.

FFA keeps expanding

Today, FFA provides young people nationwide with a wide range of agricultural training, says Kristy Meyer, a spokeswoman for the National FFA Organization in Indianapolis.

“We help prepare our members for more than 300 careers in agriculture,” she says.

Of FFA programs nationwide, 92 percent offer agriscience, 72 percent offer advanced agriscience and biotechnology and 24 percent environmental-related courses, according to the National FFA Organization’s website.

National FFA membership has reached a record high of 540,000, thanks in part to a growing big-city presence. FFA has chapters in 18 of America’s 20 biggest cities, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Women play an increasingly active role in the organization. They account for roughly 40 percent of members nationally and in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

In Minnesota, which has about 9,200 FFA members, more young women hold leadership roles in local chapters and at the state level, says Jim Ertl, Minnesota FFA executive secretary.

In South Dakota, which has about 3,800 FFA members, women serve as state FFA executive secretary, state FFA adviser, state FFA Foundation executive director and state FFA Foundation executive assistant, notes Nora Kohlenberg, state FFA adviser.

The FFA Foundation raises money for the FFA.

But longstanding perceptions — that FFA is only for people planning to become farmers and ranchers — die hard outside agriculture, FFA leaders say.

“We’re a lot more than production agriculture. We keep trying to educate people on that,” says Bill Jimmerson, Montana State FFA adviser. His state has about 2,550 FFA members, a near-record.

Value to young adults

Gilderhus, a farm kid from Oberon, N.D., says an agricultural career wouldn’t be the right fit for him.

But FFA has helped to prepare him for a a career in mechanical engineering and life in general.

“I’ve learned a lot of things. My public speaking skills and my conversation skills have really improved,” he says.

Boe, who grow up on a farm in Golden Valley, N.D., says her father wasn’t enthusiastic when she first thought about joining FFA.

“He was a farmer, and things in agriculture weren’t so good then. He didn’t want me to get into agriculture,” she says.

But Boe joined FFA anyway, and she’s glad she did.

“People in FFA are like part of your family. You always support each other, and you’re always there for each other,” she says.

Though the U.S. economy overall continues to struggle, agriculture is doing well, area FFA officials notes.

An Agweek cover story this spring found that young adults with agricultural knowledge are in strong demand for a wide range of agricultural occupations.

FFA’s diversified focus makes the organization more useful than ever, FFA officials say.

“Look into what FFA has to offer today. There’s still training for production agriculture. But there’s a lot more, too,” says Anderson, the North Dakota FFA official.