Young farmer sees big benefits from FFA experience

LAWTON, N.D. -- Justin Zahradka says that when he was a high school freshman, "I was the kind of kid who sat in the back of the class and never said a word."...

Justin Zahradka, a student from NDSU, stands inside the cattle pen on his family farm in Lawton, N.D., on Dec. 28, 2015. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)(Embargoed until January 5, 2016)

LAWTON, N.D. - Justin Zahradka says that when he was a high school freshman, "I was the kind of kid who sat in the back of the class and never said a word."

He pauses for a second and adds, "That's obviously changed, and it's because of FFA."

Zahradka, now a 24-year-old full-time farmer from Lawton, N.D., says his involvement with FFA made him a better person and better farmer and opened up wonderful opportunities both during and after his time with FFA.

He joined the Park River, N.D., FFA chapter when he was 14, the earliest he was able to do so. He left the organization, which has an upper age limit of 21, when he turned 22.

A highlight of his FFA career was receiving the 2015 American Star in Agriscience, a national honor that's one of the group's four highest awards. It recognized his research into cover crops, which he studied on his own small farming operation near Lawton.


The honor led him to be selected for a week-long trip to Costa Rica, where he visited coffee, banana and pineapple farms, as well as organic and smaller farms.

The trip included opportunities to hike in the mountains and swim in the ocean, among other things.

"It was fun as well as educational. It was really cool," Zahradka says.

His cover crop research and national FFA award also led him to being selected as one of 40 speakers at the second National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health Dec. 7-8, 2017, in Indianapolis. The Soil and Water Conservation Society held the event to examine recent developments in how innovative farmers use cover crops to improve soil health.

"The wheels keep turning even after FFA. Speaking at that conference was directly because of my FFA research," he says, adding with a chuckle that his 14-year-old self could never have done it.

His FFA experience began with travel around North Dakota to leadership workshops, contests/career development events and state conventions, often requiring him to speak in public. That helped "me build confidence, and when you have confidence you can get up and do it," he says.

FFA events led him later to leadership training in Washington, D.C., and to national conventions in Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky.

Besides giving him greater confidence, FFA helped Zahradka build connections with another agriculturalists around the state. And the research he began in the organization helps now on his farm, he says.


FFA also can help members better understand how interesting and exciting agriculture can be, Zahradka says.

When he first joined FFA, "I thought I wanted to be a civil engineer. But FFA helped me realize I have a passion for agriculture," he says.

Whether a potential member has an ag background or not, "FFA can help you in so many ways," Zahradka says. "It has for me. That kid who wouldn't speak up in class - that's not who I am now."

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