Beyond the Blue Jackets
February 28, 2014
National FFA Week celebrates Future Farmers of America and encourages us all to think about what their future might be. It’s telling that the week set aside to celebrate FFA always includes Washington’s Birthday, as a way to honor our first president for legacy as an American farmer and promoter of agriculture. In a letter written in 1794, Washington wrote that, “I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman’s cares.”
I grew up on a small farm in South Dakota, where we milked a few cows, raised corn, oats and alfalfa. When I started high school, one of my first decisions was to join FFA. It was one of the easier decisions I had to make during those four years. When I became a member of the Sioux Valley FFA, I was proud to get my blue FFA jacket with my name on it. In those days FFA was a male-only and farm-kid-only proposition. The lessons I learned and the people I learned from, and with, provided me with some excellent basics for life and leadership. I didn’t wind up back on my family farm, and there are days still that I wish I had done that. But my life has been richer because of those experiences and the standards and beliefs that FFA brought to my experience.
Today’s FFA is a much more diverse and vibrant organization. According to the National FFA Organization website, “Today, there are 579,678 FFA members, aged 12‒21, in 7,570 chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” Female membership in FFA is at 44 percent and the website notes that 50 percent of FFA leadership is female. And the education that FFA provides is equally as diverse. The website shows that 92 percent of FFA’s agriculture education offerings include agriscience; 71 percent offer advanced agriscience and biotechnology; 59 percent offer agricultural mechanics; 49 percent offer horticulture; 43 percent offer animal science; and 24 percent offer environment-related studies.
FFA certainly deserves its own week. It also deserves our support for the other 51 weeks. Like the rest of agriculture, FFA has grown and matured, encompassing the ever-increasing complexities and challenges of American agriculture.
I have my own touchstone hanging on a wall in my office that keeps me in mind of FFA every day. My dad didn’t have a chance to go to high school, so he never had a chance to be a member of FFA. One of the best moments of my FFA days came on February 27, 1968, when I was able to present my dad with a certificate awarding him the Degree of Honorary Chapter Farmer. He was a shy Norwegian farmer, but I think he was pretty proud of that. I hope you have an FFA connection of your own that keeps alive the spirit and ethics of agriculture and honors the “real and important services” that Washington wrote about.