Despite fewer people living and working on farms, the National FFA organization, which now just goes by its acronym, announced last year its membership increased by more than 30,500 students nationally and stands at more than 600,000. The Ohio FFA Association grew to more than 25,000 members. Ohio also added 12 new FFA programs last year.
The organization, which offers leadership and personal development opportunities, traditionally worked hand-in-hand with agricultural education programs aimed at helping students become farmers. But in 1988, the group made a strategic decision to diversify its membership, which today is allowing for its continued growth.
“It’s pretty exciting times,” said Cassie Palsgrove, education program specialist for the Office of Career – Technical Education at the Ohio Department of Education. She works with the career-tech classroom programs associated with the FFA organization.
A few changes and opportunities have created a “perfect storm” for growth beginning with increased support from Ohio’s elected officials, according to Palsgrove.
“When you have legislators and the governor saying this is important, people listen, administrators listen, students catch on and it creates a supportive culture for our programs statewide,” she said.
Another factor is curriculum changes for Ohio’s agricultural education programs, which allow for more science and business classes in place of, or in addition to, the traditional farm production course. The program is now focused around six career pathways: agribusiness and production systems, industrial power technology, animal science, bioscience, horticulture and natural resources. All of these pathways are aligned with real world careers and trade skill credentials.
“We want to give students an idea of potential careers and/or trade skills and then help them really focus on one,” Palsgrove said.
Located near Toledo, Anthony Wayne High School’s agricultural education program and FFA chapter, led by teachers Courtney Bockbrader and Whitney Short, has grown from 92 students in 2012 to 158 this year, with more growth expected.
“When I first came here, we were a traditional vocational ag school, teaching production agriculture. But when you sit down and look at the reality, the percentage of people in our community who are involved in farming for a job is very small,” Short said.
Only two or three of their 158 students have parents who farm full-time or for a large portion of their income.
“We had to shift our focus to meet the needs of our students and where they want to go after high school,” Bockbrader said. “There is a need to prepare students for any kind of career, not just farming.”
By adding biotechnology and genetics courses, while keeping parts of the traditional agricultural education curriculum, Anthony Wayne has built a well-rounded program.
Students in their biotechnology class want to pursue careers in everything from medicine to genetic counseling to teaching. They also enjoy the hands-on approach to science, because they have been able to perform a number of experiments and research projects that many college students do not have a chance to do.
“This is interesting because it is different than any other science class you will ever take,” said sophomore Marleigh Kerr, who wants to be a teacher and took the class to learn more about different subjects.
Career exploration is a big part the success of FFA and many other ag education programs.
“If you ask any FFA student what they want to do beyond high school, they have an answer,” Palsgrove said. “It seems to provide some direction and other kids catch on to that and want to try it out.”
“We have a ton of students who want to be veterinarians who come in to our vet science class and do their first dissection and quickly realize it is not for them. That is important,” Short said.
Statewide, FFA programs such as Career Development Events (CDEs), which are competitions designed to teach students about a variety of career paths, also have been evolving.
Senior Lucaus Ritz said he was able to take the science he learned in class and the leadership skills he developed in FFA to participate in an Ag Issues CDE where, along with his teammates, he helped develop a skit to teach people about xenotransplantation, the transfer of living cells from one species to another.
“I was looking for a different science class to end my year because I had already taken most of the science courses offered and this class offered something different,” Ritz said. “You don’t discuss topics like GMOs and real world applications of science in other science classes quite like this class.”
CDEs also teach students life skills and information they wouldn’t learn anywhere else such as evaluating livestock.
“I don’t live on a dairy and probably never will live on a dairy, but I have learned a lot from the CDE,” said junior Drake Moore explaining that he learned teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision making skills.
Moore also has benefitted from the program’s supervised agricultural experiences, which allow students to learn outside the classroom on subjects ranging from raising animals and crops to starting their own business. Moore’s parents own a dog daycare, so he started his own natural homemade dog treat business.
“I know that if later in life I decide to start a business I will be able to do it, because I’m doing it now as a high schooler,” he said.
Next year Anthony Wayne plans to create internship programs in agribusiness, biotechnology and genetics and veterinary science. Bockbrader and Short also hope to start offering additional service learning and travel opportunities to their students.
“We are excited about giving our students more opportunities and thinking outside the box. Doing things that aren’t standard,” Bockbrader said.
“Part of this growth is teachers working together to be progressive and do what’s best for students, which isn’t always what is the easiest for the teacher,” Short said.
Cassie Palsgrove said Ohio Farm Bureau’s support has benefitted the development of agricultural education programs.
“I really think that has helped get the message of career tech and ag education success out there. Farm Bureau’s advocacy for us is really, really important to our growth,” she said.
In addition, through the Youth Capital Challenge program, Ohio Farm Bureau works with Ohio FFA and 4-H to bring students together to learn about policy and increase citizenship knowledge and participation. During the Ohio Legislative Leadership Conference, Ohio Farm Bureau helps FFA members learn more about the policy development process, meet their legislators and talk to them about agricultural policy and how important their career tech/agricultural education program has been to them.