As long as I can remember, I’ve coveted a jacket.
Nothing that you’d find on any runway in Milan, though, or draped over the shoulders of a peacocking Kardashian. Instead, from the time I was a preteen, the piece of outerwear that has made my Kentucky-raised heart skip a beat is the signature jacket of the Future Farmers of America.
Equal parts structured and supple, rugged and genteel, the midnight blue showpiece always seemed to encapsulate what I cherished about growing up in a farming community—though I was never particularly adept at fixing tractors or birthing calves.
For years I pined after one, even tinkering with the idea of taking enough floriculture classes to maybe, just maybe, pass off getting my name looped in perfect cursive onto a jacket of my own.
But that level of scheming just never felt right. See, FFA jackets aren’t just handed out willy-nilly: They have to be earned. An FFA jacket carries with it a level of agricultural know-how and more important, pride in the work accomplished by American farmers day in and day out. The jacket, and what it means to wear one, cannot be bought.
Or so I thought.
Last year, while wandering around an antiques store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I poked my head around a corner to find a couple of French tourists cooing over a style of coat that was, well, quite familiar. As the girl slid her arm into one of my beloved blue-corduroy sleeves, my eyes bulged. There was no way she’d ever been within shouting distance of a shovel.
Evidently an FFA jacket can be bought—to the tune of $500.
“Oh God, she can’t wear that!” I screamed inside my head, resisting the urge to flip over a table covered with art deco ashtrays, Incredible Hulk style. Despite my own indignant nostalgia, I was struck by a difficult question: Is farming alive and well in America?
Farmland is rapidly losing out to urban sprawl, and the debate over genetically modified crops (and the sprawl of big ag) has grown more contentious than ever. Our nation’s farmers are graying, with few protégés following in their wake. This is even before we get to the financial hurdles upstart farmers face, hurdles that mount each year, with little sign of slowing.
So what do the Future Farmers of America look like today? Who are the teenagers in Indiana or Arkansas wearing the jackets I love so dearly, and what are they worried about? What kind of future do they see for themselves?
George Strait soundtrack prepped, I hit the road to find out.
That’s the number you’ll encounter over and over, repeated like a mantra, when talking with FFA members. It is the molten core of what drives FFA today, the organizational touchstone that motivates and centers the masses.
It’s estimated that the earth’s population will hit 9 billion by 2050. In most conversations, this fact is followed without fail by the quasi-rhetorical question: How are we going to feed all of those humans?
The statistic is so deeply engrained in the FFA psyche that it’s almost alarming not to hear a member rattle it off during conversation. Some people utter it with race-against-the-clock anxiety. For others—mostly students—the number “9 billion” is spelled out in a word bubble above their heads, the zeros floating away like an airplane contrail. It’s a quantity almost too big to fathom.
The solution to the problem, too, seems to always appear just out of reach.
“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds…in the promise of better days through better ways,” the FFA creed begins. What that future looks like now, though, is perhaps more complex than ever.
Since its founding in 1928, FFA has seen tens of millions of students flow through its ranks, and over the decades, has become a primary example of both a youth organization with influence (it does a good deal of lobbying) and phenomenal staying power.
Larry Case, who served as national FFA advisor between 1984 and 2010, believes that two turning points significantly altered the makeup and spurred the growth of the organization.
The first was when membership was opened up to women. “They opened up membership to girls in 1969, and thank goodness they did that,” he said. Today about half of all FFA members are female, including all but one member of the 2015–16 national leadership team. What’s more, at almost every FFA school I visited, women were some of the most vocal supporters of agricultural education.
The second critical juncture came in the late 1980s, when Case and his team began pushing teachers to expand and diversify the FFA curriculum—adding a focus on agri-science and biotechnology—to attract students who weren’t from traditional farming backgrounds.
“This broadened curriculum is the main thing that I believe attracts a larger base of students,” Case said.
The approach worked better than anyone could’ve imagined. Over the past 10 years, FFA numbers have ballooned to almost 650,000 members ages 12 to 21 nationwide. There are now 7,859 chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and FFA students earn $4 billion annually through their hands-on work experience.
The shift led to another stat that, like “9 billion,” regularly works its way into conversation with FFA members: 210, which is the number of career pathways FFA supports. Many would-be future farmers see the old standby ag careers—rancher, commodity crop grower, family-farm inheritor—as less desirable, or realistic, choices.
“A huge misconception is that if you're in FFA, you're going to graduate and go be a farmer,” said 2015–16 National FFA Secretary Nick Baker. “While that is certainly an extraordinarily admirable profession, there’s also agricultural mechanics, agricultural technology, genetic engineering, and the veterinary field. I mean, the list of job options really goes on and on.”
FFA has also gobbled up the remnants of what used to be called vocational education; welding, carpentry, electrical work, and mechanics all fall under the FFA banner, more or less, not to mention futuristic-sounding gigs like flavor technologist and biosecurity monitor.
From an organizational perspective, this hand-over-fist growth means ensuring fund-raising efforts are kept at an equal clip.
FFA is a nonprofit and looks not only to alumni and individual givers as a means of monetary support but to corporations such as John Deere and Monsanto. (Although FFA received a federal charter in 1950, it receives no federal funding.) A cursory glance at the money trail shows that it’s pretty much impossible to divorce FFA from big ag and big pharma. For starters, Monsanto and Zoetis (the billion-dollar animal pharmaceutical company) both donate upwards—way upwards—of a million dollars a year in both general giving and individual scholarships.
And the ties go beyond financial support. In 2014, Brett Begemann, the president of Monsanto, was the keynote speaker at the National FFA Convention. When FFA decided to move and expand its national office in 1998, the land for the new building was given to them by Dow Chemical. The headquarters are smack-dab behind a shopping center built on what is assuredly former farmland.
Overall, corporate giving makes up 94 percent of FFA’s annual budget.
David Tucker is what most people would believe to be the dictionary definition of an FFA student, the kind of kid for whom wearing the blue-and-gold jacket is nothing short of a birthright.
A towheaded, good-natured 16-year-old with a small stature and a lopsided smile, Tucker is a sixth-generation cattle farmer and president of the FFA chapter at Locust Trace AgriScience Center in Lexington, Kentucky. He has always known cattle farming would be his future.
“I learned to count using calves that was just born,” Tucker said, laughing and toying with his faded ball cap bearing the logo of a local stockyard. “’Two cows plus two cows equals four cows.’ That’s how I counted. It took them forever to teach me I didn’t need to say cows after the number.”
Located next to a penitentiary on the outskirts of town, Locust Trace is a five-year-old, 82-acre public vocational high school, complete with two barns, state-of-the-art greenhouses, a food science kitchen, a veterinary lab, and six-and-a-half acres devoted solely to gardening. At the school of 315 kids—most of whom split their days between here and their regular schools—it’s not hard to notice how Locust Trace weaves sustainability into all facets of its campus. The school prides itself on net-zero energy consumption, using industrial-size fans as a main source of cooling throughout its building as well as photovoltaic solar panels. It collects rainwater for irrigation and even has fashioned an underground cistern to hold the collected rainwater in case of drought.
When I arrived, principal Ann Stewart DeMott, a fifth-generation farmer, was shooing away a couple of barn cats that live in her office. (Bella and Spirit serve as “therapy felines” for kids with anxiety.) The school is full of students from all different backgrounds, she told me, most of whom have little—if any—farming experience. No matter: They get the hang of things quickly. In an era when kids are helicopter-parented ad nauseam, these ag students are retooling antique tractors by hand and mucking out stalls for school credit by the time their first semester is up.
“My dad works for Toyota, and my mom is a teacher. I hadn’t been closer than 40 feet to a horse before I came here,” said Dion Compton, 17, as we walked past the campus stables. Dion, one of several African American students at Locust Trace, has a twang that makes it seem like he’s been around farms forever. “I mean, I’d been to SeaWorld and knew I liked animals, but didn’t think that’s something I could do.” Now, when he graduates, he’ll be attending an equine technical school to make horses his career.
There’s a lot of pride to go around at Locust Trace, especially when it comes to hands-on experience. A visit to the veterinary lab found students in scrubs, learning all about how to properly measure an animal’s weight, height, and body temperature. A couple years ago, students took the bones from a recently deceased horse and reconstructed them for use as a learning tool. They nicknamed the skeletal horse Persephone. No one is squeamish.
In the equine barn, Amanda Berry—a student with a frizzy shock of dishwater blond hair—talked to me about how expensive it is to take care of farm animals, all while a horse named Taco rattled his feed bucket behind her. Will Bischoff hoisted a baby goat on his chest as he explained how a new Harry Potter–themed game he has created for the school has helped him to learn leadership skills. When we made it to the livestock barn, Tucker trotted out an orphaned calf named Sassy, showing her off like a pro.
The challenges that farmers will face in the future are never far from the minds of students at Locust Trace, especially when it comes to loss of local farmland. “The towns are growing into the farmland around here, and that’s a big issue,” Tucker said. “Also, a lot of these kids have no clue where their food comes from. They think it just magically appears at Kroger. We will have to teach them that it comes straight from the field, where we’ve had to take care of it and raise it. It’s had a life”—he paused reverently—“so it can help keep us healthy and keep us fed.”
A pinprick of a destination nestled in the heart of Kentucky’s former tobacco country, Robertson County feels about as anticorporate as a place can be.
“We’re fortunate here. We have a really supportive community and a supportive administration for our ag program,” said Frank Gifford, the FFA advisor. In the next room over, his first-year students were in the middle of a canning lab, chopping up and cooking down tomatoes to make salsa from scratch.
Despite its size, Robertson County is perhaps the most quietly entrepreneurial chapter I visited. Among a range of projects—from selling bobwhite quail to making vinyl signage—the FFA chapter started beekeeping two years ago and during the last harvest, bottled and sold 200 pounds of honey from 10 hives. (I happily accepted a jar of my very own.)
“We try to generate at least enough money to put it back into the projects and make them stronger. If we make a profit above and beyond, we use that money to start something else. From the greenhouse sales to livestock sales to honey sales to ag mechanics projects, our ag program is financially self-sufficient,” Gifford said.
One of the Robertson County students’ biggest concerns echoes an issue Kentucky FFA Executive Secretary Matt Chaliff has identified: How do farmers in remote areas get their products to a larger market, and more important, how do they compete—in terms of price, quantity, and more—once they get there?
“If you think about a student [farmer] in far eastern Kentucky, like Perry County, if they’re growing some kind of vegetable, they need to have that [produce] ready at just the right time,” Chaliff said. “Then, they’re two hours away from a large city market. And if you think about a fresh product, like sweet corn, making sure that they have an actual market before they grow it is a critical component.”
That’s before they’re even in front of a consumer.
While rural schools like Robertson County are still FFA’s bread and butter, urban and suburban chapters seem to be gaining the most steam, and attention, on a national level.
City- and suburb-based programs comprise 27 percent of the FFA membership today, but with the momentum that’s building, it’s clear the number is only going to tick upward. There are already FFA chapters in 19 of the 20 largest U.S. cities.
At Seneca High School in Louisville, Kentucky, the agriculture curriculum all but fizzled out before Kristan Wright took over the program a little more than six years ago. Now, two classrooms are bursting at the seams with students, creatures, and colorful craft projects: skeletal models made out of dried pasta, FFA seals constructed from paper plates, illustrations of animal digestive systems.
The students at Seneca talked about agriculture like they had something to prove. Many expressed that because they live in an urban environment, they have become makeshift evangelists proclaiming the importance of farming to their city-dwelling peers.
“There’s such a huge divide between rural and urban life,” said Lexie Hughes, her hands moving emphatically. The daughter of a hairdresser and a truck driver, she is perhaps the most vocal of her peers. “Urbanizing everything in agriculture is the future. Rural agriculture is going away. It’s gone.”
Aaliyah Moss—who cites Food, Inc. (a Participant Media film) as her favorite movie and wants to be a biotechnologist—felt similarly. “Agricultural literacy is so important. Something we do really well at Seneca is take the urban aspect and the rural aspect, and we put them together for people to understand,” Moss said.
“And if I could add something?” Hughes interrupted. “It’s the youth that are redirecting the future of agriculture. I feel like we’re such an outspoken generation. We want to know everything about everything. We’re such curious people, and we’re going to educate ourselves about all the different kinds of agriculture rather than just seeing it as cows, sows, and plows.”
In Beech Grove, Indiana—a bedroom community outside of Indianapolis that feels like a Midwestern Mayberry—FFA advisor Chris Kaufman agrees.
“When we started the program here at Beech Grove five years ago, the idea was to get urban students who have no experience with agriculture more in the pipeline to get jobs at [places like] Eli Lily,” Kaufman said. Indianapolis is a hotbed for big drug companies, and their influence on the surrounding communities is difficult to miss. “One of the issues is that we’re three or four generations away from the farm, so even common farm practices, kids just have no idea. Being so far removed, you forget that you need to be a part of it.”
A former traveling agricultural education specialist for the state of Indiana, Kaufman also feels students in urban settings are often fed what he calls misinformation about organic versus conventional farming.
“Since we’re so far removed from the farm, people start hearing these buzzwords like ‘organic’ and ‘GMO-free’ and get excited about it. In reality, those are more marketing schemes than anything. If you go out in the country and ask a kid if he cares about GMOs, he’s going to say no. But in the city, if you tell a kid that something’s GMO-free, they’re going to be like, ‘I’ll pay more for it!’ We’re just tricking people into thinking these things are better for them, when they’ve not been proven to be better or more beneficial.”
And so the debate begins.
How to talk to students about organic farming is a controversial topic within FFA.
“We present all the information we can and let the students make an informed decision,” said Sheila Fowler, vice principal at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. An hour later, I saw an example of this in the plant science classroom, where students were comparing and contrasting the merits of guerrilla gardening versus conventional farming versus GMOs. It felt refreshing.
But this kind of democratic approach seems to be more the exception than the rule. When I asked Nick Baker how frequently he encountered teachers offering up information about organic farming, it was clear that it was still fairly unusual.
“Organic farming isn't quite as prominent as your conventional agricultural practices, but I will say this: I have been very impressed with the open-mindedness of agriculture teachers this year to teaching about organic farming,” Baker said in a measured tone. “A lot of times in the ag community, you're conventional or you're organic, but you're not both. Really, when it comes to this industry, in my opinion, it needs to be a ‘both and’ kind of situation.”
When it comes to GMOs and the rise of large-scale, newfangled farming technologies, such as drones and no-till farming, opinions get even more complicated. “GMOs are good for you, and they’ve been made to feed the entire world,” said Ayden Paulson, a junior from Seneca who likes to score points in FFA debate events by riling the other team about PETA. “When you hear ‘genetically modified,’ you automatically think that it’s bad. But GMOs make sure our food is safe, and we’re trying to make it better for everyone.”
Not everyone in his chapter agrees. “A problem is everything is becoming more industrialized. Bringing different technologies to farms, it means less work for the people, and the less we work, the less we learn. Technology is making things easier but causing things to be worse at the same time,” chapter mate Moss said with a shudder.
“Plus, that’s where the pink slime comes from.”
“Sustainability” is a complicated term and one with a strangely malleable meaning within FFA circles. There’s environmental sustainability, sure, and there’s protecting public health and animal welfare, but most FFA members are far more concerned about the sustainability of the human population. (There’s that 9 billion stressor again.) In most cases, this means embracing any and all new technologies, chemicals, and agri-science solutions that allow for more food to be grown on smaller plots of land—whether or not it tinkers with plant DNA or pushes small farmers out of business.
If you need confirmation that large-scale agriculture is attempting to co-opt the word “sustainable,” simply visit the Monsanto website, where the conglomerate bills itself as “a sustainable agriculture company.” If nothing else, the company recognizes the importance of reshaping words for its own benefit.
Of the hundreds of scholarship competitions FFA offers at the national level (with sponsors such as Monsanto, DuPont, and CSX), only one focuses on or rewards innovative student ideas for organic production.
If Locust Trace teased out the notion that ag-specific schools might be the key to the future of farming, then the Chicago High School for Agriculture Sciences strongly seconded the motion.
The last working farm in the city of Chicago, located on the South Side, CHSAS is the national gold standard for agricultural high schools—rural and urban alike—and the envy of many an FFA advisor. From Indiana to Louisiana, its reputation precedes it.
Founded in 1985, the school prides itself on being a part of the national effort to “broaden the scope of teaching in and about agriculture, beginning at the kindergarten level and extending through adulthood.” It’s an ambitious goal but one that has been embraced with vigor. Boasting more than 70 acres of cooking labs, tractor barns, and mechanic garages, the school is a role model in every possible way.
“Don’t forget to take her to the barn!” Fowler reminded my student tour guides, one of whom was wearing a sweatshirt with a photo of her dog printed on it. They assured her that everything was under control, then went back to explaining all about the new agriculture “pathway” (essentially, a career prep trajectory) in biotechnology. It will fall in line with six other categories—including horticulture and food science—that CHSAS students use as a vocational and curriculum guide throughout high school.
Along the way to the barn (which was pretty special in its own right), we passed some phenomenal scenes, the likes of which were completely foreign to my notion of a classroom. We strolled through a garage where students were power drilling high up on a platform while below, others sorted pumpkins they’d grown, then harvested from the field with a tractor. We visited the CHSAS farm stand, an after-school shop on school grounds that’s open to the community and sells products, like zucchini bread, grown and hand-crafted by the students. I heard about the fully functional tiny house students constructed two years ago for the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, and how each pathway contributed something unique to the process. (It’s still for sale, if you’re interested.)
Even though you can see strip malls off in the distance, CHSAS feels like its own world. There are cornfields, cabbage plots, and a freshly planted apple orchard. Somewhere beyond a baseball field, cattle graze. The students laugh as they tell me about how the cows sometimes escape, roaming into the middle of a busy road and the lot of a nearby Ford dealership.
“I can’t imagine someone driving down the middle of 115th Street, then being like, ‘What is this cow doing here?’ ” Nicole Stallard, one of my tour guides, said, doubling over with the giggles.
“Family” is a popular word in FFA circles.
Ask anyone—and I mean anyone—in an FFA chapter if he or she feels kinship with fellow members, and the student will likely explode with praise for his or her ag-loving brothers and sisters. Heck, even without asking, I came to expect that chapter members would tell me within seconds of meeting just how much affection there is to go around. There’s a sort of tenderness about FFA students that comes perhaps from working closer with the earth—tending to sick animals, nurturing fledgling plants. Unlike the majority of their teenage peers, they seem to have a larger purpose, understanding, and respect for their place in the world.
What’s more, the FFA chapters I visited were not only more racially and socioeconomically diverse than I expected but also incredibly welcoming of students with learning or developmental disabilities. Inclusion, it seems, is a point of pride among many FFA chapters.
Nathan French from Seneca says the impact FFA has had on his life is extraordinary.
“Everyone in FFA is like family to me. Freshman year I was mostly sick, so I didn’t do anything, but sophomore year I finally found a talent for impromptu speeches, thanks to two fantastic teachers,” French said, grinning. Not only did he win first place at the Kentucky FFA regional competition last year for speaking about beef, but he took home the top prize in the talent competition for a dance he choreographed to a Black Eyed Peas song.
As one might imagine, building a familial culture starts with supportive teachers, and FFA advisors are nothing if not beloved. The recent swell in agriculture programs across the country means that ag teachers are also in high demand, especially in places that traditionally haven’t been hotbeds of FFA action.
“I’ve been at the school...forever?” JaMonica Marion, FFA advisor at CHSAS, said, laughing. A 2001 graduate, she officially returned to teach in 2006. “The majority of the teachers in our ag department are now alumni, so we get to provide the students with firsthand knowledge. We can actually relate to them because we were in their seats.”
At times, the intimacy found at the chapter level feels in stark juxtaposition to the highly formal national structure of the organization, embodied most readily by the national FFA officers. A group of six peer-elected students, the officers serve as the face and fearless leaders of the organization, even taking a year off from schooling to devote themselves to 365 days of FFA-related lobbying, fund-raising, and general hype.
Grooming for national FFA office begins early, with state FFA officers whisked away each year on a (corporate-sponsored) international trip to learn about agricultural production in such countries as Japan and South Africa. They’re also sent to several forms of leadership boot camp, the biggest of all being the one for national officers at Tyson Farms.
Tyson CEO Donny Smith is a proud FFA alum and a huge role model for Nick Baker, who hopes to be an agricultural lobbyist after serving in the Marines.
“[Smith] usually spends about two or three hours every year with the national officer team talking about leadership. He compares [leadership] to a peach tree,” Baker said. “We [as national officers] are the roots; we are supplying the FFA members with what they need in order to be successful. Then they can go be the peaches that people see and admire about this tree that is our organization.” He paused.
“It's always interesting to get to visit with Mr. Smith.”
Whatever leadership training they’re doing, it’s working. The interpersonal and public speaking skills the national officers possess are impressive, and their fervor can border on proselytizing at times. For the most part, they stay on message better than most elected officials I’ve met and are both personable and persuasive in their arguments. It’s not difficult to see why hundreds of thousands of young people have faith in them.
Today, FFA has grown to such staggering heights nationally that it seems to more closely resemble a political party than any sort of school club. The sheer number of members alone is a little baffling, and the power that could be wielded by 650,000 young people rallying around a single cause is a sensational, or terrifying, thing to think about. It has revolutionary potential.
If anyone knows this, it’s the students (and, uh, maybe some corporations).
For all the momentum behind the youth agriculture movement, one thing still strikes me as kind of odd: Since 1988, FFA isn’t even the Future Farmers of America anymore—at least, not technically. Just like Kentucky Fried Chicken is now just an acronym, KFC, FFA’s official name is simply the National FFA Organization.
We’re so much more than farming and ranching these days. It’s a good thing! National advisors and officers will argue. To some degree, that’s true. But I can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness that farming has been lost, in name, from its very own organization.
So what will the exalted FFA heroes of tomorrow look like, if not traditional farmers?
In 2014, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History ran a campaign in search of five exemplary FFA members “whose lives and careers have been shaped by agricultural education.” The honor was, undoubtedly, pretty grand. After ascending to national glory, the personal FFA jackets of these handpicked ag titans were to become part of an exhibit at the museum celebrating agricultural innovation and heritage.
After a months-long search, the selected winners were announced, and they clearly represented the diversity of FFA’s membership. Among others, there was Corey Flournoy, the first African American national president, and Karlene Lindow Krueger, a pioneering Wisconsin hog farmer. Former President Jimmy Carter was the cherry on top, “Plains, Georgia” emblazoned on the back of his blue-and-gold jacket.
So when they do an all call 50 years from now for the next round of distinguished alumni, will the chosen few be organic rabbit breeders or scientists who grow meat in labs? Compost revolutionaries or mechanics who work on no-till farming? Ag-drone scientists? Or all of the above?
While the paths of our future agricultural leaders remains to be seen, it’s safe to say that today, FFA students hold a respect for the land and an optimism about building a better world that is unmatched. The kids I spoke to are not only hopeful but purposeful and ready to take up their larger mission on the planet to do what they believe is best.
“Knowing that the first job on this earth was a farmer and the last job will be a farmer,” Taylor McNeel, 2015–16 national FFA president, explained, taking a long, deep pause. “It’s pretty cool to be a part of that.”