By BEV BERENS
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — National FFA will celebrate its roots and advocate for the organization during National FFA Week, Feb. 20-27. This annual spotlight week gives chapters across the nation the opportunity to share how FFA works in communities and with students, to advocate for agriculture and to highlight opportunities within the organization.
The weeklong tradition encompasses George Washington’s birthday, whose legacy as a farmer and agriculturalist is commemorated in FFA ceremonies and history. While the legacy and traditions of the organization are steadfast, its membership has undergone dramatic change since its beginnings in 1928.
Initially designed for high school-aged farm boys in rural America, the FFA has progressed to embrace the changing demographics and scope that define agriculture. Today, FFA membership statistics closely mirror the demographics of the U.S. ag population.
Although actual numbers vary by state, only about 10 percent of students wearing the blue and gold now are from farms. The largest percentage of students claim “rural non-farm” as their demographic background. Young women are joining the organization in droves and account for more than half of the membership.
According to Dr. Randy Showerman, state advisor for Michigan FFA, females account for more than 60 percent of membership in his state and are taking a majority share of the leadership roles offered through the organization, both locally and on the state level. He attributes the shift to males taking on job responsibilities at an earlier age and more and diverse opportunities related to athletics.
Showerman said agriculture teacher demographics have changed as well; 55 percent of Michigan ag educators are female. Nationally there are fewer men than women in the ag education profession.
While the number of minority students involved in FFA has grown, that is not changing as rapidly as other demographics within the organization.
In Illinois, minority students account for about 8-10 percent of the membership, a number which has not significantly changed during the past decade.
According to Illinois FFA Executive Director Mindy Bunselmeyer, the number of urban ag programs is likely to grow, but it takes a special instructor to captain one. “Once FFA is introduced to students, the program sells itself,” she said. “All it takes is one student and the ball is rolling.
“But a person from a rural background doesn’t do well teaching in the urban ag program setting. The teacher doesn’t come from the same experiences and just doesn’t relate well.”
She pointed out while ag programs are valuable to schools and their students no matter their backgrounds, new programs are not cheap to implement or to run. “Ag programs require science supplies and live materials like plants and growing areas that cost a lot of money, and school districts everywhere are not flush with cash.”
Homegrown talent from urban areas is the best source of future instructors and program growth in that sector, according to Bunselmeyer.
In Michigan, the number of minority students continues to edge upward. “The number is gradually increasing, but not as quickly as you’d think,” Showerman said. “But the diversity of activity in FFA is increasing all the time and will continue to draw different demographics.”
A new activity Michigan FFA will pilot this spring is a rabbit-raising project that will mirror the state’s broiler improvement project. Students can choose either to begin with a breeding pair that are then mated and a meat pen is raised from the offspring, or they can purchase meat pens. The animals are raised simultaneously during a designated time frame and students keep track of growth rates, feed conversions, death loss and profitability.
The poultry project requires a minimum of 25 broilers per project; however, the rabbit alternative will require only a few animals, which is more conducive to animal ownership projects in urban settings.
While the organization’s demographics have undergone revolutionary changes, its foundational roots remain intact. The agriculture industry will continue to need leaders, thinkers and doers, both on and off the farm.
FFA and agriculture programs across the United States will continue to supply qualified people into the vast array of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that make up the world’s food system. Help celebrate by joining in local activities during National FFA Week; learn more online at www.ffa.org/ffaweek