BY DOUG GRAVES
TRENTON, Ohio — There were two banners sporting quite compelling messages at last year’s FFA National Convention in Indianapolis in November. The first one read: “One is never too old to learn.” The other read: “One is never too young to START learning.”
Today, there are 24,800 FFA members in 308 chapters across Ohio alone for students in grades nine through 12. While FFA enrollment has enjoyed enormous success the past decade, those at the National FFA Headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana are taking aim at those in grades 6-8.
“Even when it comes to FFA, one is never too young to begin learning about agriculture,” said Kolesen McCoy, an agribusiness and applied economics major at Ohio State University who was elected FFA National President at the convention in November.
FFA promoters have strongly targeted those in grades 6-8 the past five years. The tally to this point shows that there are 21 schools in Ohio offering FFA at the sixth grade level. There are 514 schools nationwide offering FFA to seventh-graders and 1,012 at the eighth grade level.
Attempting to reach those at a lower grade level is nothing new. According to the Journal of Ag Education, the earliest reported eighth grade FFA program was formed in Virginia in 1926. Seventh grade FFA programs began in Vermont in 1930. Louisiana had its first FFA program for seventh graders in 1960. Sixth grade programs started in Mississippi in 1974.
Ohio spearheaded the FFA junior high efforts in 1988, realizing it was never too early to teach youth about the importance of agriculture.
Rosemarie Rosetti, a former assistant professor in the Ohio State University Department of Agriculture Education, issued a status report on middle grade agricultural education and FFA programs in the United States in the mid-1980s. She also issued some strong recommendations to those in her state.
“Beginning in kindergarten and continuing through twelfth grade, all students should receive some systematic instruction about agriculture,” Rosetti wrote. “The intent of this recommendation was to aid our society in becoming more literate about agriculture. Agricultural literacy suggests that a person understands the food and fiber system, including its history and current economic, social and environmental significance.”
FFA enrollment in the high school level steadily declined between 1977 and 1991. In 1977, FFA membership was at 509,735 and it had dropped to 383,450 by 1991, a decline of 24.8 percent. In 1988, a constitutional amendment was passed at the National FFA Convention that officially allowed middle school aged youth membership into the organization.
“Allowing FFA at the middle school level showed a drastic increase in FFA members by the 1992-93 school year as enrollment increased to 417,462,” Rosetti said. “By this time, 36 states had middle school FFA programs and enrolled 52,968 members nationwide.”
At the middle school level, the top FFA topics are plant science, career exploration, agricultural literacy, animal science and conservation. The next five are mathematics, agricultural mechanics, soil science, public speaking and human relations.
While competitions among FFA chapters are normally held at the high school level, junior high competitions are becoming the norm nowadays. Four states held competitions at the sixth grade level this past year. Fourteen states held competition at the seventh grade level, whereas 17 states held competition at the eighth grade level. Those areas of competition include livestock judging, public speaking, crops, livestock showing, meats, horse judging, agricultural mechanics, agricultural science fair and dairy foods.
“Most state FFA executive secretaries indicate that middle school programs were beneficial to the students as well as to the states,” Rosetti said. “Students were more aware about agriculture and more informed about careers in agriculture. The students benefited from the hands-on experience in the classrooms and felt that these programs were a boost to secondary school enrollment.”
In 2017, the Talawanda High School FFA in Oxford, Ohio partnered with Talawanda Middle School to start an after-school program for those in grades 6-8 who have an interest in agriculture. High school advisers met with students once a month and averaged 30 students per meeting. The group is still going strong with topics of food science, animal science, meat science, small engines, greenhouses and plant science.
Versailles High School in Darke County in Ohio has been in existence since 1935. The chapter has offered FFA for eighth graders the past nine years. There were 16 members in 2011. There were 34 members last year.
At Versailles High School in Darke County, Versailles High FFA advisor Dena Wuebker sees advantages to FFA reaching into the eighth grade ranks.
“The eighth grade FFA students can earn high school credits in the areas of agriculture, food and natural resources,” Wuebker said. “These students take FFA courses every day, all year long. We’re offering them more exposure to agriculture and we have high expectations of them.”