By Doug Graves
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One of Kentucky’s “go-to” high schools for agriculture isn’t located near the state’s famed horse or tobacco farms, nor is it near a beef cattle operation. Seneca High School – and its FFA chapter – is in the heart of Louisville. Even though Seneca is imbedded in a Louisville neighborhood, roughly 27 miles from the nearest farm, the students are still exposed to agriculture.
“We’ve become a magnet program in the Louisville area for agriculture,” said Bethany Mattingly, one of two vocational agriculture teachers and FFA chapter advisers at Seneca High School. “While none of our students come from a farm background, they come here specifically to learn about plant sciences, environmental sciences or animal sciences. Many of them want to become veterinarians, go into animal science research or work in greenhouses.”
As Seneca FFA’s reputation in agriculture has grown, so has its chapter enrollment, which has steadily swelled to more than 90 members. One of the key functions of FFA is teaching students skills for future leadership roles in agriculture. Part of that leadership is learning by doing in the area of community service.
The chapter regularly wins awards for community service. Mattingly said that most months students take part in some service activity. Projects include educating youth about agriculture, conducting food drives and taking animals to visit residents in nursing homes. During Kentucky Derby Week, students plant flowers at Churchill Downs and clean up after equestrian units during the Pegasus Parade.
Seneca FFA is not the only group in Louisville that values learning by doing through community service. Farm Credit Mid-America, with corporate headquarters in Louisville, also encourages team members to volunteer in their local communities, particularly in activities that align with the cooperative’s purpose – to secure the future of rural communities and agriculture.
Recently, a group of Farm Credit team members gathered at Seneca High School to put together raised garden beds, also donated by Farm Credit. Mattingly said the raised beds will be huge for the program in multiple ways.
“Since none of our students come from a farm background, they’ve never had the experience of planting seeds, and then following them through to harvest,” Mattingly said. “Now they can do that, as well as make decisions about how to make these beds the most productive they can be. At some point, we hope to sell our produce and donate it to our school’s food pantry.”
During this volunteer activity, some Farm Credit team members shared their history with farming with the Seneca High students.
“One of our biggest hurdles is making our youth aware of the many options available to them in agriculture,” Mattingly said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to be able to work with Farm Credit and see the passion they have for agriculture, and to get ideas and tips from them for their own college careers.”
Seneca High School senior Jack Grimes has been a part of FFA for four years. He said the program is inspiring him to one day become a veterinarian technician.
“I didn’t know (becoming a vet tech) was something I could explore,” Grimes said. “Regular vet school seemed way too expensive for me and too much time to put into it. But vet tech is a very wonderful middle ground for me, so that’s what I would like to explore.”
Laura Ponce Jimenez is the school’s FFA president. She said the program has helped her find one of her passions.
“I’ve just been in love with the animal program and I kind of just stay there most of the time,” she said. “But I’ve learned mostly about myself that I can do more than one thing at the same time.”
The FFA chapter often takes field trips to learn more about agriculture. Last fall the students took a trip to Morrison’s Greenhouse in Okolona, where they learned about wholesale and retail greenhouse operations and equipment. The also visited Idlewild Butterfly Farm & Insectarium in Okolona, Ky. There they learned about beneficial insects in pest management, and exotic invasive insect threats.
At the FFA chapter the students are taught to take care of not only the farm animals but the people around them. The FFA students receive “challenge coins” as a reminder that their work is valuable and to share with those who have positively impacted their lives.
Grimes, an aspiring veterinarian, is also learning about appreciating those around him.
“I gave one of my challenge coins to my history teacher, who is unfortunately no longer with us,” Grimes said. “He was dealing with his own struggles, his own personal issues. And it unfortunately caught up with him. And it was very sad. I know that it definitely meant a lot to him by giving him that coin. I need to make sure he felt appreciated.”