FFA offers understanding of many aspects of agriculture
BELLEVUE, Iowa (AP) – Erin Sprank plucked a brown egg from the carton in the center of the table in front of her and began carefully examining its shell.
Gently turning the egg in her hand, the Bellevue High School junior filled in bubbles on a prepared form to record any blemishes on or deficiencies in the egg's exterior.
"This one has calcium deposits, thin spots and adhering materials," she said, pointing out the offending features to her brother, Tony Sprank, and fellow students Anthony and Nathan Both. "And don't forget to incorporate the shape, too, if it's out of shape."
A few minutes later, the students took their eggs into a dark room. They used their cellphones' flashlights to inspect the eggs' interiors for blood spots, yolk position and shape, and the size of the air pocket at the top of each.
The four students, members of Bellevue High School's FFA program, were preparing for a poultry judging competition at the upcoming state FFA Leadership Conference in April.
As part of the competition, they were required to not only grade the exterior and interior of eggs but also complete a written exam, study processed meats such as chicken patties and work with live birds.
The event is one of many activities and leadership opportunities available to the hundreds of area students who participate in local FFA programs. Once known as Future Farmers of America, the national organization has flourished for nearly 100 years and welcomes both students with farming backgrounds and those seeking a place to develop leadership and presentational skills or learn more about the agricultural industry.
"It's not just cows, sows and plows — it's leaders, beakers and speakers," said Sam Pinchart, agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Platteville High School in Wisconsin, quoting a well-known FFA aphorism.
Future Farmers of America was established in 1928, with the first National FFA Convention held in Kansas City, Mo. Thirty-three delegates from 18 states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, attended.
Around the same time, the New Farmers of America — a similar organization for Black and African American students of agriculture — was formed. The two organizations merged in 1965.
In 1988, Future Farmers of America changed its name to the National FFA Organization "to reflect the growing diversity in agriculture," and seventh- and eighth-graders were permitted to become FFA members.
Today, there are more than 735,000 FFA members in more than 8,800 chapters across all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the national FFA website. More than 13,000 FFA advisors and agriculture teachers offer instruction and lead activities on topics ranging from animal science and livestock judging to agriscience, agricultural mechanics, horticulture and agribusiness.
"In order to be in FFA, you don't have to grow up on a dairy farm. Of course, you can, but there are so many more opportunities and experiences," said Abby Gatch, a junior and FFA member at Platteville High School. "If you're interested in anything in agriculture, you have a place in FFA."
Through FFA, students participate in a vast array of competitions. The schedule of those contests varies by state, but the two main competition categories are leadership development events (typically called "LDEs" by students and teachers) and career development events, or CDEs.
LDEs emphasize public speaking skills in categories such as parliamentary procedure, in which students conduct a mock chapter meeting, and agricultural issues forum, which asks participants to present the pros and cons of an agricultural topic to a panel of judges.
CDEs, on the other hand, emphasize hands-on activities and let students show their skills in various aspects of the agricultural industry. These include evaluations of products such as horses, milk, poultry and dairy cattle, as well as projects in areas such as floriculture, agribusiness, veterinary science and landscape design.
While the Boths and Spranks were busy studying their eggs for their poultry evaluation, Bellevue juniors Delaney Dunne and Ryanne Dunn were working on their own CDE in the marketing plan category.
Ryanne explained that the girls were tasked with choosing a local business and creating a marketing plan for a fictional new product that business might sell. They chose Moore Local, a specialty grocery store with locations in Bellevue and Maquoketa, and created a budget and various marketing materials for a "Moore Healthy Mozzarella" cheese the business could sell.
"We explain what other cheese spreads there are and where ours would fit into the market," said Ryanne, showing the presentation and posters that her team would utilize at the conference that weekend.
For Blair Gerlach, the agriculture educator and FFA adviser at Bellevue, it is these opportunities in diverse areas such as agricultural marketing and business that make FFA such a valuable experience for students.
"Through FFA, I'm able to help students learn not only where their food comes from but also those essential leadership skills," she said. "Whether they plan on going into an agricultural career or not, they can learn some skills that will help them beyond their high school career."
In addition to CDEs and LDEs, students also can participate in agricultural research projects through the Agriscience Fair or complete their own supervised agricultural experiences and earn Agricultural Proficiency Awards.
"(Supervised agricultural experiences) are the one time in their high school career that the project is completely open to what they want to do," said Pinchart.
He recalled past supervised agricultural experiences in which students have completed work at local vineyards, trained their pets or tapped trees for maple syrup.
In Galena, Ill., students' supervised agricultural experiences can range from working on a family farm to holding a job at the local Goat Treks business or even in food service at Culver's, according to agriculture educator and FFA adviser Sarah Lee.
"I don't send tons of homework with them because I expect them to be working on their projects and things outside of school," said Lee. "That's how they learn."
When Dawn Mausser, agricultural education and industrial technology instructor and FFA advisor at Beckman Catholic High School in Dyersville, started teaching FFA 12 years ago, the majority of her students were "bread-and-butter farm kids."
Now, about half of her 138 rostered FFA members in grades seven through 12, do not live on farms or have a direct familial connection to farming.
"They're more removed from agriculture, so (FFA) can introduce them to aspects of that," she said, adding that the challenges that students undertake through FFA teach them teamwork, communication and time management. "There are kids of all academic abilities that are in here right now, and they all learn to work together."
As she spoke, FFA students buzzed around her classroom, completing projects. Amid the hubbub, a group of seventh- and eighth-grade boys were working on their agricultural careers and science investigation project.
"Our challenge was to grow something in a dry climate with no water," said Kenneth Helle, 13.
He explained that the group chose to grow watermelons and cantaloupes after consulting with industry professionals such as a seed salesperson.
They placed a cup of fertilizer water into a tub of sand and rocky material and extended a string from the cup through a straw. They hoped this would bring water to the seeds they had placed in the dirt.
However, it didn't seem to have germinated the seeds, and Kenneth now was carefully extracting them from the sand to see what had gone wrong. Mausser examined the seeds.
"Your seed swelled — it's just not growing. And it looks like it's rotting. See how it got dark?" she asked. "It's OK. Nobody said it was easy to grow things in the desert. Why do you think we grow in soil in Iowa?"
As Kenneth resumed his work, Beckman junior Leah Thier was organizing pins for the upcoming FFA banquet.
Leah's family farms corn, soybeans and beef cattle just outside of Worthington. She joined FFA in eighth grade and has participated in a variety of activities through the program, including agriscience, vet science, livestock judging, biotechnology, horse judging, dairy cattle judging and agronomy.
This year at the State Leadership Conference, she received her Iowa degree, the highest degree a high school FFA student can receive. The program offers degrees at five levels: Discovery, Greenhand, Chapter, State and American degrees, the last of which is completed after a student graduates from high school.
To be eligible to receive a state degree, Leah was required to meet a certain amount of hours or dollars invested or earned through her supervised agricultural experience, as well as complete community service hours and multiple activities above the chapter level.
"I just love all the opportunities and the people," she said of FFA. "I was never really into sports, so this is my thing. I enjoy learning about the different parts of the agricultural community because there's so much more to it than farming. It's really helped me grow a lot as a leader, and I honestly don't know where I would be without FFA today."
At Cascade Junior/Senior High School this year, 11 FFA students received their Iowa degrees, according to advisor Taylor Currie. The school's FFA chapter includes 55 high school students and 17 members in seventh and eighth grades.
Currie said that in addition to CDEs, LDEs and similar contests, Cascade also hosts an annual showcase dubbed the "hay and grain show," in which students bring in items such as corn, oats, honey and hay for judging by community members. The event in November has been a tradition for nearly 45 years and is another way to enhance students' skills in an area of agriculture with which they might not be familiar.
Some students, such as Ainsley Noble, of Platteville, intend to build on their experiences in FFA by teaching the next generation.
"(FFA) helped me find my place in this school," she said. "Because of the influence this organization has had on me, I will be going to college to pursue becoming an agricultural teacher and FFA adviser."
Others might pursue careers on family farms or similar agricultural operations, utilizing the techniques they learned for judging animals or products. Still others might helm businesses, design agricultural equipment or conduct research.
Pinchart noted that one of his students is completing a behavioral analysis of rodents and which color of wire coating they prefer to chew through in a home electrical appliance, which is directly related to the career that he hopes to pursue following school.
No matter the field students ultimately choose, their advisors emphasized that the skills they hone through their time in FFA will last a lifetime.
"At the end of the day, I care more that the kids are walking away with good skills rather than knowing that a tomato is a fruit," Currie said. "I want them to have the skills to be successful in whatever career they go into, whether it's agricultural or not."