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Future Farmers of America: “We grow well-rounded young adults!”

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“Growing the next generation of leaders who will change the world” is the national vision of Future Farmers of America, well known as FFA, a leadership organization dedicated to encouraging leadership in students through agricultural education. As late President John F. Kennedy once stated, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” so it’s no surprise FFA is committed to helping students achieve this potential.

Seniors Lucas Mello and Addison Heermance have grown up, learned and led as active members of their FFA chapters. Lucas is an active member of the Farm Power & Machinery team at Galt High School, while Addison serves as FFA president at Bret Harte High School and Central Region FFA vice president. Both acknowledge the organization has helped them come out of their comfort levels and challenged them to strive for new opportunities. “FFA helped me in developing confidence and the ability to communicate with others regarding my involvement in the agriculture industry,” said Lucas. “Today, I’m a more confident person who enjoys talking about their involvement and experience in the family dairy,” he added. Addison also shared how the organization is helping shape her future. “I would like to enter into the agriculture field after college and focus on sustainability in agriculture systems because of what FFA has taught me,” she remarked.

Lucas and Addison, like many students who participate in FFA across the state, are the next generation of learners and leaders taking hold of the agriculture world. While both come from ag families, Lucas’ family in dairy and Addison’s in farming, not all students have an immediate connection to agriculture. “FFA’s successful impact lies in its ability to impart knowledge and skills to students all while fostering an awareness and appreciation of the agriculture industry,” said Katie Otto, a former FFA member and now the executive director of development for California FFA Foundation. The foundation exists to support FFA members, remove financial barriers and increase access to opportunities for all FFA members throughout California. “FFA and agricultural education offer something for everyone,” she remarked. With over 103,000 students and 360 FFA chapters in California, FFA is building opportunities and awareness of the agriculture industry among youth. “Ag is incredibly diverse throughout California and as a result each FFA chapter is unique and often reflective of the commodities, industry and expertise that surround their communities.” While FFA has chapters across the United States, members in California often receive a broad firsthand experience with projects ranging from raising livestock, dairy production, learning about viticulture in our wine regions, orchards and crop management and food processing, among countless other opportunities. Some skills and projects that are offered at the local level are more universal and include ag mechanics and fabrication, accounting and recordkeeping, the use of technology such as drones and skills in scientific research.

Building Skill, Leadership and Service.
Katie noted that the organization would love every student to pursue a career in agriculture, but the basis of the program coupled with dedicated ag teachers teaches skills that serve students regardless of their path after high school. Traditionally, many tend to think that FFA is centered around raising a farm animal for their local county fair, yet FFA has nearly 40 different career development events and opportunities that include ag mechanics, agronomy, floriculture, food science and technology, forestry and veterinary science, just to name a few. Many FFA members also engage in opportunities that teach them about leadership, public speaking, job interviewing and critical thinking, skills that every high school and middle school student can benefit from. “It makes them well-rounded young adults,” she affirmed. “The educational opportunities FFA members can take advantage of are as diverse as the breadth of the agriculture in this state.”

Another component of FFA’s opportunities include more than 40 conferences and competitions students can take part in. This past March, more than 6,700 students statewide attended the State FFA Leadership Conference in Sacramento. Additionally, during the annual Sacramento Leadership Experience, or SLE, Conference, 75 students created a mock legislature and assumed a fictional role of a state legislator, representing bills and a district. “This unique experience teaches students how to evaluate and understand the competing demands of the state. Students debate bills and portray the role of a legislator representing a district that may be very different from where they come from,” Katie related, and she acknowledges that the goal is to teach students how to put aside personal beliefs and values when necessary and seek to understand and learn about critical policy issues through the lens of the area represented. “SLE is a phenomenal critical thinking exercise for high school seniors; they are gaining a broader perspective and realizing we generally want the same thing, but we understand challenges based on our own unique experiences and influences.”

As part of the California FFA’s Leadership Development continuum, other FFA conferences showcase learning opportunities catered to the age of the FFA member. The Greenhand conference caters to freshmen or new members as a way to introduce students to FFA and agricultural education opportunities. Other conferences include Made for Excellence, geared toward to sophomores, and the Advanced Leadership Academy, which focuses on juniors who already have experience and want to build on their skills and knowledge. Seasoned members transitioning to their senior year participate in the Change Maker Summit, FFA’s newest conference focusing on preparing students for a successful transition after graduation. The conferences create a community in which members from all over California create lasting friendships and even future partnerships.

While FFA provides countless opportunities and a long-term positive impact on students, Katie believes one of the most important lessons is that students learn where their food and fiber come from. “For this nearly 100-year-old organization, early FFA members came from farming families. However, as we’ve grown and the population has increased, much of society and our youth members have also grown further away from having an understanding of agriculture and natural resources.” Thanks to local programs, ag teachers and FFA’s hands-on model, students get to see, understand and learn about the opportunities and challenges that our farmers are presented with, all while trying to manage resources to ultimately feed and clothe the world. “All of these students will go on to be decision makers and consumers and they’ll have an understanding and appreciation of how hard the agriculture industry works to help put food on their table or the clothes on their back,” she said. Addison recognizes that her involvement in FFA has ignited her passion to keep working in the field but also to take an active role in the community.“One thing that I love most about FFA is the message. In our FFA motto, it says ‘living to serve,’ and I choose to live by those words each day both inside and outside of my FFA jacket,” she affirmed.

Teachers Supporting the Vision
While the program provides opportunities to build skills and career exploration, much of the success of the program would not be possible without the support of the ag teachers who run the program in middle and high schools. Since the program depends on the cooperation of local schools to offer pathways and enrollment in ag-based courses, the teachers are an integral part of the program. Many of the courses are accepted at the California state universities and meet the A-G high school graduation requirement.

Lucas recognizes that his local program and his teachers were an integral part of his involvement in FFA. “Looking back, I was hesitant to get involved and take advantage of all of the opportunities,” he said. “I’m glad to have been pushed by my advisor because it allowed me to access new opportunities and greatly helped me with speaking and interviewing.” Because of that encouragement, Lucas’ efforts in his local chapter gained attention. He earned his State FFA Degree, a prestigious award based on a student’s effort and accomplishments. He applied for state proficiency, won the state proficiency award and traveled to the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was also awarded Aggie of the Year by his fellow chapter members. He feels the support of his teacher helped him accomplish this goal.

Looking to the Future
2028 will be the Centennial for the California FFA, yet the organization continues to develop budding new students and continues to grow and expand to students who might not have had access in the past. “We’ve expanded to middle school programs,” Katie said. She also points out that FFA recently extended into both private and charter schools, which has brought an increase in exposure and opportunities for students to benefit from all FFA and agricultural education have to offer. As a premier youth organization, the California FFA continues to maintain tradition while increasing access and growing the next generation of leaders. While Katie acknowledges that not all students will go into an ag career, but the time spent is invaluable and encourages students to seize the opportunities available. “Take advantage of resources, amazing ag teachers, leadership conferences, contests and every opportunity that you can. Our students are our future and we all want to see them flourish and succeed. We want them to be open to ideas, opportunities, and to embracing all that they can.”