When John Poulson is asked how the National FFA Organization has endured for 90 years and continues to remain strong, he offers a simple yet solid explanation: “We learn to do and we do to learn.”
It’s a foundation the FFA hasn’t wavered from during Poulson’s 28-year stint as Agriculture and FFA teacher at Pettisville Local Schools. And, in celebration of National FFA Week, he said the organization’s offer of leadership and developing members into community leaders is what continues to draw students year after year.
In fact, FFA membership hit an all-time high nationally in 2016, with 649,355 members in 7,859 chapters. Poulson, who mentors 55 members in Pettisville’s school district, attributes the growth to “an interest in where our food comes from and the diversity we have to offer.”
Still, the organization has evolved significantly from the original notion of Future Farmers of America established by 33 delegates in 1928 at the Baltimore Hotel in Kansas City. FFA was proposed by Walter Newman, then the Virginia State Supervisor of Agricultural Education. According to the National FFA Organization, he was looking for a way to change the minds of boys who were losing interest in farming.
Poulson said the rapidly expanding electronic age is offering members much more than FFA’s original concept. Now they can explore such areas as biotechnology and global research markets.
“It’s more in-depth, and it’s much more diverse. It’s showing much more of the diversity of what’s going on in our country. Agriculture often leads in technology,” he said.
Poulson said the electronic age has actually aided FFA. “It’s easier to get the word out, to let people know there’s a lot of agriculture-related jobs and we need to fill them,” he said.
Ryan Sell agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor for Archbold Area Schools for 11 years, said the organization is unlike any other. “There’s a lot of different areas to study. The courses are based more heavily on science now than before,” he said.
Of the six agriculture classes he teaches each day, four are science-based. As with Pettisville schools, FFA is tied directly to agriculture classes in the Archbold school district.
“Agriculture is applied science,” Sell said. “(FFA) kind of migrates away from kids who are just going to be farmers. We’ve really moved away from that. The switch-over is basically because of new technology and methods in agriculture today.”
FFA has become so diverse, including the addition of research projects, that membership expanded in Archbold schools from 26 students in 2007 to 117 in 2018. Sell said less than 10 percent of the families of students involved rely on farming for income.
“FFA has stood up to the test of time. We’ve been able to adapt to the times, to include groups that weren’t always part of the picture,” he said. “There’s a lot more opportunity today than there was when I started teaching.”
Katie Black, Wauseon schools agriculture educator and FFA advisor, instructs 140 high school members and 120 middle school members. She said the membership numbers reflect the students’ enjoyment with working in their community and the hands-on experience they get in the classroom. They also like the competitive drive of FFA contests in such areas as welding, animal managing, and soil.
And while she agrees that technology plays a larger role in FFA activities, “the unique thing is that we’re not always online. Things in the classroom might have a little more of a technology spin, but outside the classroom we’re still giving students hands-on experience and learning by doing.”
Black added, “We give students an outlet to go out and find things (other classes) don’t offer. Those are things students are going to need regardless of what career they enter, and I think those are valuable skills and will help students be successful.”
FFA National Organization spokesperson Kristy Meyer said the organization has embraced technology, particularly the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) classes included in curricula. She said agriculture has evolved so much in the past several decades that Future Farmers of America was changed in 1998 to simply FFA “to embrace all of the opportunities in agriculture that are offered to our students.”
“It’s more than just production farming. They really have hands-on in the classroom to experience agriculture,” Meyer said. “It also offers leadership skills to our members.”
Black said an FFA background still carries weight with potential employers. “The community knows who we are, and they support us,” she said. “(FFA) is a way for students to showcase their talents, and people respect that.”
Poulson agreed. “We still hear that all the time, and we have a lot of strong students who use it to their advantage,” he said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.
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