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Durham: FFA cultivates lifelong agvocates


I recently celebrated (bemoaned?) my 39th birthday. As I teeter on the precipice of the big 4-0, I can recall when my parents and their coterie of friends hit the same landmark. They would circulate a gag “geriatric gift pack” of Depends adult diapers and a cane, among other things. Nothing wrong with friendly hazing — they were good-natured about it. While I recognize my impending descent into middle age-dom, I’m optimistic about the future. Certainly not in mid-life crisis mode, but it does prompt some introspective “woulda, coulda, shoulda” moments. One of those is my failure to take Spanish class seriously. Fluency would go a long way on the homestead. I can piece together an awkward convo in a pinch. But beyond that, my biggest regret is not getting involved with FFA.

I view FFA participants with a certain envy, one that proudly blazes every time I see a wave of kids in corduroy jackets. I’ve attended the National FFA Convention five out of the past seven years — and spectacle is an understatement. In this carnival-like atmosphere are 65,000+ attendees with representation from all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa.

Can I even call the attendees “kids”? Their poise and emotional development belies their age — they’re light years ahead of me at a comparable stage of development. While attendance is about evening reveling on the town and hoarding giveaways on the expo floor, it’s also a platform to cultivate ag evangelism. A communion of sorts to adulthood.

Increasingly, most FFA attendees may be multiple generations removed from agriculture. If you want a textbook case in diversity, this is it. From farmboys and farmgirls in the deeply rural cornbelt — to inner city kids who tend reclaimed city lots and farm hydroponically in abandoned warehouses — all are represented. This is as egalitarian as it gets.

Though I’m soundly convinced of the benefits of participation, I can only imagine telling that to my younger, headstrong self. While I was a very precocious, I was never much of a joiner. I reveled in doing my own thing, the consummate counter-culturalist.

At first I was a bit bemused with the self-professed FFA junkies that I’d meet. They’d glowingly talk about it with an almost religious fervor. But I realized it wasn’t indoctrination, but purposeful direction for the future “crop” of the ag industry.

My broader initiation to FFA came about when I volunteered to host the American Phytopathological Society (aka the “Plant Doctor” people) booth. Eventually I was quizzing students on which plant pathogen/disease was their “soulmate.” Just follow a simple flow chart of likes and dislikes! Campy, but it gets the discussion going. All the while, the goal was getting the attendees to realize that agriculture doesn’t have to mean production ag. There’s a whole host of allied jobs. Whether you’re a homebody or more cosmopolitan, the lab coat nerds, field jocks, or pencil pushing bureaucrats would be happy to initiate you into their fraternity of industry, academic, or governmental ag specialists.

With that said, after ascending through the FFA ranks, we have to ask ourselves, “then what”? What are twentysomethings to do with this cache of knowledge and experience? Will they leverage it to better our industry, or will it atrophy in a miserable pile of “what-ifs”? The handoff from FFA to Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers, etc. can be tricky.

We constantly hear about how America is becoming more pluralistic. By most demographer’s barometers, the classic cultural and ethnic lines are increasingly blurred. But the ag/non-ag divide is as profound as red vs. blue on an electoral map.

Among our own, in an apolitical sea of FFA purple, it’s easy to forget that aggies are the 1.5 percent minority. And I’m not referring to the “Occupy” movement. When I got on the advocacy kick after college, I had to scrape together a program and learn on the fly. Only after did I learn that a readymade leadership preparation program already existed!

Without a doubt, FFA is an endowment in human capital that pays long-term dividends, churning out the next generation of leaders who can best resolve the issues that confront us all.


Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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