When most people think of FFA, they see a high school student in a small, rural community. While that is the case for some students, it does not paint the full picture. For many students, they don’t grow up in a rural community, let alone on a farm. Now more than ever, FFA is a highly inclusive and diverse group of members.
A great example of the inclusive nature of FFA is the Nation Ford FFA Chapter in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Nation Ford FFA Advisor Lee Petitgout has been teaching at Nation Ford High School for 11 years. She has worked with the chapter and the community to increase awareness of local agriculture in the community. Fort Mill is a large, suburban community outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, which, thanks to the number of banks headquartered there, is a financial hub for people all across the world. It is not uncommon for many of Petitgout’s students to be bilingual, some even trilingual. With all her students so far removed from the farm, Petitgout has to get creative to highlight agriculture in their everyday life.
To connect the community and students to agriculture, Petitgout started reaching out to the parents first with an adult program — Tastefully Local. Tastefully Local is a free, community-based group that meets monthly to learn more about locally produced goods. For example, they have brought in speakers talking about beekeeping, how to identify snakes of the Carolinas, going green in the home, or using Boykin Spaniel dogs to help with research on turtles. This class incorporates local programs to help parents adapt to the new area and works as a great aid in getting students into the ag program.
Petitgout emphasizes the importance of catering to your audience. When we think outside of the box, that is when new opportunities and experiences present themselves.
“You never say you can’t do it. You work with what you have. It might not be what you are accustomed to, but you just gotta figure out what is going to work for your audience ” said Petitgout.
One of the results of the Tastefully Local program was the start of the Farm to Fork program. What began as a way for Petitgout to highlight local farmers and their products turned into so much more. Every year the Nation Ford FFA Chapter hosts a dinner made entirely from local produce prepared by a chef.
The Farm to Fork program has grown so much over the past few years and quickly became a community favorite. Last year, Farm to Fork tickets sold out in minutes. During the summer, the FFA chapter hosts eight farmers and works with a local chef to showcase the fresh, local products. It is so popular that Petitgout has to vet each farm and rotates the farmers every year to keep it fair. Before dinner is served, the farmers attend the social hour and hand out business cards to the guests. The Farm to Fork program also serves as a fundraiser for the chapter. To show their appreciation, the FFA members serve the guests in their official dress.
Another unique experience for Nation Ford’s FFA members is the South Carolina Strawberry Festival where they race piglets. The advisor and students train the pigs to run around a track in preparation for the festival. The chapter uses this spotlight as a platform to talk about Multiple Sclerosis. Several years ago, a student’s mom was battling MS, and she did not want any help personally. However, she did request help with research and awareness. So following her wishes, the chapter has partnered with the Multiple Sclerosis Society during the festival. A representative from the society speaks and hands out pamphlets before every race. In one day, the pig races can bring in over 1,500 people. After the festival is finished, the chapter donates all the money raised under the mom’s name to the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
In addition to raising awareness for MS, the members also get the hands-on experience of raising the piglets. The animal science class works with the pigs and uses them in their curriculum. The students raise the pigs until they are ready to be processed.
The Nation Ford FFA Chapter brings together students from many different backgrounds and highlights the possibilities in agriculture. This small but mighty FFA chapter is changing their community, for the better.