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Is exposure to agriculture the key to urban & minority students’ involvement in ag?

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In 2018, on one of many travels as a National FFA Officer, I found myself immersed in a city that most of my colleagues have affectionately called “the Big A.” Those of you who are with it know what I mean. I’m talking about Atlanta, Georgia. My teammate and I were there to explore the agriculture industries in the area that supported the National FFA Organization and scout out other potential partnerships.

After a few days in Atlanta, we traveled to the nearby city of Tucker, where we were to visit the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. After a quick meeting with the association leadership — which didn’t, as expected, delve into things like average carcass weights, schematics of distribution across that state and nation, and glorious pictures of exotic poultry that I have never laid my eyes on before — we all went on toward something much greater than what I could have ever imagined the day becoming.

Where were we headed? To the Arabia Mountain FFA Chapter, becoming one of my favorite stops during my officer year. When we arrived at the school, I quickly identified that the school’s demographic was predominately of minority descent, with a majority of the students identifying as Black/African American.

Now if you are like me, who comes from an area where not as many students of color and/or students from urban areas were involved in ag classes, don’t miss this next part.

I believe strongly that exposure to agriculture and to the people in the industry is the key to greater involvement for our urban students and students of color in agriculture.

Let me break these down because I don’t want us to misunderstand the nuances to this key.

With the help of the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, Arabia Mountain FFA and their agriculture teacher were able to attain resources that connected students, who may not have traditionally been involved, to the agriculture industry. Specifically, the poultry industry.

“When we provide access to agriculture for our young ones, we give a better understanding of why agriculture should be important to them,” said Nate Looney, CEO and owner of Westside Urban Gardens in Los Angeles.

Industry providing resources or opportunities for urban students and students of color to engage with agriculture can create opportunities for exposure to agriculture; leading to agriculture to become increasingly more relevant to younger generations, nontraditional demographics, and eventual consumers of the industry. Whether we provide those resources straight to the school, sit on an advisory board for an FFA chapter, or come in for a class talk to share our industry and its relevance, all these and more are steps toward an increased involvement of our urban and/or students of color about agriculture.

But, as we discussed, exposure isn’t just creating access to agriculture. It’s also engaging with the people in it.

When I was still in college, I worked on an organic farming operation called Full Belly Farm. Over that summer, we engaged with dozens of students who traveled from the Bay Area into the Capay Valley to work with us on the farm for a week. None of these students came from agriculture backgrounds.

Many of these students’ parents worked for Pixar or sports teams like the Golden State Warriors. Some parents were personal chefs, designers, and digital engineers. Many of the families lived in a concrete jungle most of their lives, with not a piece of farmland for miles.

But there they were. One week on a farm.

For the first time ever, students would pick a weed. For the first time ever, these kids would pick a fruit off a tree or milk a dairy cow. Every day, students were learning a step in the organic farming process that was completely new to them and sometimes scary if it was the first time doing it. But we were there every step of the way.

By the end of the week when their parents came to get them, students would be so eager to show off what they did, what they picked, and what they learned about agriculture.

Students were successful at Camp Full Belly Farm because they were with the people who were knowledgeable about the industry and willing to walk alongside them in their learning process. They were able to make mistakes without feeling they didn’t have someone there to share with them how they might go about it next time. Students were exposed to folks who genuinely cared that their first experience with agriculture was a positive one.

Arabia Mountain FFA chapter and Camp Full Belly Farm are possible when we look at our communities not as a divide between urban and rural, but rather as an opportunity to create a bridge to cross back and forth.

So let’s take that first step across the bridge to our urban communities and communities of color.

Let’s reach out to them to form partnerships with their programs and schools. Let’s offer our resources, our time, our treasures. Let’s create access to our industry for our young ones. Let’s stand beside them as they kinesthetically imagine, learn, and find pride in agriculture.

Let’s create exposure. This support can be big or small. What really matters is the impact left on future agriculturalist and consumers of our nation. With increased involvement from folks who may not traditionally be involved in agriculture, we may not only create bridges between communities that may not have existed before. But, we are also paving a way toward a more sustainable future for agriculture — as more and more folks grow in their understanding of the industry’s significance.

 

Bre Holbert is a past National FFA President and studies agriculture science and education at California State-Chico. “Two ears to listen is better than one mouth to speak. Two ears allow us to affirm more people, rather than letting our mouth loose to damage people’s story by speaking on behalf of others.”

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