Studying agriculture might not come across at first as something shiny and brand new — especially to city slicker students. That’s why one North Carolina FFA advisor has come up with several out-of-the-box ideas to attract students to the program.
“Being an ag teacher is not a 7:30-3:15 job. FFA advisors must offer new and exciting activities for members,” said Reggie Jenkins, Agriculture Department Head and FFA advisor at North Lenoir High School in La Grange, North Carolina. “Movie night, member retreat, raising and showing swine or other livestock … things the kids do not normally do. That draws interest and keeps the program strong.”
North Lenoir High FFA has kept their numbers strong the past five years with membership ranging anywhere from 225 to 300, however the chapter is home to very few students from traditional farming families. Jenkins estimates about 60 to 70 percent come from non-agricultural backgrounds. North Lenoir joins two other high schools, a middle school, and Lenoir Community College in the area that offer agriculture education programs less focused on farming specifics, but rather on other careers and opportunities available in agriculture.
“Since we have so many non-traditional students basically anything ag-related and hands-on attracts students,” Jenkins said.
Hands-on activities like raising feeder pigs has worked well for the chapter. Each year from January through Easter, North Lenoir students have raised hogs for the Coastal Plains Livestock Show and Sale. The program has had as many as 55 students participate with one pig assigned to every two kids. For the past two to three years those numbers have declined to about 30 students, Jenkins said, mainly due to economic problems within and around Lenoir County.
While budget cuts have also interfered with the number of agriculture teachers North Lenoir is able to employ, the three teachers including Jenkins and Erin Berg, the Horticulture & Sustainable Ag teacher, are trying to put more emphasis on sustainable ag across all curriculums. For example, through ag mechanics, students learn traditional metal and wood working. Now with the purchase of a plasma cam, North Lenoir teachers can also showcase more modern technology applications.
But North Lenoir High isn’t just trying to make ag sexy to city kids, they’re also trying to introduce students to the largest growing business sector in the county. Home to Sanderson Farms, Smithfield Foods, Tull Hill Farms, and various ag retail businesses, Jenkins hopes the program will open students’ eyes to how vital the industry is to the state. Many former students have gone on to work in the North Carolina University research unit, at various processing plants, for business such as Farm Credit or Hog Slat, or became poultry or swine farmers themselves.
Even if students do not enter the ag sector upon graduation, the North Carolina FFA chapter aims to graduate knowledgeable consumers that know what exactly goes into the food and fiber industry each day.
Finally, Jenkins said he hopes the program will produce valuable citizens that will help a neighbor in need. This spring retired North Lenior Ag teacher David Mooring had the chapter team up with Bayer for the “Respond & Rebuild” program, which provided grants to local North Carolina FFA chapters to use in areas affected by Hurricane Matthew. With the funds, North Lenoir was able to build and replace picnic tables and benches for Kinston/Lenoir Nature Center that were wiped out from the flooding.
And community involvement isn’t all work and no play. Two years ago, the chapter started a free “Community Movie Night” that was open to everyone and anyone. About 160 folks turned up to see the first flick, “Hocus Pocus.” Since then North Lenoir has hosted two more and have plans for the next movie night on Friday, October 13.
Jenkins believes North Lenoir has one of the strongest community-involved programs in the county.
“North Lenoir is very active with the Lenoir County Chamber of Commerce and offer assistance in numerous activities throughout the school year,” Jenkins said. “North Lenoir is also very active with Lenoir County Extension Service Show and Sale and big involvement with LC Fair Association with 60+ members being actively involved in the county fair each year. Also, North Lenoir FFA will help with smaller activities as they arise each year.”
No matter if an ag education program or FFA chapter is trying to attract non-traditional students or be more visible in the community, Jenkins firmly believes that chapters will only be as strong as the ag teachers/FFA advisors want them to be.
“FFA kids keep me young (and I am 49 now). Their success keeps us as ag teachers going,” Jenkins said. “I cannot imagine coming to school, sitting in a classroom all day, leaving at 3 p.m. each day. That would drive me crazy.”