Like barn dances and the Farmer’s Almanac, the FFA (Future Farmers of America) is an old-timey tradition that still exists in the age of lab-grown meat and robot milkers. With a uniform that dates back to 1933 — modeled here by Napoleon Dynamite – and an earnest, boosterish love of all things farming, the group seems part of a bygone era.
That’s why it may surprise you that the FFA has higher enrollment than ever before, well over half a million members and growing.
This at a time when much ink is spilled about the aging farm demographic. For every farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75+, a worrisome trend. Yet the FFA’s enduring popularity seems to refute these stats — 560,000 young students still like farming enough to voluntarily wear a monogrammed jacket and tie (or a scarf for the ladies).
To gain a little insight, we caught up with college junior Kalie Hall, chosen from thousands of her peers to be this year’s national FFA Secretary. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool Southern farm girl, raised amongst hogs and soybeans in Carnesville, Georgia. But Hall didn’t earn her role on street creds alone — she’s a charming and unflappable spokesman, staying on-message through the saltiest of reporter questions (e.g., “Why are all the FFA officers white?”)
Modern Farmer: What does it mean to be an FFA officer?
Kalie Hall: Hmmm. Well there’s a long selection process, with a barrage of tests and essays and interviews. It wasn’t easy! After they choose six officers, we all take a year off from school to perform our duties.
MF: What duties?
KH: We travel the country, visiting schools, going to conferences, touring agriculture companies, meeting politicians. It’s very exciting — I got to spend some time talking with [Education] Secretary Duncan and [Agriculture] Secretary Vilsack.
MF: Does it sometimes feel like you’re a politician?
KH: I guess so! We’re definitely in the public eye a lot, meeting people and advocating for agriculture.
MF: You meet lots of aspiring young farmers. What is the biggest concern you hear?
KH: They worry about a lack of connection between the general public and farming. It used to be most everybody had someone in their family who was a farmer, or you knew a farmer who lived nearby. These days most people are very removed from agriculture. We’re still figuring out how to bridge that gap.
MF: What are potential solutions?
KH: Social media is one of the best tools we have to connect farmers with non-farmers. It lets producers show pictures of their crops on Facebook, or they can tweet from their tractors. People are interested in how their food is being grown; social media makes it very easy to learn. We can also show the fun side of farming. Have you seen the Peterson Brothers YouTube video, “I’m Farming and I Grow It?”
KH: That’s a good one! I just love it.
MF: Do most of your members end up becoming farmers?
KH: Not necessarily. We’ve now identified 300 different agriculture-related career opportunities outside of being a traditional farmer. There are all sorts of jobs, in biotech, animal health, commodities trading, genetics. We talk a lot with leaders of industry who are worried about where their talent will come from.
MF: Farming these days can be quite politically charged. Does the FFA take a stance on say, using pesticides or growing GMO crops?
KH: We try to expose young people to many different ways of farming, and to give them the critical thinking skills to decide how they want to farm. There is no right or wrong way to be a farmer.
MF: A diplomatic answer. What are your thoughts on urban agriculture?
KH: That’s actually one of the most exciting changes we’ve seen. We have chapters in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York — most of the biggest cities have FFA groups now.
MF: We noticed there doesn’t seem to be a lot of diversity in this year’s FFA officers. How does that reflect your membership?
KH: Diversity and inclusion is a very important part of the FFA mission. (Ed. Note: In 1965 the FFA merged with the NFA, an African American farming organization. In 1969, it opened membership to women.) Our membership is 73 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African American, and 5 percent Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander. Also, 43 percent of our members are girls, and girls hold half of our leadership positions.
We definitely want a diverse membership, in every sense of the word. I’ve met a lot of young farmers, with a range of accents, food preferences, beliefs and everything else. One thing that unites everybody is an inborn fondness for agriculture, an emotional connection to the land.
Photo at top: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addresses FFA members, courtesy of the USDA