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FFA freshman Sophi Schultz practices welding at Woodlan. The organization is seeing explosive growth.

Ag careers on new path

FFA booming in schools with emphasis on leadership, life skills

Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
FFA freshmen Zoe Lowden, center, and Elaina Kayser try their hand at using a table saw at Woodlan High School.

Woodlan High School freshman Baili Melcher horsed around in the workshop, balancing pieces of wood like playing cards.

Her introduction to agriculture class was almost over and it was time to relax a bit.

“We’re learning how to cut wood,” said Baili, who’ll eventually construct a tool box. “I’m just starting, but it’s a lot of fun.”

As a member of the Woodlan FFA chapter in Woodburn, Melcher represents a new generation of students on the agricultural career path.

The National FFA says compared with last school year, membership rose 4 percent to a record of nearly 580,000 seventh- through 12th-grade students in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In Indiana, the number topped 10,000 for the first time since the early 1980s. That is a 7.5 percent increase from last school year.

What gives? This is supposed to be the digital age when parent advocacy groups are begging kids to unplug from gadgets and connect in other ways. Perhaps, but the FFA says its growth is the result of changed perceptions about the association and a new wave of agricultural careers.

“When I first joined, there weren’t a lot of girls,” said Ben Gruber, 17, vice president of the Woodlan FFA. “A funny thing started to happen, though. When guys started seeing the girls participating, they wanted to join.”

Still, Gruber said, the training the organization affords is what most students hope to pick up.

“You can learn about food science, horticulture, entomology and marine biology,” he said. “The public speaking opportunities are great because you have to make presentations in front of people all the time.”

Gruber wants to use his knowledge in missionary work after he graduates.

“I can teach people about crops and irrigation,” Gruber said.

Founded in 1928, Future Farmers of America has sought to make a difference through agricultural and leadership education. In 1988, however, the group changed its name to the National FFA Organization to reflect the growing diversity of agriculture.

Good move.

Agricultural, food and renewable energy positions in the U.S. economy will generate an estimated 54,400 annual openings for students with bachelor’s or higher degrees through 2015, according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Retirements in the industry, changing consumer preferences, environment public policy choices and global market shifts are boosting ag-related careers.

In fact, the Institute of Food and Agriculture reports that employers have expressed a preference for graduates from colleges of agriculture and life sciences, forestry and natural resources, and veterinary medicine.

Involvement in FFA makes a job candidate all the more attractive, officials say.

“Companies like our kids because they have a lot of the soft skills they’re looking for,” said Steve Hickey, Indiana FFA director. He estimates the group has more than 200 members in Allen County.

“If an employer sees FFA on a résumé, it immediately goes straight to the top of the stack.”

Communication, enthusiasm, attitude, professionalism and ability to work within a team are among the soft skills the Department of Labor recognizes.

So does 80/20 Inc. President Don Wood.

In March, his company announced an $11 million investment with a plan to hire nearly 100 people in the next three years. The Columbia City modular parts manufacturer will no doubt keep an eye out for FFA alums.

“They just have an attitude and work ethic that you don’t see every day,” Wood said. “They are bright, young people and are ambitious. Kids (in FFA) are conscientious, and you look for that.”

Such praise pleases Ron Kammeyer, Woodlan High School’s principal.

He came up through the ranks of FFA, and his office wall is plastered with banners and award plaques from his time in the organization.

“FFA teaches you to be comfortable in front of people and provides leadership training that you can’t get anywhere else,” Kammeyer said. “Students can take part in a food science lab, an ag computer lab and be involved in projects that have them competing against students from other schools.”

The seeds of interest for genetic engineering, agriculture app design, crop scouting and other careers are planted at FFA, he said.

“We’re talking about jobs paying anywhere from $35,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on how technical they are,” Kammeyer said. “There are so many opportunities now.”

And while learning to construct a tool box isn’t exactly on par with designing new farming machinery, “it starts here,” said Rod McKee, Woodlan’s agriculture teacher.

“It’s not like it used to be,” he said. “FFA isn’t about a bunch of kids learning how to work a farm. They’re learning how to grow the industry and make advancements to improve it. That’s exciting to a lot of students.”