web analytics
Your Independent Alternative!

FFA: Off the Farm, Into the City

ST. LOUIS - Andre Hall lives in the city and has never plowed a field or fed a hog, but he proudly wears the blue jacket long associated with the organization once called Future Farmers of America.

Hall, 18, is among 30 high-school students who belong to the FFA chapter at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy here. FFA is part of the curriculum in the school's biotechnology "pathway" that's preparing him for a job in the agriculture industry.

"It's something a lot of people wouldn't expect for urban kids," says Hall, who has fallen in love with plants and last summer helped his family plant their first vegetable garden. He plans to become a horticulturist and is an intern at Monsanto, a St. Louis-based seed company.

Hall's favorite activity is working in the greenhouse that was built last year behind the school in a gritty neighborhood. "It's peaceful," he says. "I love learning how things work and then how to take care of them."

Founded in 1928, the National FFA Organization - it dropped "Future Farmers" from its name in 1988 - isn't just for farm kids anymore. About 34 percent of its more than 500,000 members live in cities or suburbs.

Values are universal

"We want to diversify our membership as well as the offerings of agricultural education beyond the farming image," says Larry Case, FFA's CEO. "The values that the FFA espouses are a good thing for youth anywhere."

FFA chapter President Stephanie Edwards' family was shocked when she said she was joining FFA. "They tease me about it," she says. "They don't understand that it's not about farming." Edwards, 18, plans to be a veterinarian.

At the Miller Academy, where students learn in classrooms and a lab about genetic engineering, seed germination and food biotechnology - fields where good jobs are available - the FFA is incorporated into classroom work and is an extracurricular activity. Students compete in agriculture sales contests, agronomy and poultry and also learn job-interview skills.

Other groups born in rural America are reaching into cities as family farms dwindle.

Many County Farm Bureaus have "Ag in the Classroom" programs in which farmers adopt urban classrooms. In Illinois, the Kankakee County Farm Bureau adopted a fourth-grade class at Chicago's Gray Elementary School. Farmers write to students about their work and visit the school, says bureau director Chad Miller.

Of the 6 million youths who participate in 4-H activities, just 12 percent live on farms. The organization's agriculture emphasis has changed, says Keith Nathaniel, 4-H youth development director in Los Angeles County, Calif., where there are 33 4-H clubs.

"For our own survival, we certainly had to broaden our appeal," Nathaniel says, "but we also realized that the things we did in the old days of 4-H . . . also taught leadership and helped kids develop life skills."

At Clyde C. Miller Career Academy, FFA isn't just about learning science and attending state and national conventions. It gives students who need a head start the skills they need to succeed, Principal Stephen Warmack says.

A motivational tool

About 94 percent of the school's 720 students are African-American, and 65 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By 10th grade, students are enrolled in one of about a dozen pathways, including culinary arts, health services and hospitality.

Job training and membership in clubs - such as FFA and Future Business Leaders of America - keep them motivated, Warmack says. More than 80 percent of graduates go to college or technical schools.

Stephanie Mohr, an FFA alumna who teaches biotechnology classes and is adviser to the FFA chapter, says competitions, conventions, internships and projects such as an annual plant sale give students knowledge - and confidence. "It fosters a feeling that they belong," she says.

Dannette Connor-Ward, a Monsanto scientist and biology professor who works with the FFA chapter at Miller Academy, says that when students put on the FFA jacket, "you can see a change in attitude. It's a sense of pride."

That's how Amenta Christian-Robertson, 16, an aspiring chemical engineer, feels. "It's great to be part of something that's very big," she says. She has learned a lot, and FFA will look good on her resume, she says, but "I joined for the jacket, too."

Amber Krafft, 16, says FFA is preparing her to study forensic science in college. "If you have an interest in something, you're going to put a lot of effort into it," she says.

When Cierra Fierce, 16, comes home from school wearing her FFA garb, her mom sometimes jokes, "Look at my farmer coming through the door," she says, "but I know she's proud of me." Fierce, a future veterinarian, says FFA makes her feel "like a real leader. I love it to death."

Comments are closed.