They are eager to learn and getting ready to lead. They are the members of the National FFA Organization. Fewer and fewer are from farms, but their ranks are growing … a lot.
Millennials are often generations removed from any direct connection to farming. Yet, record numbers of young people are putting on iconic, blue corduroy FFA jackets, as the organization has become a pipeline for highly attractive careers.
Membership in FFA reached 610,240 in 2014—that’s an increase of 30,000 in just two years. While the United States lost more than 100,000 farms between 2007 and 2012, FFA grew by 60,000 members. Increasingly, the organization is drawing membership from non-farm and urban youth. This growth outpaces other youth organizations, including the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
FFA has grown by more than 200,000 since membership took a nosedive in the 1980s when the number of U.S. farms also declined dramatically. That low point pushed the organization into survival mode. In 1988, FFA changed its name to reflect the increasing diversity of agricultural careers: Future Farmers of America became the National FFA Organization.
Since that time, FFA has expanded beyond “cows, sows and plows” to help those ages 12-21 explore and prepare themselves for more than 300 agricultural careers, ranging from vocational agriculture to law, business, marketing, life sciences, food science, communications, education, and other fields. FFA leadership opportunities and agricultural skills testing are now integral to a well-rounded, modern agricultural education program.
One of the greatest needs in modern agriculture is cultivating future leaders who can navigate the complexities of farm management, business, and food and agricultural policy. FFA has become widely recognized throughout the agriculture and food industries, and by youth, for its comprehensive leadership training programs.
FFA is not alone in increasing relevance for the next generation of agricultural leaders. 4-H has become the largest youth organization in the United States, with 6.3 million members. More than half (57 percent) come from large urban areas, inner cities and suburbs. The 4-H program scope has expanded as well, from focusing on agricultural and home-making skills for rural youth, to cultivating leadership, developing career skills, maintaining global competitiveness, and promoting civic involvement and a healthy society.
A recent Tufts University study concluded that 4-H members are four times more likely than the rest of their peers to contribute to their communities during grades 7-12; twice as likely to be civically active in grades 8-12; and twice as likely to participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs during non-school hours in grades 10-12. By their senior year, 4-H girls are three times as likely to take part in extra-curricular science programs.
Trends in FFA and 4-H dispel many myths about career and education opportunities and youth interest in agriculture. These myths include the notion that rural children will not pursue higher education, except for vocational training; agricultural career opportunities are limited for all youth; no efforts are being made to bring agriculture into the classroom; ag-related youth organizations are dying; and rural people lack the leadership skills to deal with complex issues.
While the number of farms is decreasing in the United States and fewer young people are likely to return to their family farms or actively engage in production agriculture, other trends continue to point to a bright outlook for youth interested in agricultural, food and life sciences.
U.S. farm incomes reached record levels in recent years, stimulating growth in other agribusiness products. As a result, agribusiness and others involved in life sciences have been recruiting heavily from colleges and universities. With a brighter job outlook, undergraduate enrollment in agricultural programs increased 20 percent from 2006 to 2011, up to 146,000 students. Most colleges and universities report that this growth is continuing.
The need to potentially triple food production to feed 9 billion people by 2050, while using less land, improving sustainability, and reducing environmental impact, will require keen management skills, advanced science and technology, and the ability to navigate policy issues.
Addressing these needs will require more than classroom education: It requires leadership. FFA and 4-H are building a new corps of young leaders in agriculture by the thousands.
Robert Giblin writes, speaks and consults about agricultural and food industry issues, policies and trends.