Nov 122011
future farmers towering over sea of people

Image by donielle via Flickr

F.F.A. is the largest vocational student group in the country

Gamaliel Rizzo grew up in a brownstone apartment in Brooklyn and is studying to become a doctor. Still, he spent his high school years learning how to raise chinchillas, goats and alpaca and growing radishes, sunflowers and cilantro. He even worked on a dairy farm in the summer, all as a member of the Future Farmers of America.

Although the nation has shifted ever further from its agrarian roots, the organization is thriving. Begun 83 years ago and now known simply as the F.F.A., it is the largest vocational student group in the country, with more than half a million members and still growing.

Although farm employment accounts for less than 1 percent of all jobs in the United States, the Agriculture Department says that one in 12 jobs is agriculture-related. And during the deep downturn and rocky recovery, these workers have actually fared better than most.

That gives the F.F.A. a calling card as an organization that actually prepares students for viable careers. About 70 percent of its members live in rural areas, and 19 percent live in small towns. The fastest growing segment, however, is in urban and suburban areas, now making up 10 percent of the membership.

“You would think that something called Future Farmers of America would have come to a screeching halt by at least the 1960s in most parts of the country,” said Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a historian at Iowa State University. “What amazes me is the degree to which they have made themselves relevant when by all expectations they should have simply ceased to exist.”

The group has succeeded in part by expanding well beyond agricultural science while also broadening that field to include genetics, logistics, landscape gardening and alternative fuels.

Now, the group’s chapters aim to teach students leadership and job readiness as much as the finer points of cattle care or corn fertilization. Mr. Rizzo said that although he learned about farm life, he spent more time honing skills like public speaking and developing business budgets, which he believes will improve his job prospects someday.

“A lot of these sales tactics will help,” said Mr. Rizzo, 18, who graduated from the John Bowne High School in Queens last summer and is now a freshman at Rutgers.

“Medicine is more of a business,” he added. “And to get patients in this economy you have to understand the market and how it works.”

Last month, he joined about 45,000 teenagers clad in blue corduroy jackets with yellow stitching for the F.F.A.’s annual convention here. Between panel discussions like “Learning to Lead,” “Banking Tips for Students,” and “How Many Lawyers Does It Take?” they competed in events to identify cuts of meat and species of plants, along with contests of extemporaneous speaking and presenting business marketing plans.

At a time when many employers complain about the lack of basic communication and interpersonal skills among job candidates, the F.F.A. emphasizes work on group projects and old-fashioned presentations in essays and speeches at many of its events. Even in the purely agricultural contests like the judging of livestock, students defended their positions before the judges as if they were trial lawyers in court.

“The common misconception is that we are trying to teach our kids to be farmers and rooting, tooting cowboys,” said Greg Rystad, an agricultural teacher and F.F.A. faculty adviser from El Paso, Tex., who had stopped by the booth of the biotechnology firm Syngenta to observe a biochemist testing corn leaves for proteins that would repel worms. “We are training professionals, even if they are not in the agriculture field.”

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