If you want to feel good about the future of agriculture, attend the National FFA Convention. Surrounded by young people, all proudly clad in blue corduroy jackets and fired up about farming and related careers, one can’t help but feel a renewed sense of optimism about this industry in which it isn’t always easy to find a silver lining through the dark clouds of down markets and declining farm numbers.
This year’s FFA convention in Indianapolis drew a record 67,000 attendees. The growing participation in this event, which includes a large career fair, is a sure indicator of the continued interest our young people have in agricultural careers. Whether it’s on their home farms, in communications and marketing, in engineering and technology or in business management, many of them see a bright future for themselves in this industry, and data from the National FFA Organization confirms just how much we all need them.
While farmers represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, that doesn’t mean the importance of the agriculture industry has waned in the slightest. Predictions are that the world’s population will reach 9 billion by 2050, and all of those people will need the food, shelter and clothing that only agriculture can provide. It takes 40 percent of the global workforce to accomplish this, but according to Purdue University, some 34,500 new graduates with food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environmental expertise will fill only 61 percent of an expected 57,900 annual job openings.
While most agriculture majors see promising futures for themselves — more than half say the industry presents diverse and rewarding career opportunities, and 65 percent are confident they’ll be hired within a year of graduation — many of those outside the industry still view agriculture as a lot of work for little pay and not requiring much education. That couldn’t be further from the truth, as more than 80 percent of agricultural jobs now call for more than a high school degree. However, less than 1 percent of college students pursue agriculture careers.
FFA is doing its part toward achieving the goal of feeding a growing world, by grooming the next generation for 255 unique agricultural careers through 47 national proficiency areas and 25 national career and leadership development events, from livestock and poultry judging to extemporaneous public speaking and the proper way to run a meeting.
Agriculture is changing and becoming more high-tech. At this year’s convention, higher-ups with the National FFA Organization suggested that FFA, in its 90th year of existence, must change with it, perhaps somewhat “dramatically.” While he didn’t elaborate, National FFA Adviser Steve Brown said changes in programming may be in store so the organization can continue to fill the pipeline with an educated workforce that’s ready to hit the ground running. This could mean the subtraction of some longtime programs and the addition of others, along with new degree requirements.
“It’s no longer cows, plows and sows,” he said. “Now, it’s drones, clones and technology.”
Change often comes hard, and Brown reassured the membership that “programs do not make an organization; people do.”
It’s true that FFA looks very different from how it did when it was formed in 1928, and that’s not a bad thing. Almost half a century after girls were first allowed to join FFA and more than 20 years after Chicago’s Corey Flournoy became the first African American to serve as National FFA president, Breanna Holbert, an agricultural education major at California State University at Chico, made history this year by being the first female African American elected to that prestigious post. Females now make up more than 40 percent of overall FFA membership.
Brown said FFA must continue to remove any barriers that may be preventing it from becoming more diverse and inclusive. Membership continues to be predominantly white, at 65 percent, and while urban participation has been growing, more than half of today’s FFA members still hail from rural chapters.
Change also could be coming for the National FFA Alumni, which exists to support local FFA and agricultural education programs. In comments made to delegates at the FFA Alumni annual meeting, Brown said the FFA Alumni should consider a name change to better reflect its openness to non-past FFA members. While the term “alumni” implies that all FFA Alumni members once wore the blue jacket, anyone who wants to support their local FFA members can join FFA Alumni, and that message needs to be made clearer.
By 2050, the world will add a population the size of China and India, and agriculture will have to produce more food than in the previous five centuries combined. There will be growing pains, no doubt, but thanks in no small part to FFA, we all can rest assured that the future of agriculture is in good hands. For proof, look no further than the National FFA Convention.