ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Josh Friesen, a Hillsboro High School senior, has been a member of FFA all four years and has taken almost every class offered through the schools’ agricultural education curriculum.
What’s so unusual about that?
Friesen has never lived on a farm and has no plans to farm when he’s done with his schooling.
The truth is, Friesen’s experience isn’t the least bit unusual in the contemporary world of FFA, but it does represent a significant shift from the focus of FFA from 20 years ago.
Bottom line: FFA isn’t just for farm kids anymore. In fact, they’re in the minority among students in the HHS program.
“I probably have 20 to 30 percent of my students on a farm-and whether parents get all their income off the farm is the next question,” said Kristi Esquibel, FFA sponsor and instructor of agricultural education at HHS. “Very few would fall in that category anymore.”
For the record, even the name of the organization has changed. “Future Farmers of America” was officially dropped in 1988. The initials FFA stand for…nothing, Esquibel said.
“The reason they chose ‘FFA’ is simply because of the trademark and also the familiarity of it,” she said. “They talked about changing the name to ‘Future Agriculture’ or something, but they decided just to make it that ‘FFA’ doesn’t stand for anything.”
Rather than train boys for a career in farming, as was the case 20 years ago, the new FFA invites girls and boys from cities and farms to focus on leadership development and “career development events,” which is the preferred nomenclature these days for what used to be called “judging contests.”
To mirror the shift in the national organization, agriculture-related classes in schools such as HHS have a broader scope and a retooled content.
Instead of talking about agriculture through the grid of a career on the farm, Esquibel said she tries to expose a general population of young people to agriculture-based principles and concepts that they can use whether they live in a rural area or an urban area.
“My Animal Science class has very few students from a farm background,” Esquibel said. “But if they’re going to work for Orselin or Tractor Supply or Country General or the feedmill out here, they’re going to have to sell feed.
“Or if you walk into a store to buy dog food and they have one that is 12 percent protein and one that’s 22 percent protein, and you have a 10-year-old dog, which dog food do you buy?” she asked.
Most people simply would buy the one that costs the most, she said, assuming it’s the better choice because of the higher protein and higher price.
“But you could buy the one that’s a little lower in protein because your dog is older and doesn’t need that much protein,” she said. “Those are things I try to teach a little bit more.”
A related aim is to prepare young people for jobs that may not be based on the farm but are definitely agriculture related.
“I believe strongly that even though not as many families live on farms, in this area income is based upon agriculture,” Esquibel said.
“In my Small Animal Science class, we’re doing a section on dogs,” Esquibel said. “I told my students a doctor who lives three miles from me is a big field-trial guy. He sells $2,000 dogs and made a ranch into a dog farm.
“I got out a copy of Pointer Magazine and showed them where they could go to a field day on training your dog for five days for $995,” she said. “They don’t think about that as being agricultural-but it is. There are people who make a living doing things with dogs.”
Another aim of agriculture education is simply to elevate basic farm knowledge among young people who, even though they might live on a farm, haven’t had the hands-on exposure of farm kids 20 years ago.
“It’s amazing the number of kids who live on a wheat farm but don’t know what wheat looks like,” Esquibel said. “It’s amazing how many kids who live on a farm think a chicken lays three or four eggs a day…. Those are the type of things we all need to know.”
One of the draws of FFA and contemporary agriculture classes is the hands-on activities.
For example, Martin Rhodes, a semi-retired electrician living in Hillsboro, has been coming to Esquibel’s Ag Mechanics class to talk about simple wiring techniques.
“There’s a lot of repairs you can do yourself if you know the basics,” Esquibel said.
“If you buy a cat or a dog, you need to know about worms and health care of those animals,” she added. “So there are kids who come into ag who don’t know that we cover those things.”
Hands-on activities and an emphasis on animals hooked Josh Friesen, who hopes to be a veterinarian technician when he enters the work force.
“I will be dealing with animals and that was a major part of getting into FFA,” he said. “They deal with a lot of animals and the study of them. So I’ve enjoyed that.”
Friesen said his peers at HHS are attracted to FFA and agriculture classes by the wide array of topics.
“It’s their curiosity about things they don’t know,” he said. “It does look kind of intriguing.”