I got a chance to spend a half day at this year’s Iowa FFA Leadership Conference in Ames, Iowa on April 10. I arrived at Hilton Colosseum at approximately 1:00 pm. The first thing I noticed were the number of buses in the parking lot. I was a town boy in a county seat town of about 4,000 people growing up and although our school had a chapter, I had very little exposure to it. When I walked into the building it reminded me of the atmosphere one finds at the state high school basketball tournaments – High school students all over the place.
Upon my arrival, I met up with Darrin Cline, Annual Fund & Communication Manager for the FFA Foundation. He took me on a tour of the Conference covering both Hilton Colosseum and the Scheman Building at The ISU Center. Workshops, team meetings, rehearsals, competitions and vendor booths filled both venues. So many people it was difficult to get through the aisles.
After my tour, I spent about an hour watching the Biotechnology Career Development Event (CDE). The CDEs are competitions between different FFA chapters from around the state. I believe there are over 30 different CDE competitions including such diverse subjects as Ag Broadcasting, Floriculture, Poultry and Job Interview. The knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the Biotechnology CDE was quite advanced and the 25 teams competing were highly competitive. You could tell these students had prepared months or even years for this event.
Next it was onto the First General Session on the Hilton Main Stage, where there were approximately 5,000 people and 3,500 FFA members. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought I was at a rock concert. It began with a cute video production by the current FFA officers but followed with a laser light show and pyrotechnics while officers and other dignitaries were introduced. After that it settled down a bit but the students that then spoke showed the exuberance of a preacher at an old-time revival meeting. I listened to the Lieutenant Governor’s speech but needed to leave shortly after.
I certainly was surprised by the Leadership Conference but just as surprising is the growth and vitality. I certainly would have thought that with the decline in the number of farmers and of rural population in general, FFA would be declining in size, as well. Not so! There are nearly 15,000 high school student members and 232 chapters in Iowa and it’s expanding, adding new chapters each year and perhaps not where you might think. Over 40% of all students in Iowa FFA live in town and many of those live in metropolitan areas. For instance, six schools that have FFA programs also have over 1,000 ninth-twelfth grade students: Des Moines Central Campus*, Linn-Mar, Muscatine, Southeast Polk, Waukee and Dowling.
While at the conference, I spoke with Barb Lemmer, agri-science teacher at Linn-Mar, Marion Iowa. I asked her how she interests city kids to join FFA. She explained that you don’t talk to them about farming. You talk to the kids that like science or business and explain what they can do projects on genetics, agronomy, ecology, sales or marketing. That piques their interest. Once some join and tell the others what they are doing others join.
As the title of this article indicates, “it’s not your father’s FFA.”
* Des Moines Central Campus’ programs in Downtown Des Moines are available to students from any of the district’s five high schools.
Written by Jude Conway, Executive Director