In the Future, More Than Farmers

By Mary Schulken — July 07, 2010 3 min read
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Larry Case is what you’d expect as the nation’s top agricultural education official. He’s a Missouri farm boy who, by his own admission, is a talker. Yet he has no trouble getting to the point about what agricultural education and the National FFA Organization must do to draw students in a changing world.

“If you don’t have community support and rigorous education today, you are out of business,” he said.

Case, 67, will step down as national FFA advisor in January. He has led that iconic rural education organization since 1984, guiding it through an era when fundamental shifts in both agriculture and education threatened its survival had it not widened its focus beyond farming. He’s grown to be such a fixture that the House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring him in June.

It’s easy to see why: He has been a part of FFA—formerly Future Farmers of America—since high school and is passionate about its purpose and role in today’s schools.

I had a conversation with Case recently about FFA, agricultural education, the changes he’s seen and the changes he expects. He’s old-fashioned, and an unabashed cheerleader. Yet he zeros right in on why FFA and agricultural education might draw record numbers of students at a time when “farm life” and farming are thought of as bygones. In particular, I liked his answer to the second question below.

First, though, check out the FFA archive video on the National FFA Organization history page and see how many U.S. presidents you can identify.

How many students are involved in the National FFA Organization now, and how does that compare to the past?

It happens that we have set a new record this year for enrollment, at more than 520,000. In comparison, the height year before was 509,000 sometime in the later 1970s.

Why do you think FFA is still relevant to students today?

First, I think it’s interesting from a standpoint that urban kids find it relevant, too. And I think I know the reason. When I was young, I had a blue corduroy jacket that had my name on it and the name of my school, I had an FFA pin, and I had a manual. I looked at that manual and read it and I looked at that jacket with my name on it and said, “Me, little old farm boy me, is a part of something bigger.”

I don’t think basic human nature changes from that standpoint. When you get a sense of belonging, a sense of achievement and self-worth, it’s appealing. I think FFA creates community, and think that’s important. Kids get excited about it, and it makes their education fun when they can work with their hands and get rewarded for it.

How has the role of agricultural education changed in schools in your tenure?

When I started at the national level, in 1984, agriculture was going through a depression. Century farms were being lost. It was tough times for agriculture, tough times for agricultural education. The response to this was a shift in the curriculum. We added emphasis in ag science and over time started viewing the curriculum as more comprehensive—food resources, ag science and technology.

We got diversity in the curriculum, and it opened it up to get some other people interested. Now it is reflecting more a pathway approach—students choose pathways such as food science, ag finance and animal science. It is a food system we have in this country today, not an agriculture system.

What is the breakdown of women and men in FFA today? How has that changed?

About 44-47 percent, or approaching one-half, of those involved are now women. Women are something like 75 percent of those who hold leadership positions nationwide. That’s all happened, of course, since 1969 when women were first admitted.

Is it difficult to find teachers willing to be advisors and ones with enough knowledge about farm-related things to lead a group?

We have always suffered a little from a teacher shortage, and that’s another place where the women have stepped up. A lot of women are ag teachers—my daughter happens to be one of them. We are somewhat even (with numbers of available teachers and jobs) now and what that does is stop us from growing.

What will FFA need to do to stay relevant in the next 30 years?

You have to be enrolled in ag-ed in some form to be in FFA. The key, then, has always been an attractiveness in the local program, the ability of instructors to build a program that’s relevant to kids and to the community. I still think we will continue to grow into more rigorous instruction around the sciences. We will need curriculum programs that help kids move directly and simultaneously into some form of college or community college, because that additional training has become a necessity. Part of what you may be seeing is a blurring of the lines between the high school education and the secondary education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.