Helping prepare the youth for agricultural-related careers.

With more than 610,000 members in 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the Future Farmers of America (FFA) is focused on shaping the next generation of agricultural leaders.

FFA, founded in 1928, is not strictly open to future farmers, members are also future doctors, engineers, chemists and many other different career paths.

With three levels –local, state and national—members choose which type of memberships they prefer. FFA helps members with networking to farm management to help securing jobs for a career.

What is it?

The organization has more than 7,665 chapters and is geared to help and prepare students for careers in agriculture, agribusiness and other agriculture-related occupations. Just like with any organization, there are a few challenges along the way. Agriculture is more than just farming; it requires significant academics and has a high social value, said Juleah Tolosky, New York FFA Executive Director at Cornell University.

“A lot of people don’t understand agriculture and don’t prioritize them for students,” she said. “We have programs for students with devoted, passionate agricultural teachers but perhaps down the hall, families or other people don’t see the value for agriculture.”

Read more: Successful Generational Farming

What do members do?

Members have the opportunity to join social events hosted by the organization, travel to conventions and even speak at them. There’s no set activities; members choose to do what interests them.

For Tolosky, her days are filled with developing programming and events for 4,000 students in New York State while still teaching and mentoring.

“Teenagers are my favorite age group,” Tolosky said. “It’s really rewarding to work with them and see what kind of talents and skills they possess.”

With all the available programs and events, money can be a hurdle at times.

“Working with the FFA, we want to make sure students have access to what they need and that money isn’t a barrier,” said Julie Tesch, Executive Director at the American Farm Bureau. “However, it costs money to attend contests and even purchase jackets, so everyone needs to do a better job supporting local chapters so all the members’ needs are met and no one is excluded.”

Sponsors make it happen thanks to the hundreds of sponsors from the national level like the American Farm Bureau to state and local levels, Tesch mentioned. FFA alumni also host local fundraisers such as silent and live auctions to help raise money, she said, as she was the previous Executive Director for the National FFA Alumni Association in Indianapolis, Indiana.

How do you join?

Want to develop leadership skills? Need to develop a personalized vision? An agricultural school program is the first step in joining.

“My piece of advice would be to go into it with an open mind and try everything that you can, whether or not you have a background in agriculture,” Tesch said. “Getting involved and trying your hand in everything from judging livestock to public speaking is important.”

Even if there isn’t an agricultural program in a middle school or high school, there are still opportunities to join. Take Tesch, who got started at the University of Minnesota as a volunteer for the FFA in food science competitions.

Students don’t even have to study agriculture; they just need to have interests in food, nutrition and becoming leaders, she said.

“There is a good mix of students, especially since less than 2 percent are on production farms,” Tesch said.

Tolosky helps high school freshman and sophomores get a head start in a program that takes about 50 to 60 high school freshman and sophomores throughout New York State to visit agricultural colleges. This five day trip encompasses agricultural diversity to food science.

“I urge anyone who is interested who doesn’t have an agriculture program in school to speak up,” said Tolosky.

Read more: Supporting our Future Leaders

What are the benefits?

According to Tesch, supporting FFA members is rewarding in three different ways. The first is watching them grow as a person and a leader.

“Not everyone may necessarily go into an agriculture career,” she said. “However, leadership skills grow and that’s how they can find their place.”

Secondly, it professionally develops students professionally and thirdly, it encourages younger students to go into agriculture.

“It’s solid that over half a million students are passionate about it,” Tesch said.

The organization offers more than $1 million in scholarships to members each year, not counting the local scholarships awarded by smaller organizations.

However, the job doesn’t just stop there. Getting an agriculture program in school seems like an investment because it is, but it reaps benefits, Tolosky said.

“We need community members talking to schools and telling them that agricultural education matters,” Tolosky said. “We encourage all local agriculture teachers or parents to advocate getting agriculture features in schools because it benefits the students with leadership qualities and employability.”