FFA plants seeds of leadership, service for Missouri students

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COLUMBIA - When 33 farm boys from around the U.S. gathered in Kansas  City in 1928 to form the Future Farmers of America, most of the horsepower in agriculture came from actual horses - not tractors. The only "apples" they knew were the ones that grew on trees, not the iPhones and MacBooks of today. GPS technology, genetically engineered crops and self-driving tractors weren't even seeds in the minds of inventors.

Fast forward to today: FFA now boasts more than 600,000 members nationwide, with more than 30,000 members in Missouri. The organization, an agricultural education and leadership development club for high school students, works to stay true to its agricultural roots. But in recent years, it's continued to branch out into STEM education, exposing students not just to fields of corn and soybeans, but to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, all of which enhance modern agriculture.

"Today, anything really corresponds to agriculture," said Ozark FFA member Codey Powell. "Marketing, science, technology, education, everything."

FFA students are also expected to maintain a Supervised Agricultural Experience program, a self-directed learning experience that can center on a research project, an agriculture-related job or a student's own business venture. 

In 2016, Missouri FFA members earned nearly $50 million through their SAE programs.

For her SAE project, Carrollton FFA member Allie Lock raises beef cattle, conducts scientific research on plant-based water filtration systems and works for a local radio station.

Lock said her agriscience research takes science concepts from the classroom and makes them applicable in real life.

"I've had physical science, biology and chemistry - traditional science classes," Lock said. "They were really informative, but they weren't that hands-on. With agriscience, it's actually you doing the science experimentation, you coming up with the project, you writing the research paper. You gain a lot of analytical thinking and you grow as a researcher."

Missouri FFA state officer Hunter Kay of Fredericktown said competing in FFA public speaking contests will give him an edge as he enters college and a career.

"Being able to speak in front of people, being able to communicate the words that I want to communicate well, it'll help me out a lot in a job," Kay said.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 60,000 new jobs in agriculture open in the U.S. each year. However, there are are only enough qualified graduates in agriculture degree programs to fill two-thirds of those jobs.

About half of those jobs are in management or business, and one-quarter are in STEM-related fields. Another 12 percent of job openings are in education, communication and governmental services.

Those are promising statistics for today's FFA members, since many of them plan on pursuing careers in agriculture, but not traditional farming.

"I would kind of like to work for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, going around to different countries, talking about ag policies with them," Lock said.

The National FFA Organization offers more than $2 million in scholarships annually to members pursuing higher education and career paths in agriculture and related fields.