FFA was destined to be a part of my life. Not just because I was a farmer’s daughter and considered my cows my best friends or because I’d rather bale hay than lay by the pool. No, FFA was in the cards because it’s what students did at my small high school. At one time, out of 140 students in grades 9 to 12, 126 of them were FFA members. Destiny.
The National FFA Organization (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) is probably most recognized by its signature blue corduroy jacket. And while some may consider it a fashion statement (I about died when I boarded a shuttle bus in college and sat next to an easy-going girl sporting her latest thrift-shop buy – an FFA jacket), many more consider it a symbol of hard work, perseverance and leadership.
The organization boasts a current membership of 557, 318 students in grades 7 to 12 with almost 7,500 chapters found in schools in the biggest cities and tiniest towns. In 1928, FFA officially came to be as the training ground for future farmers. Today the focus is on developing the whole person through real-life lessons found in agriculture. FFA isn’t your typical extra-curricular activity. Because of a federal charter issued in 1950, it became an integral part of agriculture curriculum offered in public high schools.
I was a painfully shy freshman who paid my FFA dues and didn’t know what to expect when Mr. Pettit, our ag teacher and FFA advisor, pulled me from study hall in November and asked if I’d like to go to the national FFA convention. I agreed before he told me we were leaving in two days for Kansas City, MO. That was my first FFA-induced anxiety attack.
My sophomore year, I had my second when Mr. Pettit told me I would participate in the public speaking contest.
I stumbled through a horribly boring 8 minute speech about wetlands, didn’t place and should have left significantly discouraged, but something drew me back the next year and I knocked it out of the park.
For some reason, I found comfort inside that blue jacket. It was as if every time I zipped it up all my insecurities melted away. Eventually, the anxiety disappeared.
I still consider the year I spent as the Illinois State Reporter one of the most memorable, significant, life-changing years of my life. Just 18 years old, I logged 37,000 miles on my mom’s Chevy Blazer, slept in one too many Super 8 motel rooms, made too many frantic “I’m lost!” phone calls to my poor dad, and bummed meals, clean laundry and basket-weaving lessons from some of the best parents in the state.
My fellow teammates witnessed me at my best and worst, and 16 years after we “retired” our blue jackets, I fondly recall those mundane lunches consumed at Rollie’s diner in Roanoke, IL. (Got to have the pie.)
Yesterday, through the generosity of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, I was able to donate $2,500 to the Illinois FFA Alumni Association for use to send more members outside their comfort zones to various FFA leadership camps and conferences.
I have not forgotten that introverted freshman girl who would rather have faded into the wall than stand front and center. I think about her every time I’ve taken the stage, so to speak, as a Face of Farming and Ranching.
20 years later and that blue jacket just keeps on teaching.