More new high school students are getting involved in agriculture this year than have in nearly a century.
In the past year, more than 17,000 new students joined the ag-focused FFA organization nationwide, an all-time high for the 83-year-old group. Locally, the roughly 40-member Columbus East and Columbus North high schools chapter has signed on 20 new freshmen this fall.
The Columbus club has been growing for the past three years. Previously, several leadership changes had led to minimal participation in events and activities.
Growing interest in agriculture is vital to Indiana, where more than 16 percent of the workforce is connected to food and forestry. The emergence of new Hoosier jobs in biofuels, clean energy production and other agricultural business opportunities will rely on an available workforce, experts say.
Founded in 1928, the formerly named Future Farmers of America organization represents education and training in more than 300 careers in the food, fiber and natural resources industries. Where early membership consisted almost exclusively of males who grew up on farms, the now leadership-oriented program is appealing to a broader audience. FFA operates chapters in 18 of the 20 largest U.S. cities, including New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia.
With more than 53,000 farms sitting on 15 million acres of farmland, Indiana is a leading producer of corn, soybeans, hogs, poultry, popcorn and tomato products, according to the Indiana Department of Agriculture. The industry contributes more than $25 billion to the state economy each year.
"The agriculture economy is doing well, and there is a definite interest in agriculture, especially career opportunities," said Mike Ferree, extension educator at the Bartholomew County Purdue Extension Office.
Ferree said the agriculture economy has held steady or grown, while many others have declined in the recession. Increasing interest in the sector bodes well not only for Indiana’s ability to fill emerging jobs in agriculture, but also for the state’s ability to keep pace with the food demands of a growing population.
Adviser Leslie Fairchild credits growth in the Columbus East and North chapters to active, excited members talking about the group with their peers.
That’s what made Columbus East sophomore Halie Mouser join last year.
"My neighbors are in it and would always tell me how fun it was and what they were doing. It just seemed like a lot of fun, so I just joined," she said.
Mouser grew up on a farm with cattle and crops, but her parents slowly have gotten out of farming and recently sold their last few cows. But the 16-year-old already was hooked — now heavily involved in FFA, planning a career in agriculture and recruiting others into the high school organization.
"The very first thing I always tell anybody is that you don’t have to be a farmer to be in FFA," she said with a laugh. "It’s a group with a lot of different people who are all from our own unique backgrounds."
Fairchild said growing FFA membership has a ripple effect: the more students who get excited and involved, the more others will join. That’s great, she said, because the group helps students become leaders and productive members of society.
Trevor Peters, a senior at Columbus North and president of the local FFA, said he’s glad to see so many new faces in the club.
Through FFA, he said he’s gained knowledge and experiences that will help him pursue a career in agriculture. The club also has given him skills in leadership and public speaking, skills that are transferable to any career the new FFA members choose.
"The new freshman class is really excited about agriculture, and that’s awesome," Peters said. "Because without agriculture, the world can’t work. Everything starts with ag."