Dean Folkers is the Teacher Services Team Leader for The National Future Farmers of America Organization. With almost a half million members nationwide, the FFA is a major force in the preparation of America’s next generation of agricultural specialists to meet the challenges of increased population and ever-more-sophisticated technology.
What are some of the jobs involved in modern agriculture?
On our website* we list around 350 careers. Everything from Ag Production Specialists, which are the people who raise everything from traditional crops, to the financial side of things like marketing. We also have a section that’s focused on education, people who teach agriculture – one of the biggest of opportunities that we have. There are also jobs that deal with natural resources and the whole forestry, fishery and wildlife world, and the green houses and flora and flower world.
I could go on and on-you have the politics and policy area, people involved in the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as the state departments of agriculture, the universities that all have their agricultural research institutions.
Would you describe some of your educational programs?
Our instructional program has three main aspects. The first piece is classroom instruction. That is taught by one of the 11,000 “ag” teachers that we have across the country, primarily in high school and post-secondary agricultural education. They teach the kinds of skills, techniques, science applications, math, business, marketing, etc, that all relate to the agriculture industry.
The second leg is a hands-on job or internship placement experience, where students take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it while they are working for someone else or in an entrepreneurial setting. In1928, this might have been the raising of a livestock animal for a county fair, but these days these experiences can include biotechnology research, or students starting a landscape businesses, or working at golf courses as assistant groundskeepers.
The third leg focuses on things like developing leadership, personal growth, and career success. We have leadership conferences and a rewards and recognition program. You can be a member of the FFA from the ages of 12 -21, and some students have built businesses that are worth millions of dollars.
Tell us about your members.
Right now we are at an 18-year high, a little over 455,000 members nationwide. There are 11,000 agriculture teachers and 7,500 Ag programs, in a little under half of the public high schools in the country. Primarily we focus on grades 9-12, but we have middle school programs in several states and a collegiate membership.
Our members are one-third from the farm, one-third from the suburban or what we would call rural non-farm, and one-third from urban areas. That’s the beauty of our program, it’s locally driven but nationally supported.
Someone in Valentine, Nebraska, for example in the heart of the sand hills, where the main thing they do is raise beef cattle, would be raising cows and calves. They gain experience in things like embryo technology and artificial insemination, and all kinds of technology that help enhance productivity.
However, if you go to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, which is basically in the center of Chicago, there will be more of a biotechnology focus. They have students who receive millions of dollars of scholarships each year to study the connectivity of science as it relates to agriculture.
What’s the best way to prepare someone for a career in agricultural technology?
We are seeing a tremendous amount of co-teaching or team teaching between science and agriculture departments, because students can learn hard science, and then go apply the science using agriculture mechanisms. The traditional hard science courses, like biology, chemistry and physics can be matched with a biotechnology class, which covers some of the basic skills, like isolating DNA. In addition, there is the balancing of the the science of biotechnology with the ethics of its application. And it’s also important to understand the political and economic aspects of agriculture: we need to be consciously aware of societal expectations of cheap, safe, healthy food, how do we get there and continue to meet the demands of a growing world.
At the middle and high school level, you have to keep in mind that the basis of agriculture is science. It’s biology, it’s chemistry, and it’s physics. So whether you call it biochemistry or agriculture or animal production or plant production or ag-mechanics, what you are essentially doing is learning how to apply math and science concepts and skills in a real-life setting.
Thank you very much.