Women Changing the Face of Ag Conference attendees listen to a speaker in Carbondale at SIU.

Many things in the agriculture industry are changing with the times. And many agree that changes in the National FFA Organization are for the better.

The organization continues to help shape many young people who are now working in fields, such as farming, research, technology and agronomy. The people entering those fields must keep up with fast-paced and changing world of agriculture.

The organization started out as Future Farmers of America in 1928, and was founded in Kansas City, Missouri.

Kevin Perkins, FFA adviser and agriculture teacher at Beecher City High School, said when the organization first formed, the idea was to provide students with Ag Clubs, something similar to 4-H.

But, in 1988, it was decided that the name change to simply FFA. At that time, the original name was too limiting to 'farming' and it wasn't the best fit for what had become far more broad in the overall agriculture industry.

Today, the young people in FFA are preparing for careers in areas, such as forestry, ag communications, horticulture and natural resources.

“I hate to use the cliché, but the days of 'cows, plows and sows' are gone,” Perkins said. “The FFA programs today are so different. We are using technology and science today that was never used 30 years ago.”

Members often wear their trademark blue jacket with gold FFA emblem when at Career Development Events, which give students training in areas, such as public speaking, parliamentary procedures and job interview skills, for examples.

“You'd be stunned about the success stories of these kids today,” Perkins said. “FFA will only get better, if we keep attracting dynamic young people, who want to live it and energize it. To me, the future looks bright for the organization.”

According to the National FFA Organization website, today's high school students go on to study in more than 300 agriculture-related careers – from agri-science and biotechnology to turf grass management.

FFA came from humble beginnings.

“Area high schools at that time wanted students to do more hands-on projects,” said Perkins, who is now in his 31st year at Beecher City school. “It was vocational training for them is how they put it.”

Perkins said Effingham High School formed one of the early chapters in Illinois and that district offered agriculture classes before many of the other schools in the area did.

“Now, all other schools in Effingham County have FFA, but Effingham no longer has it,” he said.

Besides changing the name and the focus to encompass many areas of study in the field of agriculture, girls were allowed to join in 1969, Perkins said.

Former Mattoon High School agriculture instructor and FFA adviser Ryan Wildman said things have changed so much for women in agriculture, including the admission for girls into FFA.

She is currently serving as the adviser for District 4 Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education Program, but will begin teaching agri-business courses at Lake Land College this fall. In all, she taught high school ag courses for 12 years – six in Tuscola, then six in Mattoon.

Wildman said the biggest misconception about careers in agriculture is that it always equates to farming. In reality, 25 percent of the U.S. population is employed in the ag industry, and about 2 percent of those people are actually farmers.

“I would tell my students that if agriculture was strictly about farming, I wouldn't have a job because I might only have two students,” she said. “We know that there are lots of opportunities for careers. There are over 300 careers related to agriculture for both men and women.”

FFA might get some of the credit for shaping these young career-minded people.

Wildman said today's world of agriculture brings plenty of opportunities for females. Once they find their niche, often it is in the leadership roles of organizations.

“I think the girls enjoy the hands-on learning,” said Wildman. “The icing on the cake is to be able to serve in a leadership role.”

According to Wildman, today's statistics show 38 percent of agriculture education students in Illinois are female. In FFA, on the national level, 47 percent are female.

“Girls were restricted from the earliest forms of FFA membership by delegate vote at the 1930 national convention,” according to the national FFA website. “The decision to deny female members for many years denied recognition of the key role women have played on farms and in agriculture, since the days of the American pioneers.”

Today, another transitioning with the times is that females represent more than 45 percent of the FFA membership and about half of all state FFA leadership positions. There are chapters in all 50 states representing 610,240 individual members in 7,665 chapters, according to the website.

As career opportunities come, Perkins said more women are entering the ag field.

“When I started teaching, there might have been a handful of female ag teachers,” said Perkins. “Today, females make up 40 to 50 percent of ag teachers in the high schools.”

Perkins said the number of females involved in agriculture today has grown over the years since FFA was formed.

“FFA teaches skills to allow these young people to be successful in their careers,” Perkins said. “When budget cuts (in the schools) eliminate these programs, it is a tragedy. It is like burning down a library.”

Dawn Schabbing can be reached at dawn.schabbing@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 138.

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