Opinion

Policymakers Should Invest in America’s Future: Its Youth

So much of the conversation around food and farming revolves around the future. How will we feed a growing population and how do we balance that with agriculture’s environmental impact? How do we make healthy food accessible to all people? Who will be doing the actual farming?

Often missing from that conversation is the voice of the future: America’s students who will join the workforce in the next decade. That voice is embodied by the student members of our organization, the National FFA.

We are probably most famous for the hundreds of long-sleeved blue corduroy jackets that pop up around Washington, D.C., every year around this time. They’re actually pretty comfortable, we promise!

In fact, our members are gathered in D.C. this week to send a clear and resounding message to policymakers: We need their support for policies and programs that invest in young people, not just for the sake of farmers, but for the future global competitiveness and economic security of our nation.

Our message may seem lofty. After all, we’re teenagers. Many of us can’t even drive. Some of us have yet to cast our first vote. And if they think about us at all, many people probably view FFA as what we have historically been: The Future Farmers of America.

It’s true that our roots are in agriculture. What most don’t know is that today’s FFA is bigger — much bigger.

Our almost 650,000 student members, and an enormous network of FFA alumni, are working on issues that run the gamut from hunger and global food insecurity, conservation and water quality, animal welfare, pollinators, STEM, urban agriculture, entrepreneurship and everything in between.

From collectively earning more than $4 billion every year through hands-on work experiences to soil moisture mapping and precision agriculture using drones and other technology to cutting edge research to inventing brand-new products that improve people’s everyday lives to wildlife conservation at an FFA chapter at a zoo (really), our members are doing some really cool things — all before the age of 18.

As an organization, we are incredibly diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography, socioeconomic status, farming methods and future careers.

For example, while agriculture is typically thought of as a rural industry, FFA membership is anything but. One of the fastest growing areas of our membership is in urban communities. The Chicago School for Agricultural Sciences, John Bowne High School in Queens and W.B. Saul High School in downtown Philadelphia are some of the largest FFA chapters in the nation. In fact, 19 of the 20 largest cities have FFA programs.

Why should you care?

For one thing, a food supply chain that reflects the diversity of our population is critical if we want to support an equitable, sustainable food system.

And while not all farm issues are rural issues (and vice-versa), FFA is helping to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas. FFA gives young people from different geographies and backgrounds a common cause to rally around and gives rural and urban students alike valuable exposure and insight into the challenges their peers face.

Finally, although some do, the vast majority of FFA members don’t grow up to be farmers. Many of us take on highly technical jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Because of the changing makeup of our membership, FFA is preparing young people from traditionally under-represented groups to excel in those careers. That’s important when — in addition to the existing STEM gap — STEM occupations are projected to grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024, compared to 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.

Literally millions of young people are prepared for STEM jobs and careers in food and farming, thanks to the training we received through FFA and agricultural education classes in our schools.

What can policymakers do to make sure this progress continues? Reauthorize a strong, timely Farm Bill that includes support for new and beginning farmers and school-based agricultural education. Amend the tax code to exclude from gross income the first $5,000 on the property raised or produced by students. Continue to support the Perkins Act and other legislation that support career and technical education.

But most importantly, engage with us. Help us help you make the policies and programs that impact us work even better. We’re future voters and we want to be civically engaged.

And remember: In just a few years, we’ll fill some of the most challenging — and critically important — jobs that keep America fed, fueled, clothed and, most importantly, competitive.

 

The FFA national officer team includes National FFA President David Townsend of Delaware, Victoria Harris of Florida, DeShawn Blanding of South Carolina, Valerie Earley of Minnesota, Ashley Willits of New York and Trey Elizondo of Texas.

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