Cream of the CropMarch 6, 2020
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Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
Students to her left flocked to a pair of sheep. Those to her right ogled a rabbit, a group of chicks and a turkey. In the distance, two baby goats with tiny outstretched tongues cried and playfully rammed their heads into each other, feet away from a horse that neighed and trotted in a circle.
Hailey Sweeney wasn’t expecting to wind up between so many animals she’d never seen in person when she walked into Northeast Dubois High School earlier that morning. But there she stood, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, surrounded by a makeshift farm.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said a smiling Hailey, a junior who recently moved to Jasper from the Northwest Indiana city of Hobart.
That educational petting zoo perfectly encapsulated National FFA Week, which took place at the end of February. The seven-day celebration gave chapters the chance to shine a spotlight on their members and give back to their communities.
It also allowed youth and adult leaders the chance to repeatedly dispel one myth that has been misattributed to the organization — formerly known as Future Farmers of America — for decades.
“Once I’d gone to FFA more, I realized it wasn’t just all about cows and plows,” said Grant Gogel, a junior who is president of the Heritage Hills High School chapter. “You had more leadership stuff and bonding stuff with the community. It’s a lot more than just farming.”
According to the national organization’s website, “FFA develops members’ potential and helps them discover their talent through hands-on experiences, which give members the tools to achieve real-world success.”
The letters still stand for Future Farmers of America, but the official name changed to the National FFA Organization in 1988 to reflect the growing diversity and opportunities in the agriculture industry.
“Members are future chemists, veterinarians, government officials, entrepreneurs, bankers, international business leaders, teachers and premier professionals in many career fields,” the group’s website reads.
FFA students in Dubois and Spencer counties recognize that farming is synonymous with the swath of land that stretches across the two counties. Agriculture has intertwined itself in the lifestyles of many of the members who live inside that stretch. They grew up alongside crop fields and dairy barns — or have family members who own and operate them.
But not all have that connection. And those who don’t have farming backgrounds are still encouraged to join FFA.
It can help break them out of their shells and find an identity in a positive atmosphere that sets them on a solid path to the future, while connecting them to lifelong friends.
“I’ve learned so much more than leadership. I’ve learned how to be a better person for myself and others,” said Ella Goeppner, a junior in the Jasper High School chapter. “And you meet so many new people when you go on trips. I’ve met people from across the country, and I still talk to those people on a daily basis. And I think it’s just a really good way to get to know people.”
The teens compete in career development contests that focus on soils, forestry, small engines and crops. They take part in leadership development events that hone in on subjects like public speaking. And they take ownership in their groups by organizing community gatherings that highlight their skills.
During FFA week, they become teachers and advocates for a club that has shaped them into promising young adults. And they do it in a way that makes the gatherings feel playful and easygoing.
Some, but not all, of the week’s highlights are described below.
Agriculture fairs brought Northeast Dubois high schoolers into the corporation’s elementaries for afternoons of learning. FFA members showed the kids how to shear sheep with shaving cream and a plastic spoon; taught them how to plant seeds using plastic foam cups; and even let them milk an artificial cow, whose utters were made of rubber tubes.
“We live in a rural area, and so they’re either on a farm, or they’re surrounded by farms,” said Celestine Elementary fourth-grade teacher Christine Betz. “So it’s good for them to understand about their farm and their neighbors ... and then hopefully it might interest them [in] careers that would go into an [agricultural] career.”
Shortly before Hailey arrived at the Northeast Dubois petting zoo, two staff members were nominated to lock lips with a piglet in front of crowds of onlooking students as part of a fundraiser for the school’s FFA. Athletic Director Terry Friedman was one of the lucky kissers.
“All I can say is, the pig had very good hygiene,” he joked after the smooch. “And it seemed to have a really clean snout. So it wasn’t quite as traumatic as I thought the experience would be.”
Dodgeball teams from across the region converged in one of Heritage Hills’ gymnasiums for an epic tournament that pitted area FFA chapters against each other and brought them together. Sunflower seeds also shot through the air during the school’s annual spitting competition.
That group’s advisor, Paul Steinmetz, explained that FFA has morphed in line with agricultural trends and technology over the years. Fewer and fewer students are what he referred to as “traditional farm kids,” or those who call farms home. Still, the organization finds ways to connect them to the industry.
In short, farmers are definitely necessary. But so are many, many others in the field.
“We also need plant geneticists to make the next crop of GMO crops to be able to help feed people,” Steinmetz explained as dodgeballs whizzed around him. “We need engineers to design the new equipment. We need food scientists to change the raw food product into something consumers can use. You could just go down the list.”
Appealing to that next generation that will one day hold those jobs is a key goal of National FFA Week. One day during the week, students who attend Greater Jasper elementary schools wandered through a miniature carnival set up at Jasper High School. It featured a knock-‘em-down can game, ring toss challenge, tic-tac-toe board, and a petting zoo, much like the one that took shape at Northeast Dubois.
Jasper’s program has experienced a blossoming revival in recent years. The first-time, fair-like event was the next step in its evolution. Christian Mehne, who is a junior and serves as president of the JHS group, described the educational gathering as a way of planting an FFA seed in the little ones’ minds.
“When they come to high school, now, maybe they’ll have this memory in their head,” he said.
At Southridge, the FFA chapter organized the school’s first Jeep show. A two-hour delay and frigid temperatures limited participation to just three vehicles. But those who braved the bitter cold spoke highly of the organization and what it means to them.
“It’s something different,” Adam Jochem, a Southridge junior, said of the group as he stood beside his mud-coated Jeep Wrangler. “A lot of people don’t have this to go to and get together with friends in the morning and have a good time. I think it’s just a great experience to do.”
Tractors and trucks lined winding roads when kids kicked them into gear and drove them into parking lots at schools across the area to show them off. At Forest Park Junior-Senior High School, junior Kaylee Uebelhor woke up hours before the first Friday bell to bring one of her family’s tractors through the dark countryside.
She’s been behind the wheel of the pieces of machinery since she was 10 years old, back when her feet could barely touch the pedals.
“He always told me, ‘Drive it like you stole it,’” Kaylee said with a laugh, recalling that message from her father, Jesse.
She loves farming and the knowledge that comes with it. Most people don’t know where their food comes from. She does, and she is proud to show off her lifestyle and educate others.
“Working on equipment isn’t the greatest or best part of it, but in the end, you just feel proud,” Kaylee said. “Because you are feeding the world. People don’t understand how dedicated [farmers] are.”
She would like to pursue a degree in agricultural business after she graduates. Others plan to study agricultural science, technology and education. Some want to come home and take over the family farm.
Local FFA students don’t have all their eggs in one basket. And while they still have plenty of time to decide how they will sprout as adults, they’re part of an organization that is nurturing them into future leaders that will one day be the cream of the crop.
“It changed me a lot,” said Kaitlyn Staats, a once-shy freshman at Northeast Dubois who has gained confidence through FFA. “And it’s only my first year, so there’s still a lot more.”