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It isn't just about cows: FFA changing

It's not your father's FFA anymore.

The same organization that started 77 years ago, teaching high school students about farming, has widened its horizons to fit today's teens' urbanized lifestyle. From areas like marketing, research, science, business, technology and communication, the National FFA Organization represents a wider range of the agriculture field.

Today, FFA boasts 490,000 student members —- the highest membership in 25 years.

"If there's one thing to say about the membership today than 25 years ago, it's more diverse," said Bill Stagg, communications director for the national FFA.

About 70 percent of members are in nonfarming, urban and suburban areas, and only 30 percent of members are in farming communities. "Twenty-five years ago, it was more rural. (But now), students have a wider range of career interests."

During the '90s, FFA took a hard hit. A dip in high school enrollment, the suffering agricultural economy and increasing graduation requirements in science and math meant students had fewer electives and little interest in FFA, Stagg said. Students are required to be enrolled in an agriculture-related class to be a member and to pay the yearly $5 dues.

In 1991, FFA had its lowest membership period: only 382,748. It responded by fighting for agriculture to qualify as a science credit and added programs that revolved around a professional career, like environmental science, agricultural research and farm business management. A few years earlier, FFA had dropped its original Future Farmers of America name, opting for the more universal National FFA Organization.

And Utah's 59 student chapters show that same growing trend. Over the past year, Utah's membership has had a roughly 6 percent increase and has more than 3,300 members.

"Most people would assume we're losing ground and that's not the case," state FFA Executive Secretary Brett Evans said. "The common perception is, you have to have a cow, sheep or pig to be in FFA. While those kids in FFA are absolutely a vital part, we also have kids who are interested in going on to college and in (for example) agricultural areas of law or food research."

FFA students are required to have an individual project they work on at home and to keep detailed business records. Although the stereotypical project is raising an animal, Evans has seen Utah's high schoolers maintain greenhouses, grow corn and even work in landscape management. Eight Utahns will compete this October as national finalists with their individual projects.

"The perception is that agriculture is dying off. The truth is that if you only consider agriculture as production, that's less that 2 percent of our population," he said, noting that agriculture encompasses the production of the food to when it hits the shelf. "We're talking about 300 different types of jobs. It's actually the first or second largest job in Utah's economy. There are jobs available. Good jobs."

Sporting their signature blue corduroy jackets at the Utah State Fair this week, hundreds of high school FFA members from across the state have taken shifts volunteering at FFA exhibits Barnyard Friends and Little Hands on the Farm.

"Our chapter is getting bigger. It used to be really big, back when my dad was in it," said Amy Law, 17, president of Davis High School's FFA chapter. "It's more towards the business part now."

Law was volunteering with other Davis High FFA members Wednesday at the Barnyard Friends exhibit, where guests can pet baby pigs, calves, lambs and chicks and do some of the chores a farmer does, like plant seeds, grind wheat and drive (toy) tractors.

Despite her sparkly "Cowgirl" belt buckle, Law's interest in FFA is with public speaking — she competed in the FFA State Creed Speech contest and took third in state.

Classmate Amanda Brown, 17, confessed "I don't know anything about farming," but a horticulture class sparked her desire to join FFA.

"Now I can sell boutonnieres and corsages for homecoming," she said, which she learned to create and market through FFA. "You can find basically anything you want to do (in FFA)."

Some argue the popularity of the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" has brought small-town farming back into the limelight. And with cowboy boots and hats currently ranking as hot fashion items, growing membership could just be crowds following a trend.

Evans said he's seen it before, where FFA and high school rodeo association's membership "kind of goes in and out with the trends." Trendy or not, Utah's FFA membership has been on a slight rise for the past five years. And the membership has stayed 3,000 to 3,500 strong for the past 20 years.

It's not the cowboy attire that attracted most Davis High students to join. One of the overwhelming factors the Davis Darts signed up: "The socialization," said David Lindbald, 16. At Davis, where students say sports and music are the popular activities to join, their FFA chapter marks the social ladder because of the awards and scholarship money they've taken in food science, job interviewing, livestock judging and speech competitions.

It's different from other clubs, Law said, because FFA offers hands-on activities. Like the green hand initiation ceremony, where new members have to catch a greased pig and tie a goat's legs together. Then there's the competitions, conventions, service projects, fair exhibits, a steak fry for the homecoming game and enthusiastic adviser Suzanne Hadfield.

"If I was to say one secret of our success, it is our teachers and the fact that it's a program rather than a class," Evans said. "There is no school program that can compete with the things we give our students."