Recalling a Most Unconventional—and Life-Changing–FFA Journey

My FFA story is so unlikely that even I can’t quite believe it myself. It all began in the fall of 1989, when I was starting my sophomore year at Southern Cal High School in Lake City.

As a child of a Farm Crisis, I never thought about joining FFA. I was busy with classes, band, choir, theater and other activities, and the unspoken message was clear—ag has no future, so don’t spend your time there. Then along came Ed Ricks.

Ed was Southern Cal’s ag teacher and FFA advisor. Turns out he was also a talent recruiter. He asked me whether I’d be interested in coming over to the ag building and studying ag rather than taking the standard 10th grade biology class. I was intrigued. Ed worked out an arrangement with the biology teacher so I could skip biology class every day and instead focus on ag, as long as I could pass the biology tests.

No problem.

What a golden opportunity this turned out to be. I discovered a whole new world of learning, plus I didn’t have to be bored in a biology class. (And yes, I always passed the tests.)

I’m forever grateful that Ed welcomed me into the dynamic world of FFA. Not only did I love the ag classes, but it was fun to compete on the horticulture/floriculture team at nationals in Kansas City. My ag adventures truly set me a path that has defined my career for more than 20 years. They also explain why I’m sure a big believer in FFA.

As I look back, it’s amazing to think how much FFA has changed, and what hasn’t changed, since those days.

1. More diversity. When I was in FFA, there were usually only three to five girls at most in our chapter. That era wasn’t that far removed from the days when girls were not allowed to join FFA (a change that didn’t come until 1969.) Now girls often outnumber boys in many FFA chapters. I was excited that our local South Central Calhoun FFA chapter offered a Diversity in Ag class for the first time this fall, thanks to advisor Matt Carlson, to help girls learn more about the diverse career options available in ag today.

2. Ability to inspire. As I worked with the Diversity in Ag students, I remembered just how influential adults can be at this point in an FFA student’s life, and how much we can inspire the next generation of ag leaders, if we only take the time.

3. Learning made fun. While “fun” doesn’t come to mind when I think of most of my high school classes, it’s a word I’ve always associated with ag education. That all stems from my positive experiences in FFA, from working in our greenhouse to competing with teams that traveled from Ames to Des Moines to Kansas City.

4. Competition. Speaking of competition, I grew up in the era before everyone got a participation ribbon, and it made all the difference in my outlook on life. I loved competing on our floriculture/horticulture team. Even when I didn’t do well in certain categories likes salesmanship, I learned how to keep trying, keep learning and keep progressing. I also come from a legacy of FFA competitors. My Uncle Jack Dougherty competed in public speaking at the state FFA convention in Des Moines in 1956, where he focused on soil conservation. My family still quotes his words that “when the soil is gone, so are we.”

5. Real-world connections. These FFA lessons, from soil conservation to sales and communication skills, aren’t just academic theory. They have real-world applications that continue to influence my approach to business, farming and life.

6. Broadening your horizons. Being recruiting into FFA opened up a whole new world of career options I might never have considered. While there isn’t an abundance of children of the 1980s Farm Crisis working in agriculture, I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones, all because Ed Ricks helped me broaden my horizons.

7. Useful knowledge you don’t learn anywhere else. When I’m at a meeting, I can tell who’s an FFA alum and who’s not, simply by whether a person knows how to conduct a meeting properly with parliamentary procedure. This is such a useful skill, and it’s curious to me that FFA is one of the few organizations that seems to understand its value.

8. Giving back. I remember helping plant and water the flowers in the planters around Lake City’s town square as part of our FFA training. While I just thought this was a fun way to get away from school for awhile, lessons like this helped plant the seed of community service in my life.

9. Leadership. As I volunteer with local FFA chapters today, I’m always inspired by the leadership opportunities that kids embrace at the chapter, district, state and even national levels. A dedicated FFA member always stands out among his or her peers. Some of FFA’s most notable alums have ascended to the highest levels of their chosen professions, from President Jimmy Carter to professional athletes like Bo Jackson to country music superstars Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift.

10. Focus on the future. As I look back, I knew I had a good thing going in high school with FFA, but I wish would have understood even better the amazing opportunities I had. It says a lot about an organization when you realize more of its value the longer you’ve been away from it.

It’s always interesting to me that FFA took root in the mid-1920s to counter the trend of boys losing interest in agriculture and leaving the farm. I think of my own FFA story and am still inspired by the wisdom reflected in the the FFA creed:

“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds – achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”

Long live FFA!

P.S. Thanks for joining me. I’m glad you’re here.

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Darcy

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