EPWORTH, Iowa -- In Matt Lansing's agriculture education classroom on the Western Dubuque High School campus, vegetables grow under a bright sun lamp and small tilapia swim in a large tank.
Lansing, the school's ag instructor and FFA adviser, is in his element. So are students such as Adam Simon and Ben Hannan, both FFA members with farming backgrounds interested in pursuing ag careers.
But the class also appeals to students such as Alyssa Dougherty, the school's FFA secretary, who doesn't live on a farm and might not pursue an ag-related career.
"Being in FFA has truly opened my eyes to new possibilities and opportunities," Dougherty said. "There is so much more to being a member than what it may seem ... To me, being in FFA doesn't mean that I will be a future American farmer. It means putting forth effort to help my chapter, community and country grow to unimaginable heights through agriculture."
Such is the appeal of the modern-day FFA. The student leadership organization long associated with agriculture this fall reported an all-time high membership of nearly 580,000 U.S. students in seventh through 12th grades -- an 11 percent increase since the 2009-10 school year.
Iowa's membership climbed by nearly 4 percent last school year, and Wisconsin's FFA enrollment hit a 29-year high. In Illinois, new chapters, as well as newly revived ones like in Stockton, are leading the way.
Officials trace the membership boom to the proliferation of ag-related careers and the rebranding of FFA as a program for more than just boys who grew up on farms. Female participation and membership among "city kids" continues to climb.
"FFA is for everyone: males and females, people with disabilities and without, native speakers and non-native speakers, urban backgrounds and rural background," said Tracy Brunton, Shullsburg High School FFA adviser. "It's grown because of the opportunities that it offers to its members."
GROWTH OF AG OPTIONS
Ag education and FFA go hand-in-hand.
For a student to enroll in FFA, they must be enrolled in an ag education course. And local ag instructors and FFA officials said they have never had so many ag-related job opportunities to sell students on.
"Fifteen to 20 years ago, parents might have told their kids to run as fast as you can from the farm," he said.
Not so today. The job market for college graduates in agriculture has been strong, and with the continually growing demands for food, fuel and fiber, prospects in the career field are expected to remain that way for the forseeable future.
"Many students have a job secured by the time they start their senior year of college," said Ethan Giebel, a former Wisconsin FFA state officer who now works with the National FFA Organization. "There has never been a better time to be in agriculture than today. The opportunities for young people in agriculture today are limitless because of the world's rising population and the expansion of the middle class."
The ag field also has expanded far beyond the tractor.
Giebel points out there are more than 300 different careers in agriculture, ranging from farming to laboratory scientists and from salespeople to veterinarians.
Brunton added,"Because of the wide variety of opportunities, many students can find that niche that fits their likes and background."
LaMotte, Iowa, native Kellie Gregorich, communications manager of Iowa FFA Foundation, thinks FFA has experienced such a large growth because students realize that "it's more than corn, cows, and plows."
"It's about becoming a better leader and getting ready for your future," she said. "The students are realizing how much FFA helps them succeed in their future careers and lives. Something that has triggered this is the growth of agriculture and the new technology throughout the industry. Agriculture is in the news and people notice. They notice what we're doing and how we're making a difference."
Add in cool technology, and the allure to young people is apparent.
"Advances in technology gives agriculture cutting-edge stuff that's cool," Lansing said. "Gadgets and gizmos -- students love it. Look at technology in the forefront -- you can run a 250-cow dairy with a robotic milking system."
Had Jacob Lawfer and Sydni Schubert graduated from Stockton High School five years ago, they might not be planning careers in agriculture.
After almost 15 years of not having an agriculture program or FFA chapter, district officials, at the urging of parents, decided to reinstate it in 2008.
Leading the push for its return was Duane Kupersmith, an FFA member and Stockton alum who graduated in 1949. He recalled taking high school agriculture classes and showing farm animals at the annual Freeport fair. Retired, he never forgot his roots.
"Agriculture is the main part of the country," he said. "If you don't have farmers, you don't have food. And there are a lot of jobs in agriculture. At one time, all people thought agriculture was were animals and FFA. A lot of jobs in agriculture have nothing to do with animals or anything like that. FFA teaches students organization and leadership. It helps prepare them for careers."
A senior, Schubert is a first-year FFA member this year. She is not from a traditional production agriculture background but plans a career in agriculture.
"This is mainly because I don't want to be stuck inside behind a desk as my lifetime career," she said. "I love the outdoors and nature. Helping local farmers, and spreading the word about agriculture and how important it is would be my dream job."
Lawfer, the chapter's secretary, comes from a family really familiar with FFA. His dad was a member of the original Stockton FFA chapter and is a lifetime member of the Stockton FFA alumni, and his two older sisters both took advantage of the chapter since it's resurrection.
Jacob has visions of an ag career because "I live and work on my family's farm and I love every second of it."
Stockton is not alone -- 85 years after the organization was founded, new chapters continue to join the group, including recent additions in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
One such chapter started in Milwaukee.
"The Milwaukee Vincent High School has a thriving agriculture education program that is in its third year," Giebel said.
NOT JUST FUTURE FARMERS
The Milwaukee chapter is a high-profile example of FFA's increased appeal to students who don't live in rural areas.
It's a movement that's been afoot ever since the organization officially changed its name from Future Farmers of America to just FFA. Since that time, the organization also has emphasized a broader spectrum of agriculture, emphasizing fields such as agriscience or agribusiness, said Mark Zidon, professor of agricultural education at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
"We have communicated to urban students that agriculture and FFA are not just for those interested in farming," he said. "It has taken some time, but urban students are beginning to see there is much more to agriculture than farming."
Gregorich recalled interviewing members at the Iowa state leadership conference this summer and many of the members were from cities, as opposed to rural areas.
"The main reason I was told that they joined is because they see the large impact of agriculture in their communities, and they also realized how much fun other FFA members were having while also increasing their leadership skills," she said.
According to Brunton, citing the national FFA website, agriculture is the nation's largest employer, with more than 23 million jobs related to American agriculture.
"There are so many different career opportunities in agriculture that are appealing to students with an urban background," she said. "Careers in chemistry, biology, food science, and communications are opening the door to students who may not have considered a career pathway in agriculture previously."
Matt Meyer, Stockton agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, pointed out that not only are major urban schools with FFA programs, like the Chicago High School for Agriculture Sciences, dependent on "townies," but so are smaller programs like Stockton's
"Some of my most involved, successful students so far have lived in town," he said, adding, in a town of 2,000 like Stockton that is surrounded by farm fields, most of these students still are much more connected to agriculture then students in large urban areas. "But with the amount of science and technology in agriculture today, it is very easy for students from an urban setting to find a niche that fits them. Really, everyone should have a better understanding on food and where it comes from to the point where I have even heard it suggested that all students should be required to take an agriculture class."
FOR GIRLS, TOO
A big boon in FFA membership also can be tied to increasing numbers of girls joining the program.
That trend especially is apparent in Iowa. Most of the growth in the FFA over the past 20 years has been attributed to the increase in female membership, which has tripled since 1992, according to Scott Johnson, of Iowa FFA.
But it's seen in Wisconsin and Illinois as well. In the Shullsburg chapter, there 10 more girls than boys.
It's part of an overall membership increase of 29 percent in the chapter since 2007.
Two of Shullsburg's FFA members, Ellen Hernandez and Cassidy Reilly, cite the leadership training the program provides as a reason for their involvement.
"It's a great organization that helps you learn leadership, responsibility and communication," said Hernandez, Shullsburg High School FFA chapter president.
She calls joining FFA as a freshman the best decision she's ever made.
"During my years as a member and officer, I have had the opportunity to meet many new people and explore different careers related to agriculture," she said. "I am currently not planning a career in agriculture, but the skills I have learned as an FFA member will help me be successful as I pursue a career in medicine."
Reilly said she sees the positive impact FFA has on the school and community.
"I love being involved in the community programs that we have, and I have had the opportunity to meet amazing members from across the nation," she said. "The FFA promotes leadership, service and agriculture, and I plan to pursue a career that focuses on leadership and service."
Shullsburg's chapter also showcases the diversity of modern-day FFA. In addition to the high female membership, 14 percent of the members live on actively producing farms and 4 percent of the membership is made up of non-native speakers. Hernandez, the chapter president, is among that latter group, her adviser noted.
This past summer, the chapter was recognized for having the second-largest percentage of school population as active FFA members in the state of Wisconsin, with 75 percent.
Cheryl Zimmerman, Wisconsin state FFA executive director, emphasizes agricultural education instructors like Brunton and Lansing are doing a great job promoting and educating about the science and technology of agriculture and the career opportunities for students.
"They are designing their agricultural education programs to be relevant to what students need today and relevant to what the agriculture industry needs," she said. "Students see the benefits in enrolling in agricultural education."
Professor Zidon said those efforts are hitting their mark.
"Production skills were once the important factors," Zidon said. "The ability to weld, plant corn, and castrate a calf, meant being successful in production agriculture. These have been replaced by science and leadership skills. The ability to make decisions and communicate clearly are now the high employment skills. Being able to think clearly or speak to a group will get a graduate hired.
"Employers know this. Agriculture teachers know this. It filters down to students who choose agricultural education and FFA because it offers leadership development. I believe it is this excitement in the industry that has fueled agricultural education teachers and students to grow the FFA organization."
Zimmerman said, with the organization's benefits, leaders would like to see the growth rate increase.
"It is a great package for all students, and we realize that students are understanding the real value agricultural education has for all students and not just some," she said. "We hope that more school districts will continue to realize the value an agricultural education program can bring to their student's academic, leadership and career success."