It’s late afternoon and the sun is setting over the fields next to Central High School in Burlington. Inside, four students stand at the front of a classroom. Their advisor hits the stopwatch on his phone and they launch into their presentation.
“'Each story builds upon one another and began to further define us as a chapter...'” says one of the student officers, junior Eric Metz. “Oh...that's my ending part.”
They’ve been working on this since before school started. There are still a few kinks to work out. In only a few weeks, they’ll don their famous blue corduroy jackets and give this presentation onstage in an auditorium at the FFA National Convention.
They’re nominated for the “Model of Excellence” award. That means they’re in the Top 10 of more than 8,000 chapters in the country.
“It's like mood swings pretty much where it's like, ‘That's awesome. I’m going to the national convention.’ But then it’s like ‘Ahhh, I'm going to the national convention, I don't know my part yet and we only have this many days,’” said sophomore Sophia Battaglia.
That’s why these students, like Metz, are here on a Thursday night.
“I don't think I've ever studied for something so hard,’ he said. “Yeah...I don’t study.”
Their presentation must be 15 minutes. It covers all of the events and community service the chapter worked on over the past year. They run a "bags tournament" to raise money for veterans, safety workshops among other service events.
It helps that Central’s chapter is growing. So says one of their advisors, Buddy Haas.
“So we did have 158 students in the program,” said Haas. “And then this year for 2019-2020, we're right around 220 kids in the chapter and the program.”
And at the state and national levels, FFA is setting membership records.
Central is right outside of the Chicago suburbs. Haas says growth is not just happening in the suburbs and rural communities.
“We’re seeing the growth of urban students in urban high schools getting ag programs and FFA, which is really interesting,” he said. “And so it's helping kind of shift the dynamic of what ag education and FFA is.”
That’s important to the students. When asked about misconceptions people have about FFA, the group erupts.
“Literally today!” Eric pounds on the table. “‘Oh, he's missing Halloween for his farmers' convention.’ I'm like, ‘All right FFA is more than just farming’. It goes into everything agriculture-related. It's not just a farmers' convention.”
Eric’s dad is a farmer. But, that’s not the case for most people in this chapter or in FFA in general. According to the Illinois State Association FFA, only about 10% of members come from farming families.
He even asks one of his fellow FFA officers, junior Amy Hernandez, “Have you ever been on a farm?” “No…” Hernandez responds, with Metz, exasperated, “You don’t have to be!”
Sophia chimes in, “I’ve never grown a plant! I tried and it dies after like two weeks.”
Aside from the misconceptions, the students spoke about the opportunities FFA has given them. Another officer, Ashleigh Walker, got to go on a trip to Washington DC. There are scholarships offered through the Farm Bureau along with the community projects they outline in the presentation.
It’s those opportunities that got their advisor Buddy Haas into teaching. He actually wasn’t a part of FFA in high school, they didn’t have a program.
“Really FFA is the reason why I became a high school ag teacher,” he said. “And the cool part with the regional program we have set up now is that I have the opportunity, hopefully in the future, to even teach kids from my alma mater through District 303, when they start joining our program here in the next couple of years.”
And Haas understands many students come into ag classes skeptical and he has to try to win them over. Some of those skeptical students are even officers now. That includes Ashleigh Walker.
“I tried to get out of ‘Intro to Ag’ and go into another science class and I couldn't change it,” said Walker. “That was God's plan.”
It helps that a lot of social issues and careers dovetail into agriculture. Major laws like hemp production to global issues like climate change all have roots in ag.
“I tell the students a lot, by 2050 of the world's demand for food is going to double and we’ve got to figure out how we can feed the world,” said Haas. “And so having an ag class, I say, it's not just about farming. It's about if you like wearing clothes, you like eating, you like going places: that’s ag.
The group is going to the national convention at the end of October. The chapter has never been in the Top 10 before, and by the time they leave, they could be No. 1 in the nation.