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National FFA Convention impresses a first-timer

Memorable trip to Indy reinforces positive perceptions of youth in agriculture

After more than 27 years in agricultural journalism, I attended my first National FFA Convention this fall in Indianapolis. I traveled to the event with MFA Incorporated Executive Assistant Pam Hiller and CEO Ernie Verslues, who was recognized with an Honorary American Degree. Somehow, I never had a chance to attend the convention before, and all I could think afterward was, “Why did I wait so long?”

EditorAllisonOverwhelming. Impressive. Loud. Invigorating. Exhausting. Inspiring. Those are just a few words that describe the experience, but even those don’t do it justice.

Welcoming attendees to the opening general session Nov. 1 in front of an amped-up crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium, Travis Park, National FFA advisor and board chairman, quoted this description from proceedings of his first national convention in 1987:

What shocks them most, first-timers will tell you, is the sheer size of it. Thousands of blue jackets and FFA neckties and black shoes. Every hotel within 50 miles booked up. Meandering lines of yellow school buses snaking down the street…

And then there’s the sound of it. The National FFA Band booms its way through the spotlit arena…Eloquent young men and women deliver speeches as naturally as they might a conversation with an old friend…And, of course, there is the applause, thunderous applause that threatens to raise the roof of the auditorium.

Then they look and listen again, these first-timers. Beneath the enormity, the immense mass of blue and gold, they find the essence of a National FFA Convention—its people.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. This passage perfectly captures my feelings when I walked into the stadium for the first time and was enveloped by the kinetic energy of music, dancing, laughter and conversations of thousands upon thousands of teenagers in their iconic blue corduroy jackets.

Though I was never an FFA member, the convention reinforced my positive perception of this great organization. I’ve covered countless FFA events and interviewed many members, and I’m always impressed by their work ethic, manners, poise and confidence.

Attending the National FFA Convention has been a monumental experience for so many individuals throughout the event’s 96-year history. It fosters a heightened sense of accomplishment for those competing on the national stage. It provides an opportunity to network with other like-minded young people from across the country. It allows members to break out of their comfort zones and gain some independence at a crucial time in their lives. And it furthers the mission of FFA to “make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success.”

The 2023 national convention broke records for attendance with nearly 73,000 members, advisors, alumni, supporters and guests. Each year, participation seems to shatter the previous record, a sign that FFA remains relevant while attracting a new following. “Evolve” was this year’s convention theme, and undoubtedly, FFA’s continual evolution has contributed to those soaring numbers.

FFA is not just about growing crops or raising livestock or public speaking. It’s a nearly limitless opportunity for young people to figure out who they are and what they want to do in life. In a time when electronic devices threaten to erode personal connections, FFA offers face-to-face interaction and hands-on learning with peers and mentors who invest in their lives.

With FFA opening up membership to fifth- and sixth-graders this year, a whole new group of young people will be introduced to the organization’s benefits. While the availability of middle-school agriculture classes may limit these opportunities, the expansion should help FFA establish a stronger foundation than ever before.

Spending time around FFA members always boosts my confidence that agriculture’s future is in good hands. The national convention multiplied that feeling times 73,000. As Park said in his opening address, “It is our ability to connect, collaborate and celebrate across the diverse perspectives of our people that strengthens FFA and provides leadership for agriculture.”

I’m proud to work for an organization that promotes FFA, and I’m grateful for a career that allows me to tell inspiring stories of FFA members. I hope you will share your support as well. If you’re lucky, maybe that support can include a memorable trip to Indy. 

Read More of the December 2023 / January 2024 Today's Farmer magazine Issue.

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