Youth programs like FFA and 4-H support the future of North Carolina agriculture by preparing the next generation of future leaders for successful lives and careers. State agriculture education leader and FFA advisor Joshua Bledsoe says agricultural education programs in public, private, parochial and homeschool settings prepare students for more than 255 agriculture careers, from horticulture to natural resources to ag engineering.
“Agricultural education prepares students for a lifetime of informed choices and ultimately connects them to career success in the ag and food industry,” Bledsoe says.
Even if a young person follows a passion outside of agriculture, Bledsoe stresses the need for citizens who are informed and can be advocates for the industry no matter where they land. Along with classroom instruction and experiential opportunities, students can reinforce what they’re learning by participating in organizations like FFA, 4-H and livestock breed organizations.
A Student Perspective
Regan Mitchem attends North Carolina State University, where she hopes to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. Mitchem says participating in 4-H and the National Junior Hereford Association (NJHA) has helped her grow into the person she is today.
“I’m still shy, but especially as a younger child I was really shy. It’s helped me step out of my comfort zone,” Mitchem says. “I have friends across the nation now, in different states. I’ve been able to travel and see a variety of different areas in the U.S. North Carolina is way different than the Midwest when it comes to livestock.”
Mitchem showed sheep and cattle in 4-H and competed on livestock judging teams. She took advantage of leadership opportunities including the National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C., and the NJHA Leadership Conference. One of her goals is to serve on the NJHA Board.
“It prepares you for the rest of your life. As you go into college and go looking for a career, it establishes that foundation of knowing people and networking. It can help you find your passion and helps pave the way for your future,” Mitchem says. “You’ll meet your best friends through these organizations. People that you can relate to, people that are into different things than you are. Basically, once you step foot into these organizations, you don’t want to leave. It kind of becomes a part of who you are.”
See more: 4-H and FFA Set Youth Up for Success
Growing Programs for Future Leaders
Today, North Carolina has more than 20,000 FFA members, the highest number since 1976. The National FFA Organization surpassed the 700,000-member mark for the first time ever in 2019.
“We’re in rural areas, we’re in suburban areas, we’re in urban areas. We’re in small communities, we’re in large communities,” Bledsoe says. “There are just so many different opportunities for students in agriculture and we need them desperately to go into it.”
While traditional crop and livestock projects are still prevalent, areas that support production agriculture are also key. Production agriculture needs future leaders, students that are interested in information technology to collect and manage data gathered during planting and harvest or on livestock operations. Agriculture businesses need strong communicators to share their messages with customers and consumers. Students interested in agriscience are already changing the industry with new strategies and discoveries. Higher education institutions in the state are adding programs to train agriculture teachers and high school programs are partnering with agribusinesses in urban areas like Wake County, which has 18 high school agriculture programs, to give students more career discovery opportunities.
“I love what we do for young people,” Bledsoe says. “I don’t think they leave agriculture education and FFA remotely close to the way they came to us. I see lives changed, and it’s really rewarding to be a part of a profession that will continue to impact young people’s lives.”