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Technology, structure transform today's FFA

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MARIETTA, Ohio (AP) — "Future Farmers of America" hasn't been the official name of the National FFA Organization for nearly 25 years, and the lessons learned by members of local chapters and agricultural students aren't confined to the farm either.

"We have someone who wants to be an X-ray tech. We have somebody who wants to be a nurse," said Ashley Payne, vice president of the FFA chapter at Warren High School in southeast Ohio. "I was looking at being an attorney, something related to agriculture law."

Students still fix tractors, raise livestock and notch the ears of piglets, but they also use global-positioning systems to map out local farms and research and make presentations on the digestive tracts of animals using the latest technology.

"It's the 21st century," said Krista Hellwig, the first-year agriculture educator at Warren. "Things are changing. Things are not traditional anymore. It can't be."

The classes Hellwig teaches her students are different even from the classes she took not so long ago as a student at Woodmore High School in Ottawa County. They're more structured, with an increased emphasis on inquiry-based and hands-on activities, as well as service learning.

That's due in part to the state requiring ag classes to be grouped into "pathways" that make it easier for programs to be assessed and for college credit to be earned. Schools can determine which classes to offer under which pathway, which is intended to help retain local flexibility.

Students at Warren generally start with the agriculture, food and natural resources class, which exposes them to basic activities in those areas as well as woodworking, welding and electrical systems, Hellwig said. They're exposed to a variety of activities, whose specifics may apply to particular career fields, while the general skills — public speaking, record keeping, organization — can translate to a number of vocations.

Warren FFA President Brandon Lane credited his study of parliamentary procedure in FFA with helping him overcome a fear of speaking in public. He also believes that all of the hands-on activities — from picking corn and bagging it for a deer-feed fundraiser to individual projects for fairs — help prepare students for the workforce.

"That starts the work ethic for the kids who have never done any work but sit in front of the TV and play video games," he said.

Waterford High School agriculture teacher Matt Hartline said when he was younger he thought about following in his father's footsteps on the family farm.

"My dad told me, 'Y'know, you need to go to college and get something in your back pocket,'" he said.

Hartline said that's what many ag educators do with their students today — encourage them to look at other options in addition to farming.

"We try not to (discourage) that because farming's a great occupation," he said. "(But) to be able to go out and establish a farm now and all the overhead and costs that are associated with that can be enormous....There's a lot of jobs out there where you don't have to take that risk."

While agriculture remains a major part of Washington County's economy, in general, there are fewer family farms these days and therefore fewer opportunities to go into farming without starting from scratch, Hartline said.

"We're trying to fit with society's needs and obviously with less farming we're trying to be a little bit more diverse," he said.

Even if the students aren't planning to become farmers, many are considering agriculture-related fields.

Marietta High School ag educator Brian Welch noted that supervised agricultural activities still can include raising an animal for a fair or growing a crop, but he has several students this year working in veterinary offices because they would like to become veterinary technicians. Hartline has former students majoring in animal science and agribusiness in college and at least one studying to be a soil scientist.

"Kids who are in here, not even 50 percent are going to come out farmers," Hellwig said, noting biotechnology and genetics as other fields they could pursue.

Frontier High School agriculture educator Erwin Berry said there's still a place for production agriculture, too.

"I know that most of them are not going to be involved in production agriculture full-time," he said. "I hope that many of them, at least 50 percent, can supplement their income" with farming.

Berry said there are opportunities to do that today, especially as interest increases among consumers in knowing where their food is coming from and avoiding products treated with chemicals. The terrain in the Frontier area lends itself more to pasturing than raising fruit and vegetables, he said, which is one reason students in his classes have been studying plasticulture, which utilizes raised beds of soil with plastic spread over them to conserve water.

Although Berry said he might emphasize production agriculture more than some of his peers, he's not doing things the same way he did when he started teaching more than 30 years ago at St. Marys High School in West Virginia.

Recently his freshman students were researching the digestive tracts of various animals using iPads. Groups were assigned animals to research, with each student making a presentation about a portion of that creature's digestive system using an iPad linked to the classroom smartboard.

"Then they can basically turn it over to another student on a different iPad," Berry said.

That doesn't mean students won't still dissect animals' digestive and reproductive systems, but they are using technology that's becoming more and more commonplace in a variety of careers.

Students can also work on projects on school computers or iPads, save them using the online service Dropbox, then access them from their own devices at home, Berry said.

"We're basically paperless, on about two or three different platforms," he said.

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Information from: The Marietta Times, http://www.mariettatimes.com

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