HIGHLAND COUNTY—It started as an all-boys club, but in 2019 the National FFA Organization, previously known as Future Farmers of America, will mark the 50th anniversary of young women becoming active members of the group. In Ohio, and throughout the country, FFA chapters are preparing to celebrate, but eight decades ago it didn’t look like such a thing would ever happen.
In 1928, the Future Farmers of America came into being as a leadership and vocational training program for young men. When the official constitution was written later that same year, it read: “any student of vocational agriculture, who is regularly enrolled in a part-time, day unit, or all day class is entitled to active membership” [emphasis added].
Nevertheless, at the group’s third national assembly in 1930, the boys voted to exclude their female counterparts from any role except that of FFA Queen or FFA Sweetheart. For a while that was the status quo, but at the end of World War II when it had become clear to everyone that women had been running farms, managing livestock, and generally performing a wide variety of agricultural functions without male assistance, the tide began to turn.
In each successive year from 1946 forward, the girls and their supporting advisors worked at infiltrating the organization. In 1948, Beverly Poff of Christiansburg, VA became the first female to win the national FFA Public Speaking contest. It was only a tiny crack in the wall, but it led to bigger things.
Fully recognized, active membership eluded them. In Ohio, the agricultural industry leadership remained all-male. Over the next decade, many FFA teachers held fast to the dictum of Hillsboro’s legendary advisor, Edgar Fawley, who told his incoming Greenhands in 1959, according to student David E. Ludwick, “Girls can take agriculture classes. They can’t be in FFA!” and it seemed to the boys at the time that Fawley was in favor of keeping it that way.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, advisor James Bratton, whose Mowrystown FFA members were Hillsboro’s archrivals, worked hard to recruit young women. “FFA was his life,” Bratton’s son, Butch, said recently. “He wanted the girls there.” Bratton was advisor from 1956 to 1976, and he was excited when the national organization finally voted the girls into full membership in 1966. When Ohio revised its constitution to include the women in 1969, he had two candidates ready to start: Carla Michael and Vicki Hauke became the first Mowrystown FFA women in the fall of 1970.
Gallia County’s June Jones was the state’s first female Star Agribusinessman (yes, man) in 1973. Sharon Mangun of Carrollton was the first female state officer, serving in 1974-75. Jodi Peacock of Medina was the first female National Star Agribusinessperson in 1976. The first team of women to be officers in Ohio’s state organization, elected for 1976-77, included Peacock, Irma Henry of Northwest Clark FFA, and Sue Clark of Indian Valley FFA.
As the national organization prepared to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2008, almost half of state leadership positions throughout the country were held by women and 38 percent of the total membership was comprised of women. Today, Ohio has 315 chapters with 25,237 members who learn and compete in more than 300 career fields related to the science, business and technology of agriculture. There’s been enormous change, but more is still to come.
“When I was in [FFA],” Butch Bratton said, “we were mostly country kids” and the focus was on production agriculture. Members raised cattle, hogs and sheep. They learned how to build barns, measure fertilizer and soil additives, and weld so they could repair machinery. “I don’t remember any problems” when the girls joined the group although others may have anticipated there would be. Now, “the largest chapter is in Philadephia. I expect it will get bigger. There are three girls and three boys on the new national officer team.” These are all good things, he says.
Although many schools closed their industrial arts classrooms in the late 1990s- early 2000s, those “shop” classes gradually slipped back into the agriculture classes. Today, it’s as likely that a girl will emerge from under a welder’s helmet as a boy. Both boys and girls are to be found up to their thighs in soil pits as they study the structure of not only crop fields but also the foundational soils for urban buildings. They compete in a host of projects. Within their chapters they organize and participate in community service projects, and help each other study their academic curriculums. Urban and rural students regularly visit each other’s schools to learn about how agriculture fits in both settings.
Sarah Landis is in her first year teaching agriculture at the Greene County Career Center’s Cedarville Satellite Program. She was a state officer, representing the Valley View chapter in 2016. The chapter there was “primarily female as we had female teachers for the most part,” she said. “My father was very surprised when he attended the 2016 convention. He just couldn’t get over how many girls he saw compared to boys.” She added that many of the leadership roles in the chapter she advises now are held by young women.
Speaking to the 91st annual National FFA Convention & Expo in Indianapolis this past October, Allison Flinn, associate director of public policy and government relations (U.S. & Canada) for Merck Animal Health, said she has seen an increase of women in leadership in the fields of animal and veterinary sciences. She thinks women participating in agricultural fields is “becoming more and more prevalent.”
Flinn was just one of the women who work in agriculture-related careers who came to the convention to encourage the young women to keep trying to do their best in the organization and the industry. Jeanna Eppley, FFA advisor from Seymour, IN, told the girls, “I’m seeing a huge growth in females taking leadership roles in industry and in our community, even beyond agriculture.” She instructed them, to stick “to your guns, saying ‘I’m going to do it. No one’s going to tell me I can’t.’ ”
As the golden anniversary for the girls gets underway, Bratton remarked that his dad would be proud of today’s FFA members, and especially of his great-granddaughter who just earned her American degree. “There’s just something about that jacket,” he said. “When kids put on that blue jacket they become better kids. We need more of that.”