FFA's Valley Roots

By: Meryl Conant
By: Meryl Conant

It’s a national organization turning today's youth into tomorrow's farmers. And its roots can be traced right back to the Valley.

You could say one 97-year-old held the story of the Future Farmers of America. John Carl Harshbarger of Weyers Cave is believed to have been the last original charter member; he died just a few weeks ago.

"I reckon it's nice to be one of the first," said Harshbarger.

Harshbarger was one of 28 Weyers Cave High School students who in 1927 became a part of the first chartered Future Farmers of Virginia.

It later became the FFA. The idea came from four Virginia Tech professors. They wanted more for Virginia's students than just the national agriculture classes Congress started ten years earlier.

"They were the four men that got together and said, 'Hey, we need to do something for the rural farm boys of Virginia,'" said former FFA student and teacher O. Beverley Roller.

"Their main purpose was to develop leadership and knowledge of agriculture for these young men," said Eric Stogdale, an FFA teacher at Fort Defiance High School. "At the time they felt that the farm boys in the communities around the state of Virginia were not equal of their city cousins."

"They had a motto, 'learning to do, doing to learn, learning to live, living to serve,'" Roller explained. "You can take that and do a lot with it."

Within a year the group spread to other states.

"It grew rapidly because people, teachers, instructors, parents, students could see the real value of the organization," Roller said.

So, the FFA seed was planted in Weyers Cave for young men. But during it's nearly 80 years in existence- the program not only has grown to a national level- but it also has blossomed into a more diverse group.

"They said they wanted an organization, a leadership, character citizenship for farm boys, they didn't say anything about farm girls," Roller explained.

"Agriculture was thought of as a man’s profession," Stogdale said. "Women weren't allowed the take classes; they were expected to take the home economic courses and become farm wives or housewives in general."

African Americans were also shut out. They started their own group called the New Farmers of America.

"As the high schools became integrated, we integrated with the NFA and made it one organization and in 1969 they allowed women to actually join FFA and become members," Stogdale said.

Today men and women of all races across the country still follow in the footsteps of their FFA forefathers.

"A lot of the kids who have been successful in life because of their activity in FFA activities through careers development events and other contests may not have ever gotten the jump start in life the FFA has given them," said Fort Defiance High School student Will Earhart.

The organization has changed over the years. New technology and ag business have become more of the focus. But its motto and founding principles remain the same.


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