Have you ever gone to your local county fair and noticed all the young people donning their blue corduroy jackets? These students are smiling from ear to ear as they proudly show off months of hard work for a chance at one of those prized ribbons.
From the best pig to the tastiest lettuce, these future farmers work year round learning the foundations of the agriculture industry.
February 19th through February 25th is National Future Farmers of America (FFA) Week and there are several reasons why this is important not only to West Virginia, but to our great nation.
The “brain drain” is a very real crisis and one of the most pressing issues facing our state. West Virginia is now one of the oldest states, population wise, in the nation while we continue to lose more people every year … 25,000 in the last few. The tax base continues to dwindle as our young people flee for better opportunities and our older generation enters retirement. The young people who stay are the victims of the worst drug epidemic ever seen in the United States. This brain drain hits home even harder in our agriculture industries; the average age of our farmers is now north of 60 years old. Farms, aggregation centers and food hubs want to expand, but there is no one to take the lead.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a young man from Wayne County who was looking to start a food hub, but could not find anyone interested in leading the initiative.
Agriculture must and shall be a part of West Virginia’s comeback story and that starts with inspiring our youth to get involved in agriculture. On the front lines of this effort is our FFA programs around the state. These programs are teaching our children about agriculture and inspiring more of them to take a different career path; one that is therapeutic and rewarding, but involves a tremendous amount of hard work. There is an ever growing gap in our agriculture industries and we cannot afford to wait to fix it. Safe, reliable food is a luxury in our great country that people take for granted. Without our FFA programs and programs like it, we risk losing the next generation of farmers, putting our food supply at risk.
With the expansion and protection of our vital FFA programs, I am calling for the renaming of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) to STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Agriculture and Math). Not only will this change help motivate our future farmers, but it will also teach the next generation that food does not come from the grocery store. Teaching students about healthy, local foods is essential to our country’s future and our nation’s health care system as costs continue to rise. Enabling children to understand where, how and why local food is important can only help the next generation of leaders.
There is a great opportunity before us. With the right strategy, we can expand our agriculture business, diversify the economy and keep our young people in West Virginia. It starts in the schools. West Virginia only produces 2 million dollars of produce out of the 114 million dollars consumed. How can we challenge our children to eat healthier when we are not even producing the food they eat locally?
Let’s not stop at just the school, but look at our agriculture industries in general. West Virginia currently consumes 7 billion dollars of food every year, but produces just under 1 billion dollars. The opportunities are just waiting for us, but we need to close the workforce gap now and that starts with FFA. This week, take a second to thank those students involved and those educators who are training our next generation of farmers.
Kent A. Leonhardt
WV Commissioner of Agriculture