GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The blue-and-gold jacket is like a key – put it on, wear it and walk through the door of opportunities it can provide. When the season of FFA is done, members can remove the jacket, but not the memories and experience, and they can help the legacy live on for the next crop of FFA members.
"To see the legacy of FFA continue; that is what alumni members want," said Matt Lohr of Broadway, Va. "Alumni want FFA members to have the same experiences they did; to feel the same feeling when putting on the jacket."
Lohr, a former National FFA officer, addressed an audience of more than 100 people at the National FFA Alumni Development Conference, on the third anniversary of his late wife’s passing from breast cancer. As a tribute to her life of service, more than 2,500 people attended her funeral in their small Virginia hometown.
He described how Andrea Lohr loved life and loved to serve, surviving three years beyond doctors’ predictions and served her fellow man as long as she could. One of her gifts was to dream big, and Lohr encouraged FFA Alumni members to do the same within their affiliates.
"Why not dream to have an ag program and FFA chapter in every single school in the nation?" he challenged.
Dr. Larry Case, former National FFA advisor, said, "There are two dimensions here at this conference that are critically important. First, participants get information that is useful to their local and state affiliates. It is a time for self- reflection and asking ‘Why am I serving?’
"Second, the relationships we build with each other on breaks, bus trips, during meals at this conference, builds community and that is vitally important."
The schedule from July 9-12 was packed with training and community building opportunities, keynote speakers and tours of local farms and agribusinesses. Alumni members from more than 20 states took home tools and ideas to help improve their affiliates and serve local chapters.
Visits included a trip to Swiss Lane Dairy, where the Caledonia FFA chapter hosted dinner at nearby Wildwood Family Farm; a trip to the Grand Rapids Market, Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery, Sietsema Farm and lunch at Lucky Star Farm owned by Montague agriscience instructor Melanie Block; and a trip to Hopkins Alumni President Comer Skinner’s collection of FFA memorabilia and dinner hosted by the chapter.
Participants also visited the Clarksville Research Station and had opportunity to wander the streets and beaches of Grand Haven, where they could enjoy beautiful Lake Michigan on a perfect summer day.
Denise West and Sharon Gary of Georgia live in small towns measured by the number of stoplights. It was the third trip to an Alumni Development Conference and a first trip to Michigan for the women.
"We see a need for FFA in our school," said West. "We want to help. Our young children don’t have many opportunities."
Macon County High School is the county’s only high school and encompasses six rural towns, educating 400-600 students annually. West is from the town of Montezuma and Gary calls Oglethorpe home.
It was one of three rural chapters with large minority populations to receive a substantial grant from Toyota. "The grant is to help give our kids FFA opportunities and to get minority students involved in agriculture," Gary explained. "We purchased 50 FFA jackets for our kids to wear. We are sending students to the Washington Leadership Conference and we take a bus to the district Greenhand Ceremony so more kids get to go."
Previously, students who wished to attend the ceremony had to find a ride, but this transportation means many more students attend, receiving an enthusiastic and inspiring first introduction into the national organization – one that will hopefully propel them into involvement and an eventual career.
The grant is also providing opportunity for students to be involved in competitions that require travel and purchase of preparation materials.
Students have received small monetary initiatives to start Supervised Ag Experience (SAE) projects that earn an income and teach fiscal responsibility. One young man started a flock of laying hens and, according to West, his brown eggs have become popular. Another student began raising collard greens and other vegetables in raised bed gardens, and is successfully selling produce to the community.
The Macon chapter also benefits financially by gathering pine straw (needles), and selling it for landscaping mulch.
Brian Walsh, National FFA president from Woodstock, Va., represented his organization during the conference while mingling with 16 of the national officer candidates attending.
Sherry Kile of Montague, past president of the Michigan FFA Alumni, served as Michigan coordinator for the event, putting countless hours into securing the venue and arranging local tours and entertainment. The Taste of States social event included homegrown talent by Jene Engler, who serves as organist at the National FFA Convention, and Joe Lajoy, National FFA band director. Both musicians are from Hastings in south-central Michigan.
The organization introduced a new dues system for affiliates during the conference. Affiliate chapters can now pay a flat fee of $100 to cover all alumni members within the chapter. The old system required a $10 per-member fee. Membership benefits will not change under the new payment structure. "The passion this group has for the FFA is a winning combination for the alumni, kids, teachers and the nation," Case said.