FFA keeps farmers in our future

Matt Kelly
Perry and Sadie Lewis are FFA Alumni members whose roots are in the Penn Yan Chapter. The siblings, photographed at Torrey Ridge Winery, where Sadie is now head winemaker, set their career paths in agriculture using skills they sharpened in FFA.

Farming is not a job many Americans choose to take on anymore. Farmers and farmworker make up less than 1 percent of the total workforce in the United States. For close to a century, we’ve seen the number of farmers continually decline and their average age continually rise; there are fewer farmers and they’re getting older. From 1982 to 2012, the number of farms in this country decreased by nearly 19 percent, a loss of over 400,000 farms.

A generation from now, who will be growing the food we eat?

FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America) is helping to answer this question by getting young people interested in farming.

The Penn Yan Chapter of the FFA was chartered in 1931 and has been connecting students with careers in agriculture for 85 years. John Kriese has been the chapter’s advisor for the past 26 years.

“The FFA is intra curricular, which means that a student must be enrolled in agricultural education in order to be a member,” says Kriese, agriculture educator for Penn Yan Central Schools. “As a result, the FFA is very unique. The principles of agriculture are taught in the classroom and the FFA activities are an extension of the classroom learning.”

In any given year, there are between 80 and 100 students who are enrolled in agriculture classes at PYCSD. Some students take all of the classes that Kriese teaches and gain a sequence in agriculture upon graduation. Other students take single classes to fulfill elective requirements.

Sadie and Perry Lewis are two former students who are proud of their FFA experiences.

“My experience was awesome. I don’t know where I would be today without it,” says Sadie, class of 2010. “Before I joined the FFA I was a quiet kid who didn’t particularly enjoy going to school very much. The FFA helped me find my voice and gave me a place where I felt like I fit in.”

After graduation, Sadie attended Finger Lakes Community College for Horticulture and planned to study plant pathology. However, she soon discovered Viticulture and Enology. Sadie ended up switching majors and eventually interned with Derek Wilbur at Swedish Hill Winery in Romulus.

“While there I just fell in love with the Finger Lakes wine industry,” she says. “I don’t know anyone who couldn’t love the wine industry after working with Derek and his crew.”

After graduation from FLCC, she started working at Torrey Ridge Winery, Earle Estates Meadery, and Worthog Cidery. This past summer, Sadie took over as the Head Winemaker when John Earle decided to retire after more than twenty years in the business.

“The FFA made Sadie into a leader,” says Kriese. “Her experiences helped her to realize we are ultimately in charge of our own destinies. “

And the destiny Sadie would like to take charge of is to see the Finger Lakes take the wine industry by storm. “I strongly believe that some of the best wines in the world are produced here in the Finger Lakes and I look forward to the day the entire world feels the same.”

Her brother, Perry Lewis has a different vision for the future he would like to create.

“My dream is take over the family farm when my parents are at the age of retirement,” says Perry, class of 2013. “I’ll be the fifth generation to run this farm. I take pride in living out my father’s and grandfather’s legacy.”

After graduation, Perry went to work on the farm in Himrod. He found a passion for growing grapes, growing grains, and making the inevitable repairs to all the farm equipment. The farm was established around 1908. Today there are a hundred acres of grapes as well as fields of wheat and clover.

“Getting practical experience was probably the most important thing I got from FFA,” says Perry. “I learned to value teamwork, friendship, camaraderie and - last but not least – a good work ethic.”

“When Perry entered school, he always wanted to farm,” says Kriese. “His idol has been his father. He has always admired his parents’ commitment to production agriculture.”

But high school can put tremendous pressure on students to go to college. And while higher education can be a valuable experience, it shouldn’t keep a student from pursuing his or her real passion and skills.

“The FFA is an organization which celebrates abilities and allows students to grow into these abilities,” says Kriese. “No matter who you are, the FFA has something to offer. It seems to make sense to kids who are looking for something which will prepare them for life.”

To an outside observer, it might seem like all of the students in FFA grew up on a farm. But Kriese says this isn’t the case. “Very few PYCSD students actually live on farms. The FFA kids represent a huge cross section of students who have some level of interest in agriculture and natural resources. With well over 200 ag-related careers to choose from, we help kids develop all kinds of interests and abilities.”

And this, of course, is the key to making sure farming stays strong in America. Sure, it’s important to help farm kids keep working the family land. But it’s equally important to get kids into farming who have never before put their hands in the soil.

For more about FFA, turn to pages 8 and 9, and visit www.ffa.org.