Brandon Roiger joined the National FFA when he was 14, stayed involved in it for a decade and says it’s done him a world of good.
That’s why he wants the group once known as the Future Farmers of America to be more diverse and inclusive.
“It’s an organization that’s been so valuable,” Roiger said. “But also it’s had a lot of systemic issues that result in barriers to participation.”
Roiger, a native of Sleepy Eye, Minn., who now works at the University of Minnesota, explained his critical views of the organization in an online essay last week that gained attention in FFA chapters and with the organization’s leadership.
In it, he said the FFA is not respectful enough of Latinos, not aggressive enough in promoting women of color to leadership positions, has a dress code that marginalizes people who don’t subscribe to conventional gender norms and in general reflects a leadership that’s predominantly white, heterosexual and Christian.
Leaders of the organization say they are listening to Roiger, who was recently one of its student leaders.
“It drove home that the work that we’re doing at National FFA to elevate inclusion, diversity and equity in the organization is important,” said Mark Poeschl, CEO of National FFA, based in Indianapolis. “We want to make FFA a welcoming place for all students.”
Like many industries, farming is caught up in a swirl of demographic and economic change. The number of active farms has declined sharply for two generations. White people still own the vast majority of farms, but farm laborers are predominantly Hispanic. National immigration issues are shaped in part by that.
Meanwhile, the National FFA is larger and more geographically and ethnically diverse than ever. Founded at Virginia Tech University in the 1920s, it is one of three legs of the agricultural education stool — along with classroom instruction and work-based learning — in America for middle and high school students.
It changed its name in 1998 from Future Farmers of America in an effort to attract students who may not end up farming but could benefit from the leadership, business and technology skills it imparts.
Today, the National FFA has a record 700,000 members, equally split between rural and urban students. Nearly half, or 46%, are female and 13% identify as Hispanic.
Training and opportunities for Hispanic farmers and workers is an acute issue in farming. Roughly 60% of farm laborers in the U.S. are Hispanic, but just 3% of farmers or farm managers are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture.
“There would be no dairy industry in Minnesota right now if it weren’t for Latinos,” said Nick Olson, a Farm Beginnings program coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota.
Rodrigo Cala, an organic farmer near Turtle Lake, Wis., who works as a farm consultant for the Latino Economic Development Center, said he works with Latino farmers across the country, and National FFA is not on those families’ radars.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of that organization,” he said in an interview last week. “Maybe there’s some opportunity for us to work with them.”
In Minnesota, the racial divide in the FFA is shaped in part because 4-H clubs, which involve younger children and feed into FFA participation, are strongest in rural communities where the predominance of white people is greater.
Pakou Hang, president of the Hmong American Farmers Association, spoke at a state FFA convention a couple of years ago and was blown away by how “sophisticated, poised and articulate” the students were. That exposure made her wish it had happened when she was in high school.
The Hmong American Farmers Association attracts more than 1,000 student visitors to its farm south of St. Paul, part of its effort to persuade students to pursue farming.
“It’s so clear that it’s a smaller and smaller group of people in the pipeline who want to be farmers,” Hang said. “If we don’t diversify that, then we shouldn’t be surprised with not only a dwindling number of farmers, but also how they look. If we have a more diverse pipeline, then we can have more innovative and creative ideas.”
Roiger, now an agriculture educator at the University of Minnesota, joined an FFA task force last year to come up with ideas for how to make the organization more friendly to people of color, people with different sexual orientations, people with disabilities and people of religious minorities.
He was ultimately disappointed with the pace of change and the way the key decisions were controlled by the organization’s predominantly white leadership. Ten of the 11 members of the FFA board of directors are white men. The current national officers of the organization are all white — three male and three female.
“Let’s be honest. No matter how much we talk about all the jobs available in agriculture, food and natural resources, FFA is not actually for everybody,” Roiger wrote in his essay. “FFA was built by white men and was made for white men.”
Poeschl, who has been CEO of National FFA since 2016, said Roiger had expressed the ideas to him and other leaders while on the task force. “We have listened and been respectful of that, just as we are with the information that he’s posted,” Poeschl said.
Poeschl said the organization is working with the National Association of Ag Educators to “identify ways that we can make FFA a more welcoming place.” It’s alsohiring a consultant to produce educational materials for students and for agriculture teachers on inclusion matters.
“We recognize that in all of this, we’re going to walk before we run,” Poeschl said.