If you were a member of FFA, 4-H, or other agricultural education program as a kid, you know just how powerful these experiences can be.
Some still remember lessons learned in these organizations as adults. "I was a 4-Her for a decade," wrote Erin Anderson. "The number of times a day I use knowledge or skills I learned in 4-H is astonishing."
The impact of youth agricultural education on individuals, communities, and the whole nation is huge, which is why we're launching an effort to collect, preserve, and share stories of regular people from around the country whose lives have been touched by programs and activities like these in our online Agriculture Innovation and Heritage Archive.
Our own Smithsonian Gardens Supervisory Horticulturist Brett McNish was first to share his story and hopes you'll share yours, too. He spoke to intern Talia Berday-Sacks.
For Brett McNish, the blue FFA jacket brings back powerful memories.
"We're in this enormous coliseum and you look around and it's all blue jackets," said Brett. "It was a pretty powerful moment... as a teenager, to stop and really recognize that you're part of something great and important."
An FFA member at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Illinois, Brett was at the 1993 National FFA Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, when he experienced the thrill of being among thousands and thousands of his blue-jacketed peers.
Brett's high school involvement with his FFA chapter meant more than winning horticulture contests. He believes that organizations like the FFA shape America's future leaders and teach youth teamwork and other skills necessary for building strong, successful communities—and his own story is proof.
Brett joined his high school's FFA chapter in 1992 as a sophomore. As far as he knows, farming isn't part of his own family's heritage. In fact, his family had never heard of the FFA until, inspired by his favorite high school teacher and mentor, he told his parents he was joining.
"For someone who didn't really have a strong direction in high school, it gave me a focus. It gave a troubled teen a place to belong and to succeed," said Brett. He was part of a strong local chapter: his school placed third in the nation in the 1993 National FFA Floriculture Contest, where Brett placed 10th in the nation.
"These are the future leaders of agriculture. To be with them... looking back, these people are going to be in charge of their family farms, leaders of agribusiness, in the government like the USDA, potentially shaping policy, you name it."
His days working with his FFA chapter in his school's greenhouse and the sense of camaraderie Brett felt with his national and local FFA teammates led Brett to pursue a career that would connect him to others who shared his passion for horticulture. After college, he worked, at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, and then was the Horticulturist for University of North Carolina's historic Meadowmont estate. When his current job opened up, he realized that "being a Horticulturist for the Smithsonian was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass by."
Today, Brett has made public agricultural education a part of his everyday work and home life. Self-described suburban dwellers, his family has their own backyard vegetable plot, where he teaches his daughter how to grow and care for plants. "It's my hope that she continues to appreciate nature for the rest of her life no matter what she gets into... to have that connection to the soil."
Even though not all Americans are as directly involved with agriculture as he is on a daily basis, Brett notes a resurgence of interest in learning about agriculture and where one's food comes from.
"Agriculture is just as relevant today as it always has been. Read any newspaper, our food supply, how safely it's being managed, is in the headlines constantly. Farmer's markets, community gardens, and backyards plots are very popular right now. It seems to be very important to people to know where their food comes from, or grow their own food, to have a certain measure of control over their own food and what they feed their families. It seems like things are coming back around to trends and interests of 75-100 years ago. There seems to be this looking behind to look forward kind of thing."
Brett is excited to be the first to share his youth agricultural education story with the Agriculture Innovation and Heritage Archive and is excited to see other personal stories and photos pour in from around the country. "The story continues to be told," he said. "The members of FFA, what they learn and what they go on to do is vital... these are the future leaders and are extremely relevant to where we are today and tomorrow."
Curator Peter Liebhold, who reviews each story shared with the archive, is particularly interested in stories of youth agricultural education from a research perspective.
"As a curator, I need to research and interpret agricultural history from many different angles to tell a balanced, relevant, interesting story of agricultural transformation in America—as well as to ask the right questions," Peter said. "I'm interested in stories from great grandparents, grandparents, teens today. What's it mean to wear that blue jacket with FFA or to 'To make the best better' with 4-H? What's the role of technology and innovation in these programs? What did kids learn in these programs in the past that is different today and what core elements haven't changed?"
Share your experiences with youth agricultural education—or interview a relative about their experiences as a kid—with the archive.
Talia Berday-Sacks is an intern with the museum's Food History program.