Thousands of Delaware students find their passion through youth agriculture
Every year thousands of students head to the Delaware State Fair to show off a year's worth of training and discipline — and the animals they’ve bonded with.
Delaware Public Media’s Roman Battaglia joined them in Harrington to learn about the value kids get from youth agriculture programs.
When people think of state fairs, they often envision carnival games, ferris wheels and deep fried twinkies.
They started in the mid-1800’s, primarily as a means of promotings a state’s agriculture, including competitions of livestock and farm products, but have grown into huge regional entertainment events hosting millions of visitors. The Delaware State Fair hosted a third of the state’s entire population in 2019, it’s biggest year yet.
But the ag foundation remains - helping train the next generation of farmers, veterinarians and just about anyone else interested in agriculture.
Two youth groups dominate this space - FFA, formerly known as Future Farmers of America and 4-H. Both offer thousands of students across the state leadership training, STEM skills development, and of course, agriculture and livestock education.
Kendall Metz is the state president of the Delaware FFA chapter. The Delaware State University sophomore is studying Agriculture education and hopes to become a teacher.
“We’re really training the next agriculturist in the world — and not even just these agriculturists we’re also training just adults who are going to go into the real world. So FFA and I know 4-H, we really apply for more like leadership alongside agriculture so we’re really focusing on both of those areas so when students decide what they wanna do in the future they can really excel in both of those,” Metz said.
"Without FFA, I know I personally wouldn't have been involved with agriculture today. It really lit that spark in me to be able to lead within agriculture and outside of it." - Delaware FFA state chapter president Kendall Metz
4-H programs are even broader, providing STEM skills, healthy living, public speaking and civic engagement.
But the core of both remains agriculture education. Many students who join FFA do it because they’re interested in the field.
High school senior Hanna Haigh has been in FFA since 6th grade. She came to the fair from Milford to show her pig Blueberry at the livestock contest, a big and charismatic girl she’s been training since March.
FFA chapters partner with local farms to provide animals for the students to train and show at state and county fairs. The students learn how to properly feed them, groom them, and most importantly, train the animals to behave politely when showing them to the judges.
“So if you go into the showering and your pig’s screaming and it’s not going where you want it to go the judges will put you at last,” Haigh says. “But if you’re making eye contact with the judge and they’re seeing all the views of your pig and they walk up to you and they say hey, what do you like about your pig, what do you dislike about your pig, when was your pig born — and you know the answers to all those questions you’re gonna place a lot higher.”
Haigh is among those discovering their passion. She grew up in Wilmington before moving south and never knew she considered agriculture until joining FFA.
Metz says it's a familiar story.
“And without FFA I know I personally wouldn’t have been involved with agriculture today; it really lit that spark in me to be able to lead within agriculture and outside of it,” she says. “And I know this is true for many other of our members that we’re really inspiring those not just already in agriculture through their family but those who are outside of it too.”
Take Erin Kuzminski, for example. The high school junior from Middletown trained a dairy cow this year, and hopes to become an exotic animal vet.
Or Haily Drysdale. She wants to become a vet, and says Cooke Family Farms, which leases dairy cows to the Appoquinimink FFA chapter, helps her learn things you can’t in a classroom.
“Our farm manager Mr. Richard Morris helps us a ton with veterinarian type things,” Drysdale says. “Like we get to watch vaccinations, we’ve given vaccinations before. It’s a super fun way to get hands-on learning but safely, in a safe manner to where we’re being supervised all the time.”
It’s this next generation coming through these programs that’s helping address a decades-long farming population decline.
According to the latest Census from the USDA, the number of primary farm producers has gone up over half a million from 2012 to 2017 — and the average age of farmers, while still continuing to rise, hasn’t done so as dramatically as the past.
Farmers are also becoming more diverse. Women now make up over a quarter of primary farm producers, and minority populations are also growing.
But even if some involved in FFA don’t pursue an ag-related career, Kuzminski points out they learn to appreciate the field.
“I think one big thing I’ve learned is how hard it is to be a farmer,” says Kuzminski. “They have to work every single day, they don’t get breaks — and sometimes they don’t get paid a lot for it, they have to work extra jobs off the farm along with working on their farm just to make ends meet.”
FFA students say it’s about giving Ag a chance. They encourage others to try joining. You never know if agriculture is right for you until you spend months training a cow to act nicely.
Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.