November 29, 2021

Groton reinsates FFA, starts agriculture curriculum

How cows feed policy, tractors drive growth

Photos by Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Ten-year-old Lane Darling, left, of Groton, and 12-year-old Hunter DeGraw of Groton eat lunch Friday as the Groton Central School District re-establishes its first FFA chapter in 50 years. The chapter coincides with a new agriculture curriculum at the school, and with state policy to double agriculture teachers and expand the food system industry.

GROTON — As Lane Darling lunched on barbecued chicken, potatoes and baked beans Friday at Groton Central High School, he might not have realized the FFA chapter the district had just created coincides with a new agriculture curriculum; and that it dovetails with state policy to expand the state’s food system industry.

Mostly, he said, he wants to be a farmer because he likes driving the tractors. And feeding the cows.

“It’s something better to do than sit on a couch playing video games,” the 10-year-old Groton boy said.

Fifty years after the FFA chapter at Groton — once known at Future Farmers of America — disbanded, it reformed at a lunchtime ceremony attended by several dozen parents and farmers, a few educators, a state senator — James L. Seward (R-Milford) — and one commissioner of agriculture and markets: Richard Ball.

“I think we’re on the edge of a renaissance,” Ball said as he helped with the ceremonies, led by state FFA officers. “Today’s consumer is beginning to say ‘Who grew my food?’ and ‘How did they grow it?’”

That, in turn, encourages the smaller farms and food producers of New York to continue operating, and even expand, as milk prices barely pay the cost of production and crop farmers compete with fields measured in acres with Midwest farms that measure fields in square miles.

“New York is a big enough player in the agriculture industry,” Ball added, among the nation’s top 10 producers of 30 agriculture commodities. “Agriculture can remain viable and needs to remain viable.”

State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball models an FFA jacket given to him as he helped establish the return of the farming group’s chapter at Groton Central School District on Friday.

Encouraging farmers — and veterinarians and nutritionists and farm equipment mechanics and engineers and programmers and a litany of other professions — to get involved in the industry starts with the new curriculum at Groton, said Ball and Dan Carey, who helped advise the district through the process of creating the curriculum.

“FFA used to be all farm kids, but today the agriculture industry is so diverse,” Carey said. “This experience in the STEAM lab will give kids a chance to see what other opportunities are out there.”

The curriculum — part of the district science, technology, engineering, art and math wing — will incorporate classes in animal, plant and environmental science. It will mix in studies of food systems, internships, jobshadowing and business and professional skills, said Jason Oliver, the program’s teacher and a mushroom farmer — and Ph.D-level mycologist — himself.

“We’ve become disconnected from our farms,” said Oliver, who used to do research at Cornell University. Now, he needs to get a school connected to its fields. Beyond the classes, students have built a high tunnel to help with growing, and planted pumpkins as an FFA fundraiser in the fall.

The students who go through the program might become farmers. Or they might take a path similar to what state FFA Vice President Brandon Phelps of Lowville plans: agriculture education. Or maybe similar to FFA Secretary Emily Carey of Liberty — agriculture communications or journalism.

“I want all the students in this school to know what farming is about,” Oliver said. “Maybe this community is about the agriculture industry instead of typewriters and bridges.”

Maybe. Twelve-year-old Hunter DeGraw of Groton is considering a career in farming — he’s growing up on one. He enjoys feeding the animals.

But there’s more to farming than that: science and regulations and policy and business practice. Can he run a business?

Next to him, 11-year-old Addie Clore of Groton interjects: Clore, who rides and is fascinated by the cows and horses on her family farm, can absolutely run a business.

“If there’s horses involved, yes.”