I want my 10-year-old son to grow up to be a successful, happy contributor to our society, with firm beliefs in his faith, family, country and service to others. I’m doing everything I can, like most parents, to expose him to the programs and opportunities that provide the foundation needed to achieve this. So how do I help him achieve this? And why am I writing this column in a business magazine?
Part of his happiness and success will be achieved by how he chooses his career path and develops skills that allow for growth on his path. One important skill that a student can learn, besides the basic core areas of study, is leadership. I’ve watched and learned over nearly 24 years since I graduated from college that building your ability to lead reaps tremendous benefits at home, in your career and as part of your community. Those benefits are for individuals and also for those around you. Having good leadership skills can help you succeed in business. How do you learn good leadership skills in high school?
Leadership is built mostly through experience. Especially in high school, you probably won’t find a good course on leadership. There are varieties of opportunities to explore, but two of the best I’ve seen, and participated in neither, unfortunately, is scouting and FFA (called Future Farmers of America at one time).
I was a student athlete and never had the chance to participate in scouts or FFA, although I wish I had. I wasn’t aware of what Boy Scouts of America was about and didn’t know if a local troop existed. Oswego High School didn’t have an agricultural program or FFA. These two programs provide a fantastic way to learn and develop leadership skills.
We are fortunate in Jefferson County that five of our high schools offer agricultural programming and FFA. South Jefferson, Belleville Henderson, Carthage, Indian River, and Alexandria Bay offer FFA and there are another nine FFA chapters within a 50-mile radius of Watertown. The five schools have approximately 500 students enrolled in agricultural programs and FFA. Today, there are 540,379 FFA members, ages 12 to 21, in 7,489 chapters in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The largest FFA chapter in New York is in New York City.
Yes, New York City has the largest FFA chapter in the state. You see, FFA is about learning and developing skills, including leadership, using agriculture as the foundation. In the city, horticulture is a huge industry. Suffolk County, just outside the city, usually leads the state in agricultural product revenue because of the demand for horticultural products.
The FFA is not just for students who grow up on a farm and want to go back to run the farm one day. I’ve noticed that entrepreneurial development, something our economy sorely needs, is alive and well in FFA. Every year, Mr. William Stowell, agricultural teacher and FFA advisor at South Jeff High School, invites me into his classroom to meet students who are developing business plans. At first, my expectation was that the business plans would be based on some common business and everyone would offer their own variation to the generic business. In many cases, I found that these students were actually serious about trying to develop these businesses, now or in the near future. From raising chickens to selling eggs to neighbors to making custom designer covers for equestrian riding helmets, these were real projects developed by the students with some intending to make them a reality.
But it is leadership development I’ve noticed most from the FFA. Charles “Chuck” Eastman, past president of Jefferson County Farm Bureau, participated in the Belleville-Henderson FFA chapter. Mr. Eastman said FFA was among the best activities to be involved with. Competitions, public-speaking events, participating on the ag forum team and serving as chapter treasurer each were important in building his leadership skills. Mr. Eastman and his two brothers own a 1,000-cow dairy operation that employs about 20 people. The business is an important contributor to southern Jefferson County’s local economy.
So son, I hope you get the chance to read this column but I’m sure you and I will have this conversation at some time not to soon from now. Work hard and earn good grades, but also take advantage of programs like scouts and FFA to build skills you don’t necessarily get in a classroom.
Jay M. Matteson is agricultural coordinator for the Jefferson County Agricultural Development Corp. He is a native of Northern New York and lives in Lorraine. Contact him at email@example.com.