2018-2019 Ohio FFA Association State Officer Team

Why Are We Here? Reflections From a Former Ag Cult Leader

Nineteen years ago, a legend of agricultural education informed me in no uncertain terms that I was not only a member, but a leader of one of the biggest cults in the United States. That cult? The National FFA Organization, known still by many by its original name, the Future Farmers of America.

That legendary educator, Dr. L.H. Newcomb, literally wrote the book on teaching agriculture. Then a dean of the College of Food Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University, Newcomb was facilitating a workshop for newly-elected state FFA officers, an august group of wide-eyed teens of which I was an eager member.

“You don’t realize it, but this organization is basically a big ol’ cult,” Newcomb told us, and I’m paraphrasing his words because although I don’t remember them word-for-word, I’ve thought about his basic message more than once over the past two decades. Newcomb, I should point out, was not only a legendary educator, but a former state FFA president himself, so his shocking revelation was born from personal experience and a great deal of love.

“A cult?!?” I can hear my fellow FFA alumni squawk in righteous indignation. Yes, in a way, FFA in specific and agriculture in general is something of a cult. The first definition I found via the dictionary of Google defines a cult as a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. What Newcomb was trying to get across to us in his talk was that as young leaders, we had on a set of blinders, or held a certain set of biases of which we were blissfully unaware. 

Think about how those of us involved in agriculture – specifically in the profession of farming – speak about our chosen vocation. Why do we farm? I spent the morning facilitating a workshop with this year’s crop of newly-elected Ohio FFA Association officers, and when asked them this question, they almost uniformly answered with some variation on the theme that we farm because it’s in our blood, it’s who we are, it’s our calling.

In other words, particularly for those of us born into multi-generation farm families, we’re devoted to farming (for some of us, maybe hopelessly devoted, ha ha), and we speak about it in terms that border on veneration. And that is entirely understandable – for people involved in farming, there is a great deal of our identity tied up in that noble profession – it is much more than a job, in other words.

But with this degree of emotion tied up with what is, at its core, a business and/or an occupation, depending on how you look at it, we tend to respond very emotionally when we feel our livelihood is under attack. We react very strongly when consumers, for example, question our methods of raising livestock or growing crops. And that reaction, I’ll submit, isn’t always productive or positive in terms of fostering a healthy relationship between farmers and the consuming public off the farm.

Some of the things I shared with the young cult leaders is that it’s really important to differentiate between learning what to think and learning how to think. For us as adults in this industry, that’s still a valid lesson, particularly in the era of social media when there are plenty of folks shouting at us what we should think on any given topic.

My hours each year with the young FFA members rank annually as my favorite workshop of the year, and this year was no different. I walked away excited about the future of agriculture, and happy to have played a small part in the inspiring task of mentoring the next generation. I hope you’ll find time to take up that cause as well.