For Goodness Sake: The Future in Blue Corduroy


They arrived in cars, vans, and buses from  all over the United States.

The National FFA Organization (formerly The Future Farmers of America) came to Louisville in late October for their annual convention. Nearly 50,000 thousand boys and girls swarmed the city, decked out in perma-press white shirts, neckties and signature FFA blue corduroy jackets.

Starkville, Mississippi
Starkville, Mississippi

The teenagers came in order to be inspired, have fun and meet other like-minded folks from across the fruited plain.  Somehow, between stops at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Churchill Downs, they even found time to contribute 16,000 hours of community service. They are bright-eyed kids, short on piercings and body ink and long on promise.

Judging the National FFA Nursery/Landscape Career Development Event, I felt confident these young conventioneers would know the difference between a barrow and a gilt, but I was curious to find out what they knew about the art and science of fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants. I was even more curious about what they envisioned for the future. It was a pleasure to meet teenagers who not only like being outdoors but also hope to make their careers outdoors.

Agriculture is a tough business with high capital and operating costs on top of devilish weather uncertainties. Farmers, in order to feed us, must make a profit. U.S. agriculture also includes the nurseries and greenhouses that raise the trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and many of the vegetables that we plant in our gardens. All of this bounty comes with dangerous long-term consequences. Agriculture too often abuses its principal resources—land and water—and contributes up to one-third of greenhouse gases. Something needs to change.

The development of perennial grains and better livestock management might make a difference. A reduction in nitrogen fertilizers in all growing and landscape operations will help, too. Will it be possible to develop a wider diversity of crops, less dependent on the harmful chemicals that are contributing to alarming beehive collapse and the serious reduction in monarch butterflies?

Rockcastle County, Kentucky
Rockcastle County, Kentucky

Will producers develop a practical way to recycle the millions of plastic nursery pots? Will homeowners plant beautiful home landscapes that don’t require spray trucks roaming neighborhoods?

Can the “agriculture goliaths” be trusted?

Whether there will be any change to farm and horticultural production will depend on youngsters like those who were here in Louisville at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center.

The Nursery/Landscape Career Development Event featured teams of three or four kids who had won state competition to reach the Louisville finals. The segment I judged, along with 12 other volunteers, was more of a debate team square-off than a test of horticultural knowledge.

The challenge, with no forewarning, was to design a plan to motivate other school kids, and the community, to become involved in FFA horticulture. To do so, they needed to figure out how to engage community colleges, four-year land grant universities and prospective employers—nurseries, greenhouses, landscapers and garden centers.

The kids had a half hour to prepare for their 15-minute presentation. They sat up straight, looked their judges in the eye and avoided common teen vernacular: “or like… you know… I mean… whatever.”

It was a delight to watch these youngsters work as a team to figure out who the leader would be and how they would divide their individual responsibilities for the presentation. Some were Type A; others were terrified. Some came prepared; a few winged it. They mostly stayed focused and did a marvelous job.

Ojo Caliente, New Mexico
Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

A few minutes following each team session allowed for me to get a better sense of the kids. With big smiles, they all mentioned, when asked who their influences were, a parent, grandmother, or a teacher. For each, a career in horticulture, floriculture, landscaping or nursery production would be a dream come true.

On the other hand, most still have much learning to do. Only a few had a clue about sustainability, and none had heard of the pioneering perennial polyculturist, Wes Jackson of Salina, Kansas, or the urban farmer, Will Allen of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was no fault of theirs. I would recommend that FFA advisors bone up on Wes Jackson and Will Allen.

After all, not even the most seasoned debater could argue against Wes Jackson’s vision for a “sustainable, sunshine future featuring agriculture.”

The teenagers expressed their dreams of studying molecular soil science, establishing community gardens, teaching agriculture or cleaning-up the Chesapeake Bay.

The FFA moderator said, “These are great kids, the best and the brightest in the world.”


  1. I agree, Wes Jackson and Will Allen are two amazing pioneers in food farming. Hope the models they have developed will be adopted (and locally adapted) far and wide. Sad to hear that future farmers are not embracing more sustainable ideas and practices with open arms. On the other hand, sounds like they are learning skills that will enable them to work within the agricultural and horticultural communities. Thanks for the report, Allen!

    • Evelyn, thanks so much. I don’t think the teenagers have been exposed to many unorthodox agricultural or horticultural ideas. A lot of them are seekers. Some of them will ask a lot of questions. I am hopeful enough of them will understand what’s at stake and make a difference.

  2. I think there is alot of hope for these kids, but learning via the status quo leads to orthodoxy, the LAST thing we need when exploring how to create a sustainable network for our resources. (BTW – one of the platinum donors of FFA is the “animal health” subsidiary of Pfizer, and you know what THAT means – keep your livestock healthy via patented antibiotic/hormone cocktails) These kids look clean, neat, responsible – leaders! BUT to look to the fringes of any dominating system for the real answers, one has to be a bit of a rebel – a punk rocker. I think the future of sustainability sits with the kid with pink hair and a tattoo of a ear of corn with a JUST SAY NO TO GMO banner around it who is helping out in the community garden – that kind of youngster! I know there are kids like that! I’ve seen them! But a big YES to the FFA kids – hopefully they will get the info they need to change our broken food system! Thanks for this post Allen!!!

    • I went on a family vacation to San Francisco in 1967 during the Summer of Love. I was 16. A cousin, who was living in Haight-Ashbury, took my younger sister and me to the Fillmore. I was dressed in chinos, blue oxford cloth shirt and a blue blazer. The light show, 3 big bands and all the hippies. Wow! That night changed my life. I wish the game-changing kids that you know could have been in Louisville to meet the FFA kids. My most memorable FFA kid had a pierced lip and wanted to start a community garden. She was very tight with her other, more conventional peers. All of these wonderful teenagers are learning important skills. And I agree, Ivette, they all need to have their cages rattled and learn to be always be open to ideas. Thanks!

      • Oh I love that image Allen – The girl with the pierced lip being close with her more conventional peers all coming together to learn the skills that will give them the foundation to do what they will in our world of horticulture/agriculture! It warms my heart! And I love your life-changing moment! The beauty of being a young adult is how open and plastic we can be to ideas and issues – that sense of invincibility and adventure and hope that blossoms at that time in life can, does, and will change things for culture. What a beautiful thing!
        (please note that only one sentence in this reply ended in a period – the rest are exclamation points because it is all SO EXCITING!!!)

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