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The Future Farmers of America, Right Here in Marin!

By Jeanette Furlong, Tomales FFA President, with Introduction by Paulette Swallow, Sustainable Ag Coordinator

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With only 1% of our nation in charge of feeding the rest of us and our average rancher reaching retirement age, it’s reasonable to wonder who will take over the family farm. Luckily, there is an inspiring group of students at Tomales High School that belong to “Future Farmers of America” (FFA), an intercurricular student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership. Many of the motivated students are already involved in the local agriculture industry, they plan to attend some of the best colleges in the U.S., and hope to secure future careers in the agriculture industry.

This past spring I was asked to judge Tomales High School’s FFA project competition. As a past FFA member myself, I can’t say enough about the education, knowledge, and professional training I received as a member of FFA. I have used these skills throughout my life and career, and my Ag teacher has been one of the most influential people in my life. FFA requires an exorbitant amount of time inside and outside of school and is a year round program. Because of this, students spend school hours, weekends, and summer break with their Ag teacher and fellow classmates participating in leadership activities and competitions. As any current or past FFA member will explain, having a good Ag teacher is like having another parent; they will push you, introduce you to new endeavors, and prepare you for so much more than you realize at the time.

When I arrived at Tomales High School’s Agricultural Department early on a Wednesday morning, I wasn’t at all surprised to find students in the Ag shop working on their projects and their teacher, Mr. Bill Costanzo, in his office which was full of students hanging out. This group of enthusiastic students reminded me that there’s an unspoken rule about Ag teachers’ offices and classrooms--the door is ALWAYS open.

To set me up for judging, I was brought to an empty classroom, sat down with a note pad and pen, and was joined by Mr. Costanzo. The next person to enter the room was a young high school student named Jeanette Furlong. She was the first project presentation I would see that day, and to date – one of the most memorable presentations I have ever seen. Jeanette confidently walked over, introduced herself, and shook my hand firmly. This alone was no surprise because by the winter of their freshman year, FFA students are well versed in the art of introducing one’s self and giving a firm handshake. Knowing that both sides of Jeanette’s family have an extensive background in Marin County agriculture, I anticipated a presentation on livestock. However, she surprised me and introduced her communications project, making a fantastic case for FFA and impressing me with the extent, effort, and forethought which had gone into her project…. and she was only a sophmore. That is what brings us here, to the summer issue of Grown in Marin News. Without hesitation Jeanette agreed to write an article about Tomales FFA highlighting the opportunities and success stories this small high school FFA chapter has created. Hear from Jeanette Furlong, Tomales FFA President in her own words.

Jeanette Furlong, Tomales FFA President
Jeanette Furlong, Tomales FFA President
I have been a member of the Tomales FFA Chapter for three years. This year I am serving in a variety of leadership roles including: the 2016-2017 Tomales FFA Chapter President, Sonoma Section Secretary, North Coast Region Vice President of the Sonoma Section, and Tomales FFA Sweetheart. In addition to being active in FFA, my background within the Agriculture industry extends farther. I have had the privilege of growing up on my grandparents’ sheep ranch, as well as my father’s beef cattle ranch. The 4-H program in middle school prepared me well for the next big step -- FFA.

The Tomales High School Ag Department consists of five classes: Ag Mechanics, Welding, Ag Bio, Ag Soil Chemistry, and Ag Leadership. The first step to becoming an FFA member is to sign up for one of these Ag Classes. The second step to becoming an FFA member is to choose a “Supervised Agriculture Experience” or SAE project. For example, I chose Sheep Entrepreneurship, Ag Communications, Hog Entrepreneurship, and Ranch Work Experience. The third step to becoming an FFA member is to get involved. This final step is optional, however, it has led me to become more confident, humble, and selfless.

Public speaking is an opportunity to become confident in oneself while speaking in front of a large group of people about important agricultural topics. Public speaking competitions for California FFA include: The FFA Creed Recitation, Impromptu, Prepared, Job Interview, Extemporaneous, Parliamentary Procedure well as Opening and Closing.

Along with public speaking and presentations, there are an immense number of opportunities for FFA members to not only better themselves, but learn how to lead. Most of these opportunities begin at the local level, advance through the regional level, and conclude with State level at the State Conference… THE ALL MIGHTY STATE CONFERENCE! Some of these conferences are only for members who hold office at the Chapter, Section, Region, and State level. Tomales FFA is located in the Sonoma Section, which is within the North Coast Region. It is these experiences in leadership, relationships made with other members, and opportunities to grow into one’s own person that sets the FFA program apart.

I am constantly asked the question, “why would you choose Ag Communications?” Most
Students choose animal related projects for their SAE, however I was looking for something I was truly passionate about. Now I LOVE showing livestock, however I also have a passion for informing others. In fact, one of my favorite parts about being in FFA, is having the chance to advocate for the Ag industry everywhere that I go! I love going into a room full of people who are not familiar with the FFA, and explaining what is has to offer for students all throughout our nation, and teaching them about the valuable life skills that you gain from it. While having my Ag Communications project, I have had the opportunity to do a bi-monthly radio show with 90.5 KWMR, where I inform the public on what Tomales FFA has been up to, as well as give my opinion on different agricultural topics. I have also given the Tomales FFA Chapter social media outlets including; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! All of these social media accounts, have given FFA members, students, and the public the chance to not only see what Tomales FFA is doing through pictures and videos, but also share ideas with others. When it came time to fill out our Regional Proficiency applications, I had no idea what that even meant, and quite honestly I did not think that I even had a chance of making it past the regional scorings. For me receiving a regional and state proficiency award, wasn’t like “all of my hard work was getting paid off,” it was about taking pride into what I have worked so hard to accomplish within my projects and inspiring others to hopefully do the same.

Marin County 4-H and FFA members at Marin County Fair
Marin County 4-H and FFA members at Marin County Fair

Since 1929 when the Chapter was established, Tomales FFA has had outstanding Supervised Agriculture Experience projects. These SAE projects are awarded as levels of proficiency. Our members have been recognized at the State and National stage. In 2012 Amanda Moretti was a National FFA Dairy Production Proficiency finalist, and in 2014 her brother Danny Moretti won the National Proficiency in Poultry Production. To put these impressive individuals into the lime light, only three national finalists are chosen, and there is only one national proficiency winner in each category. This year I was honored to receive the State Ag Communications Proficiency Award, and I am eagerly waiting to hear if I am a National Finalist invited to attend the National FFA Convention in October in Indianapolis, Indiana, where over 63,000 members will come together to celebrate the successes of others, and agriculture.

Like Paulette, I want to underscore the importance of agriculture teachers and their heart, dedication, and passion for their students and the Ag industry. My Ag teacher, Bill Costanzo, has become one of the most influential people in my life. He has taken my “big dreams” and turned them into reality. He has never given up on me, he has given me the tools to achieve what I thought to be the “impossible,” and he is always quick to lend a helping hand. However, the most important lesson that I have learned from Mr. Costanzo is not something that he has done, but something that he has said. “Take a little, leave a lot,” these words have made me realize that the reason that I get such a rush in any endeavor I take on within the FFA is because I am serving others. We are here to serve our members, and Mr. Costanzo has shown me that if I can have the impact on only one student the way that he has impacted my life, I will be content

FFA logo and US flag
FFA offers students so much more than just an in-classroom experience. With youth becoming more and more disconnected with where our food comes from, we as FFA members are trying to not only educate, but show how truly important the Agriculture industry is to our everyday lives and our community. As an avid FFA member, and seeing how it has changed so many students’ lives for the best, I can say that the FFA is a special organization to be part of.

So, the next time that you see a teen sporting their signature blue corduroy FFA jacket, make sure to ask what they are doing, and maybe even thank them for believing in the future of Marin agriculture. As E.M. Tiffany the author of the FFA Creed once wrote, “American Agriculture can and will hold true to the best ability of our national lives, and that I can exert in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.” and we as FFA members at Tomales High School are striving to do the same.

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