EASTON, Maine — Fifty years ago, every school in Aroostook County had a bustling Future Farmers of America Club.
But as potato farming grew more mechanized, fewer children picked potatoes and the number of farmers dwindled, participation in the clubs waned.
Today, there are only 17 FFA chapters in the state, nine of which are in The County. While the name of the club has changed, educators say that the nature of the program has expanded and participation is growing.
Formerly known as the Future Farmers of America, the Maine FFA Association strives to develop leadership potential, personal growth and career possibilities through agricultural education, according to the organization’s website.
Maine FFA has nearly 500 members, with students organized in chapters from Brunswick to Caribou.
Kevin Marquis, who runs the local FFA chapter at Easton High School, said during an interview late last week that more than 100 students are enrolled there. Since it is a club, however, participation is not mandatory.
“In reality, I have about 30 to 40 students who regularly participate and show up and really take part in what we do,” he said.
To be eligible for FFA, a student must be in grades 7-12 and enrolled in at least one course related to agriculture, according to the Maine FFA website. Those courses can include aquaculture, agriscience, biotechnology or forestry.
Marquis said that while most people still believe FFA is for students who want to grow up to become potato farmers, that is not true.
“FFA is still students interested in potato farming, but also dairy, forestry, environmental science, you name it,” he said. “Participation bottomed out in the ’90s, but we have seen an increase in participation in the past few years because there has been more of an interest in environmental science.”
At Fort Fairfield Middle-High School, Jeannie Fox is spending her fifth year as an advisor for the program.
“Each year, our chapter is growing,” she said. “It is not just farming. We are learning leadership skills, public speaking and how to work as a team.”
One unique initiative the Fort Fairfield FFA helped initiate in July was the Fort Fairfield Community Garden, Fox said.
“That was so exciting and our students loved it,” she said.
The organic garden was created through a partnership between The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle and the Town of Fort Fairfield. Community General Hospital Legacy Committee, a citizens advisory committee, has been working with TAMC and community officials since September 2014 to start the project. That group partnered with the FFA, Fox said, to manage and oversee the garden.
Fox said that her FFA students helped develop the memorial garden, which honors those who provided health care in the region.
“My students helped till the land so that the community members could grow healthy produce for themselves,” she said.
Community members were assigned their own plot of land at approximately 100 square feet each and expected to garden, harvest and tend it, according to Fox.
“We were able to help the citizens with the planting and harvesting of the seedlings and vegetables,” said Fox. “It was a great project.”
In Easton, Marquis said his students are responsible for a number of very successful endeavors.
“We run an ice cream business at the Northern Maine Fair, and we have done that for 17 years,” he said. “We do concessions for soccer games at schools. It teaches the kids how to interact with customers, how to do the books, and how to handle transactions and receipts.”
Both Marquis and Fox also take students each year to participate in FFA national competitions in Louisville, Kentucky, something made easier with financial support from the Maine Potato Board. Don Flannery, executive director of the board, said the board gives a $1,000 annual grant to the chapters in The County, which often helps offset expenses from the convention.
“I would like to see more programs that get students interested in agriculture, which FFA did many years ago,” he said.
Other schools in the area do not have enough interest to start FFA chapters, but have similar programs.
At RSU 29 in Houlton, Superintendent Ellen Schneider said the district offers the Breaking Ground course, which allows students the opportunity to plant and harvest crops and sell them to the community. They also offer a forestry course through the Region Two School of Applied Technology.
“We are able to get all of the students’ needs met there,” said Schneider.
Fox said she is glad to see a surging interest in FFA.
“These students do a lot of good for the community,” she said.