Growing Leaders at Loudoun’s Last FFA Chapter

Agriculture is changing—in Loudoun and around the country. And so are the profiles of Gen Z students moving into ag fields. Waterford 16-year-old Seth Gardner just might be the new face of farming in Loudoun.

Gardner, a junior at Woodgrove High School and the Academies of Loudoun, is president of the county’s last remaining FFA chapter. The student organization focused on agriculture and leadership (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) has changed in recent decades. But FFA is thriving, both in Loudoun and nationwide, as it shifts to encompass a wide range of STEM fields.

“I’ve always been really interested in agriculture—sustainable agriculture especially,” Gardner said. “I love learning about holistic management and the different facets of how things fit together.”

In Loudoun, the Academies of Loudoun FFA chapter is flourishing with more than 80 student members. Nationwide, membership continues to grow and now stands at 735,000, a fact that some people find surprising, said Kristy Meyer, communications manager for the National FFA Organization based in Indianapolis. 

“We attribute that [growth] to agriculture becoming more diverse in the opportunities it has,” Meyer said. “There are more than 250 careers in agriculture, and tapping into that interest has really helped us to expand. … You’re looking at the opportunity for students to look not just at production agriculture—what you and I might traditionally think of when we think about ag—but also food science, biotechnology, veterinary science, plant sciences…”

One of the big changes in the national organization has had an impact on how it operates in Loudoun: the club now is available only at schools with agriculture education programs.

“We call it inter-curricular as opposed to extracurricular,” Meyer said.

The Loudoun chapter fits that bill, drawing students from Environmental Plant Science, Biotechnology and Veterinary Science programs run through the Monroe Advanced Technical Academy at the Academies of Loudoun.

For Gardner, the opportunity to join FFA was a big part of his decision to apply to the Academies.

“I’ve always wanted to be in FFA because I’m so interested in agriculture,” he said. “The leadership opportunities and development for speaking skills are also a great draw.”

Gardner now spends B-days at the Academies in the full-day environmental plant science program with teacher Deborah Chaves, who is the FFA co-sponsor, along with veterinary science teacher Amanda Fallon. Veterinary science student Payton Delean is Gardner’s FFA counterpart for the branch of the club that meets on A-days.

Gardner confirms that interest in FFA in Loudoun goes way beyond students who want to be farmers.

“There’s a lot of very diverse career interests with the members. We have students who want to be neuroscientists.” Gardner said. “Technology definitely plays a huge role, and there’s a lot of opportunities to learn about how technology fits into agriculture in everyday life through FFA.”

The club regularly hosts speakers from a range of fields, including a recent talk on pollinators that attracted a crowd that filled the Academies’ auditorium.

Gardner and many of his fellow club members are bound for four-year colleges, and Meyer said a diversity of career and educational goals in FFA is part of a national trend.

“Students are looking to see what career paths fit them and what best fits their skills. Through FFA they can see if that is a four-year college career path, maybe it’s a two year or maybe it’s a technical skill where they’ll be working in the community,” Meyer said. “Part of it is letting them explore all those careers in agriculture and ag science starting in high school.”

For Chaves, who teaches plant science and biotechnology classes at the Academies of Loudoun, the hands-on learning and leadership opportunities that FFA provides are at the heart of the program. 

“It is truly a premier leadership club with wonderful opportunities. The students have an opportunity to develop their skills and do some things they haven’t done,” Chaves said.

Chaves has been an FFA advisor since 2002, starting with the long-running chapter at Monroe Technology Center, which transferred to the Academies of Loudoun when the campus opened in 2018.

Since March of this year, Gardner also has worked for Andrew Crush of Lovettsville-based Spring House Farm, part of a new generation of Loudoun farmers focused on regenerative agriculture. Gardner said growing up in western Loudoun has helped shape his career goals.

“I’ve seen our county’s rural agricultural roots and how the western side of the county used to be, and you can see development marching forward,” he said. “The interface of that has really shaped how I want to handle things.”

Gardner, who competes on the Woodgrove debate team, eventually wants to run his own sustainable farm, but he’s also interested in running for public office—with agriculture policy front and center. Gardner said he’s planning to study political science in college while continuing to focus on a career in agriculture.

He credits leadership opportunities in both his FFA role and his classes at the Academies in helping prepare for both careers. Gardner and fellow Environmental Plant Science students recently ran the school’s annual holiday plant sale, selling poinsettias and other plants they grew in the school’s state-of-the-art greenhouse and managing the business aspects of the sale as a fundraiser for scholarships.

That focus on leadership opportunities is in line with the national organization’s focus.

“The goal of FFA is to really provide this next generation of leaders that are going to make a difference in our world,” Meyer said. 

And for Gardner, FFA plays a role in sparking his generation’s renewed interest in agriculture, which he and many of his peers view as a growth field.

“There’s definitely a huge surge—especially in regenerative agriculture,” he said. “People are seeing that there can be environmental benefits and farming can actually help the environment and do good things for the community.”

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