Stuart Wakeman lives with his family on a farm west of Lawrence.
But the Free State High School junior attends classes in an urban setting where few students have had experience driving a tractor or raising livestock.
“They say ‘redneck.’ I get that all of the time,” Wakeman says.
But since he started at Free State, Wakeman has gained support and friendships with other students —from both rural and urban backgrounds — through the school’s FFA chapter, the national youth organization formerly known as Future Farmers of America.
Wakeman, the FFA treasurer, and other officers say other students often notice the strong bond they have together, which can help fight the stereotype.
“It opened their eyes. I get that all of the time,” says Ariel Whitely, a senior and FFA secretary at Free State.
Free State’s FFA adviser, Laura Priest, a vocational agriculture teacher, says about 85 percent of the group’s members live in the city, but she and other students are able to convince them FFA would be a beneficial extracurricular activity. The school’s chapter grew to 28 members last school year from 10 the year before.
“If they decide they don’t want to be in agriculture, then they know how important agriculture is in their lives,” Priest says.
Lawrence High School also has an FFA chapter advised by vocational agriculture instructor Mark Rickabaugh.
The organization offers a plethora of activities for its members, from traditional agricultural activities like livestock judging to leadership conferences. Members also gain experience in communications and public speaking, for example.
The chapters also focus on community service, like volunteering to serve meals to the homeless and picking up trash in public places.
They also try to spread the word about agriculture both in schools and in the community. They worked at the Douglas County Fair last summer on projects and taught about fruits and vegetables.
“A lot of people think they’re all farm kids, but we beat that stigma back,” Priest says.
Nationally, more than 500,000 students are FFA members in more than 7,000 chapters in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
FFA also offers competitions for members in many areas, and the Free State chapter had a successful season last year.
Free State’s FFA president, Leanne Milleret, a senior, refers to herself as an FFA legacy because her father participated in the organization when he was younger.
“It’s just a way to combine my interests with a good organization,” Milleret says.
She plans to attend Kansas State University next year to study agricultural communications, so FFA has given her plenty of good experience. She also hopes to work in the agricultural field some day.
But not all FFA students will become farmers.
“I don’t live on a farm, but I do a lot more agricultural things at my house than I used to,” says Kailey Wendt, a Free State Senior and the FFA sentinel.
Their adviser says the organization can benefit students in a broad variety of ways, from learning about how their food is produced to public speaking and organizational skills.
“It’s not that cows, plows and sows stigma,” Priest says.