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FFA: Cultivating Kentucky’s next ag leaders

Farming organization for students moves well beyond cows, sows and plows

When Nicholas Hardesty was a student at Meade County High School in the early 2000s, many people told him his dream—to one day own his own farm operation—was out of reach.

“People told me it’s impossible to start farming on your own in this day and age. They said, ‘You have no ground. You have no equipment. It costs too much. You have to have it handed down to you,’” says Hardesty, 31, a Meade County RECC member who now runs Hardesty Farms and Greenhouses in Guston and oversees diversified farming operations on more than 800 owned and rented acres in Meade and Breckinridge counties. “I wanted to prove to people that I could do it.”

Nicholas Hardesty and his wife, Bethany, own and operate Hardesty Farms and Greenhouses in Guston. Their daughters Alea, left, Maylee, and Whitley (not pictured) are proud of the family business. Photo: Anita Richter

Hardesty started farming through the Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) component of his high school’s FFA program. As a freshman, he grew 3 acres of tobacco on rented land; by his senior year in 2004, his farming operation had grown to roughly 10 acres, a total that kept expanding as he earned a degree at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.

Hardesty’s success in developing his business from scratch landed him the honor of being named Kentucky’s first—and to date, only—National FFA American Star Farmer in 2007. The title represents one of FFA’s highest honors and is given to the SAE farming project deemed the best in the nation that year.

“I had an exceptional ag teacher and FFA advisor in high school named Darryl Matherly. He constantly pushed my peers and me to do better. If it wasn’t for him, none of us would be where we are in agriculture today,” says Hardesty, who with his wife, Bethany, was named one of three state finalists for the 2018 Kentucky Farm Bureau Outstanding Young Farm Family award. Matherly now teaches vocational agriculture at Spencer County High School.

Real-world experience

The National FFA Organization launched in 1928, with Kentucky’s FFA charter following just two years later. Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives has been an active sponsor of Kentucky FFA since its earliest years.

While honoring the legacy behind its original Future Farmers of America name, today the National FFA Organization uses the FFA acronym as its official title, an acknowledgement that the agriculture interests of current members include not just farming but careers in ag science, agribusiness, veterinary medicine and more.

“FFA really broadened my horizons to all that agriculture encompasses,” says Lauren Horton, a 2010 graduate of Montgomery County High School whose family farm is served by Clark Energy. Currently working toward a degree in entrepreneurship and family business at Auburn University, Horton is in the process of launching a floral design and event planning business called Faith and Feathers, using a business plan that traces its start to her high school FFA SAE project in floriculture. “I have always loved floral design, but it was through FFA that I learned it could actually be a viable business,” Horton says.

Each year, around 26,000 Kentucky students enroll in their high school’s agriculture programs, with more than half—about 15,000—participating in 160 FFA chapters across the state, says Matt Chaliff, executive secretary of the Kentucky FFA Association who also serves as an agricultural education consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. Kentucky uses a three-pronged approach to agricultural education, Chaliff explains: “The first component is classroom instruction, so to be in FFA, you have to be in an agriculture class. The second part is FFA, which provides leadership development, public speaking and award opportunities, and the third is the SAE component, which provides a chance for workplace learning—a chance to put what they’re learning in the classroom into action.”

FFA students are encouraged to work with their advisors to develop and complete an SAE project each year. These can focus on any aspect of agriculture, from livestock production to landscape management or agricultural communications, and can be adapted to meet students’ interests and future career goals. To complete the SAE, students must keep detailed business records for their projects, which they can use at the end of the year to compete for awards—many with cash prizes—at the state and national levels.

In a program modeled after the National FFA’s American Star awards, Kentucky also honors top FFA projects at the state level each year with Kentucky Star awards given to the best SAE projects in farming, ag business and ag placement (paid labor), says Sheldon McKinney, executive director of the Kentucky FFA Foundation, Inc., the fundraising arm for Kentucky FFA. “Through these projects, what we really judge is growth, and how your project and your business have grown over time.”

For the SAE experience, students “use real money, deal with real issues and have a potential to make a real profit,” says Chaliff.

It’s this real-world education component that makes FFA so beneficial to students, says Matthew Whitaker, an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Boyle County High School. “What sets FFA apart as far as developing leadership and business knowledge is that we put students in situations to get hands-on experience, either working in a business or developing their own business,” he says. “It’s not just a conceptual thing that we’re talking about in the classroom.”

Lori Hall tends to her herd of about 25 Nigerian Dwarf goats at her family’s farm in Jackson. Their milk is the basis for her line of goat’s milk lotions and soaps. Photo: Tim Webb

From school project to full-time business

At her family’s Rustic Charm Farm in Jackson, Breathitt County High School senior Lori Hall spends three to four hours a day tending to her herd of roughly 25 Nigerian Dwarf goats. Their milk is the basis for her line of goat’s milk soaps and lotions, which she sells at festivals and gift shops throughout eastern Kentucky. “We started the soap and lotions as an FFA project, but now I’m hoping it can become our family’s main source of income,” says Hall, a Licking Valley RECC member who is currently serving as her school’s FFA president and as her region’s FFA treasurer. Hall credits FFA’s leadership development and public speaking opportunities with giving her the confidence to market her business so successfully. She hopes to continue to expand her product lines while pursuing a degree as a veterinarian.

In Pleasureville, full-time farmer Chelsey Schlosnagle, 25, is quick to point out that her business, Chelsey’s Eggs, did not launch as an FFA project—she’s been tending to hens since elementary school—but her experience in FFA did help strengthen her business plan, she says. “The technical part of FFA, as far as the record books you submit for competition, is very thorough. That helped us to organize and streamline things. We were able to sit down and consolidate and crunch the numbers to figure out where our weak spots were,” says Schlosnagle, a Shelby Energy member who received the prestigious National FFA American Star in Agribusiness award in 2013. Schlosnagle now sells around 60,000 dozen eggs annually—including at Whole Foods and other retailers in Lexington, Louisville and northern Kentucky—produced by her roughly 7,000 free-range, non-GMO-fed pastured hens on her family’s diversified Dutch Creek Farm operation in Shelby County.

Campbellsville’s JT Williams, owner of Green Thumb Lawn and Landscape LLC, also credits his FFA experience with helping him establish a strong sense for business. Williams started Green Thumb, a full-service landscaping operation with crews throughout central Kentucky, as a basic lawn-mowing business for his freshman year SAE project. (In the business’s earliest days, Williams had to hire upperclassmen to drive him to his mowing jobs.) “FFA taught me how to keep good records,” says Williams, a Taylor County RECC member. “I learned how to keep account sheets of where my expenditures were and how to balance budgets and create graphs of where our margins come from, where our profit is coming from, where income comes from. I still do all that stuff—it’s all things I learned in FFA—and those are as important as any lessons you’re going to learn in high school.”

Misty Bivens, who’s been teaching agriculture at LaRue County High School for 17 years, says FFA provides students with an essential platform to gain the knowledge and management skills to become the industry’s next leaders. “It’s awesome to see the growth that they make from their freshman year to their senior year,” she says. “And then, to see them go on after school to become productive members of our agriculture community is just so rewarding.”

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