Marcus Rasmussen, a junior at Astoria High School, was decked out in a blue jacket and slacks — official dress of the National FFA Organization — as he strode into the Big O Saloon & General Store on Monday, a lamb tucked under one arm.
After some nuzzling and a $20 donation from employee Shelly Searls to keep the lamb moving, Rasmussen was off to collect homage from the next business on his fundraising tour.
Signs of the National FFA Organization — the former Future Farmers of America — have begun reappearing around the Astoria School District after a decadelong hiatus, as the high school rebuilds the agriculture education and leadership program that dates to 1969 but was felled by budget cuts in the late 2000s.
Oregon voters in 2016 passed Measure 98, which promised up to $400 per student to improve the state’s dismal graduation rate, expand hands-on learning opportunities and improve college readiness. The measure has translated into an extra $250,000 to $300,000 annually to spend on the measure’s goals, Lynn Jackson, the high school principal, said.
Among improved counseling, expanded college-level offerings and other efforts, Astoria began creating career pathways for students in business and natural resources, including fisheries and agriculture. The school district added instructor Tess Hamby to teach wood shop and agricultural courses while restarting the high school’s FFA program, which now numbers more than 20.
Many students in FFA also belong to 4-H, a similar youth development organization based around agricultural competitions that culminate each year in county and state fairs. But FFA takes kids beyond showing at fairs into more leadership and professional development exercises, such as public speaking and job interviews, Hamby said.
“A big part of the reason we’re so well-funded by student success funds, Measure 98, is because we fall directly into” career-technical education, she said. “We help with high school dropout rates. We help with career readiness and college exploration, all of that.”
During the fall term, Hamby taught students about animal science and an introduction to the agriculture industry. This term, she has more than 30 students enrolled in horticulture, which returned with FFA for the first time in a decade. Such classes keep students more engaged than sitting in a lecture hall, Hamby said.
“Students are going to be more likely to take a class where they’re doing things,” she said. “You can tell when students are sitting there doing mindless work. This is mind-on work.”
Junior Allison Keeling had been exposed to horticulture by her mother, a garden center manager at Fred Meyer in Warrenton. A 4-H member the last four years, she heard about Hamby’s classes and signed up for as many as possible to get introduced to the agriculture industry.
Students who complete at least three courses in the high school’s business or natural resources pathways can earn certification toward similar fields of study in higher education. Keeling hopes the natural resources pathway will help her as she attends Linn-Benton Community College and Oregon State University, with hopes of working in horse training and rehabilitation.
“This will also help if I want to get a job in a greenhouse,” she said.
With less than 2 percent of the working-age population now in agriculture, a vast majority of students in FFA and agricultural education are not aspiring farmers. The organization dropped the Future Farmers of America name in 1998 to reflect the growing diversity of agriculture.
“We’ve been trying to keep relevancy by making our curriculum more hands-on” and career-technical and science-focused, Mackenzie Price, state treasurer for the FFA, said in an email. “That draws in more students because they learn about lots of industries within agriculture (i.e. welding, horticulture, animal sciences, business management) in hands-on learning opportunities. They learn that agriculture contributes to many industries and is very diverse.”
Astoria’s FFA chapter, one of nearly 110 statewide, is supported by a small group of Astoria alumni, including Charlie Hall, an instructional assistant at the high school who keeps a flock of sheep on the side.
“It gave you that extra step,” he said of FFA. “It was a huge community service promotion, just all leadership aspects. If I wasn’t passionate about it, I wouldn’t be involved to this day.”
Rasmussen never used to have an agricultural background. But after friends from church convinced him to start raising animals, his family eventually had to relocate from the subdivisions of Warrenton to a farm in Lewis and Clark, where he has a herd of 10 alpacas and three cows, along with sheep, goats and chickens.
“When I grow up, I want to be a cop,” Rasmussen said. “But I want to have a farm and sell to 4-H and FFAers.”