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The national FFA organization, originally known as Future Farmers of America, has this blue corduroy jacket that's always been an icon of rural life in this country. Truth is, fewer and fewer young people are growing up on farms these days. And yet, kids are donning that jacket in record numbers often in cities and suburbs.

Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Reece Melton unlatches the fence leading into a muddy pen at the St. Vrain Valley School District's working farm in Longmont, Colorado near Denver.

REECE MELTON: You wouldn't think there's a livestock facility back behind here.

RUNYON: Melton is president of the district's FFA chapter, and takes care of the farm's cows, goats and pigs during school hours, which sometimes serves as joke fodder from his classmates who play sports. And he hears about it.

MELTON: Reece has got to go to cow class.


MELTON: Reece has got to go to farmer's class like that. So right, I am going to farmer's class.

RUNYON: Unlike FFA members of the past, Melton didn't grow up on a farm. His parents did. And that's the norm for the 60 other students in his chapter.

MELTON: We're in an urban area, so most of our members do not grow up on property, though they still have that connection to agriculture.

RUNYON: Most Millennials are several generations removed from the farm. That's why the school district is going to great lengths to make agriculture appeal to more students.

LAUREN HART: So this jacket is just from the '80s but...

RUNYON: Lauren Hart is the district's FFA advisor and an agriculture instructor. In her eight years of teaching she's noticed a shift. A greater number of students are interested in organic farming methods, grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs. And Hart says she can't just ignore what students want to learn about.

HART: The interest and the ability, both, of students going into production agriculture is declining. It's just not something that a high school student either wants to or believes they're able to get into.

RUNYON: Hart reaches into areas you wouldn't typically associate with farming: law, public policy, entrepreneurship and bookkeeping. And that's something that doesn't always sit well with a few students' parents who hail from farm country.

HART: Why aren't you doing XYZ? And when are you going to have my student on a tractor? Well, never.

DWIGHT ARMSTRONG: The perception is that FFA is plows, cows and sows.

RUNYON: The national organization's CEO Dwight Armstrong says programs like Hart's are taking off. And the changing focus appears to be working. Nearly 580,000 students are enrolled in FFA this year, a record for the organization that dates back to the 1920s. Suburban and inner city chapters in places like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York are some of the fastest growing in the country.

ARMSTRONG: Because now we talk about not vocational agriculture, but the science of agriculture and the science of food.

RUNYON: And Armstrong says reframing ag into food science begins to point students on more stable career paths - something that couldn't be said during the 1980s farm crisis. That's when enrollment numbers slumped, the name went from Future Farmers to FFA, and the group's survival mode mantra became Adapt or Die.


RUNYON: Back at the school farm in Longmont, Reece Melton and his classmate Samuel Johnson are planning a coop for a flock of fast-growing chickens. Both have the iconic FFA blue corduroy jackets hanging in their closets at home, which at first, Melton says he griped about wearing.

MELTON: It's definitely not the most stylish outfit, but it's something that's more relative to tradition.

SAMUEL JOHNSON: And it's kind of neat that the jacket didn't change throughout the years. It's always been blue corduroy, same emblem and everything.

RUNYON: One tradition that's held on, while everything around it changed.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colo.


GREENE: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and food.

This is NPR News.


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