The County (and yes, it is always capitalized) has more than a quarter-million acres of land used for agriculture. So it’s no surprise that of the 15 Future Farmers of America chapters in Maine, the majority are located here.
Some people theorize that there’s enough farmable land to feed the entire state, but in recent decades, the interest in farming has dropped. Because of that, it’s noteworthy that Washburn District High School, with only 99 students in grades 9-12, has revived its once-defunct FFA chapter and students are flocking to it.
But it doesn’t always focus just on farming.
This year, members of the new FFA chapter and the National Honor Society at Washburn teamed up with the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races, at one of the checkpoints along the race that ran Feb. 29-March 3. The students helped feed and care for mushers and their dogs, supervised by other staff. It required long days – or more – out in the cold, helping veterinarians care for the dogs when they came in for a much-needed break, and generally doing whatever was needed to help with the biggest sled dog race east of the Iditarod.
They were all thrilled at the hands-on experience that few other students get.
Earlier in February, Guy Landry and Sarah Umphrey, who run the checkpoint where the students worked, spent an afternoon training the kids and encouraging them to become involved with the event. Umphrey said that this contact opens up new directions and ideas for students, broadening their interests and opportunities.
“We have a strong agricultural tradition here,” she said, “and it only makes sense because students often are involved in farming. But here, we’re broadening the scope to include veterinary science, sciences in general, hands-on learning. That’s what students value.”
While there always were FFA programs in Washburn as she was growing up, Umphrey said interest died out until recently, when several students whose skill sets and interests didn’t mesh with a traditional academic program expressed interest.
For student Dawson McCoy, agriculture drives his interest. After working several harvests for a local farmer, he said he became involved because with FFA he learns things he doesn’t usually learn in school, like welding and caring for crops. His real ambition is to get his Commercial Driver License and be able to drive the potato trucks, rather than just harvesting.
Keegan Goodine, a senior at Washburn, said her dad farmed and she is drawn to farming, but she also said she is more inclined to automotive – taking things apart and repairing them. She’s also looking ahead to what she’ll do after graduation, which might be enrolling at Northern Maine Community College to develop her automotive experience.
Kristin Bragg said that while she is interested in farming, she has her ambitions set on becoming a game warden, or perhaps some other part of law enforcement.
“My dad was in FFA and I want to follow what he did,” she said.
Umphrey is delighted with the students’ response and is working on a new proposal for FFA that could further expand the learning experiences. Perhaps more important, the students are carving out the path they want to take, the experiences they want to have.
“This can incorporate everything,” she said. “Science, technology, getting your hands dirty. It’s practical and provides great skills.”
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.