Last week we looked at the FFA Slogan “The Successful Farmer of Tomorrow is the Future Farmer of Today”. What would happen if we tweaked the slogan a little to say “The Successful Leader of Tomorrow is the FFA Member of Today”? Many former FFA members have risen to prominent leadership positions. Today’s Footnote identifies some of these prominent leaders. We welcome back Dr. James Connors (firstname.lastname@example.org) of the University of Idaho as a guest columnist who authored this Footnote.
The FFA has been an important part of many people’s lives and significantly influenced their career choices. Numerous studies have documented the leadership skills developed by FFA members. Many of these former FFA members went on to distinguished careers in politics and the law. Several FFA alumni have served in the US House of Representatives, US Senate, state legislatures and governor’s offices.
In 1965 the National FFA conducted a survey of former FFA members who were in leadership positions. The article (Lessons in Leadership, 1965, p. 27) stated:
We found an impressive number serving as state and national leaders in government. Included in this group are one U.S. Senator, five U.S. representatives, and five governors…In other state positions the survey discovered four former members as speakers of state Houses of Representatives, a secretary of state, a majority floor leader, a vice president of a state senate, attorney general, lieutenant governor, and an astronaut.
The 1965 article listed the following elected officials:
- Henry Bellmon Governor of Oklahoma
- Robert E. McNair Governor of South Carolina
- George C. Wallace Governor of Alabama
- Orval E. Faubus Governor of Arkansas
- John H. Reed Governor of Maine
- Fred R. Harris Senator of Oklahoma
- W. Pat Jennings Representative of Virginia
- Speedy O. Long Representative of Louisiana
- Gale Schisler Representative of Illinois
- Lindley Beckworth Representative of Texas
- Don Fuqua Representative of Florida
Sam Brownback, 1976-1977 National FFA Officer
Sam Brownback is a good example of a former FFA member who rose to several elected positions in state and federal governments. He began his FFA leadership by serving as the President of the Prairie View FFA chapter in Prairie View, Kansas. Based on his chapter leadership, he was elected to the position of State FFA President of the Kansas FFA Association. In 1976, Brownback was selected to serve as a National FFA Officer for 1976-1977.
After his FFA service concluded, he entered public service, rising to the position of Kansas Secretary of Agriculture from 1986-1993. In 2011, he was elected the 45th Governor of Kansas and served in that position until 2017. In speaking about his FFA experience and government service, Brownback stated:
I would not be in Congress if it wasn’t for the FFA. It developed my interest in politics, gave me a better understanding of government procedures and an enthusiasm for service…The leadership skills I developed and the values that were enhanced during my FFA years have provided concrete results in my life.
Figure 1 Sam Brownback – National FFA Officer 1976-1977
Figure 2. Sam Brownback – 45th Governor of Kansas (2011-2017)
The National FFA Organization keeps a list of current and former politicians who were members of the FFA. Table 1 below contains the list currently available from National FFA.
Former FFA members’ Participation in Government Service
|Harry Birdwell||Chief Administrative Officer
Commissioner of the Land Office
|Oklahoma State FFA President (1968)
National FFA President (1969-70)
|Sam Brownback||46th Governor of Kansas (2011-2017)
US Senator (1996-2011)
US Representative (1995-1996)
Kansas Secretary of Agriculture
|Prairie View FFA Chapter President
Kansas State FFA President
National FFA Officer (1976-1977)
|Larry Combest||US Representative (1985-2003)||Texas FFA member|
|Larry Craig||US Senator (1991-2009)
US Representative (1981-1991)
|Midvale FFA member
Idaho State FFA President (1964-1965)
National FFA Vice President (1965-66)
|Gus R. Douglas||Former West Virginia
Commissioner of Agriculture (11 terms)
|Point Pleasant FFA member
National FFA President (1946-47)
|B. Avant Edenfield||Senior US District Judge
Southern District of Georgia
|Stillson FFA member
Georgia State FFA Officer
|John Engler||46th Governor of Michigan (1991-2003)
Michigan Senate (1979-1990)
|Beal City FFA Member – Michigan
|John C. Gemmill||Judge, Arizona Court of Appeals||Agua Fria FFA member
National FFA Officer (1967-1968)
|I. Miley Gonzalez||Former New Mexico
Secretary of Agriculture
USDA Under Secretary of Agriculture
|San Simon FFA member
San Simon, AZ
|Roger Hanshaw||Speaker of the
West Virginia House of Delegates
|Clay County FFA Member
West Virginia State FFA President
|James Harsdorf||Former Wisconsin
Secretary of Agriculture
State Senator & State Assemblyman
|Stillwater FFA member (MN)|
|James B. Hunt||Governor of North Carolina||Rock Ridge FFA member – North Carolina|
|Matt Lohr||Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services
Chief – USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
|Virginia FFA President
National FFA Officer (1990-1991)
|Charles Stenholm||US Representative||Stamford FFA member
|Jim Teilborg||Senior US District Judge – Arizona||Colorado FFA member|
|Wes Watkins||US Representative||Oklahoma FFA member
Oklahoma FFA President (1958-1959)
|Dan Wyant||Former Director
Michigan Dept. of Envir. Quality
Former Director, Michigan Dept. of Ag.
|Cassopolis FFA Member
Michigan FFA State Officer
Jerry Litton (1937-1976)
One of the saddest FFA political stories is that of Jerry Litton. Jerry was an FFA member from Chillicothe, Missouri. An article in The National Future Farmer Magazine titled Jerry Litton: Farmer-Orator (Weller, 1963) states that, “So vast are the accomplishments of 25-year-old Jerry Litton of Chillicothe, Missouri, that every Future Farmer should read them as an inspiration to greater heights” (p. 38).
Jerry grew up on his family’s 300-acre ranch where they raised Charolais beef cattle. As a gifted orator, he was named runner-up in the National FFA Public Speaking Contest. He was elected State President of the Missouri FFA and in 1956-57 served as National FFA Secretary. Tragically, his life ended way too early. The National Future Farmer Magazine (Agriculture Loses a Leader, 1976) reported on the accident when it stated,
One of the most promising young leaders in America and one of the very few political leaders with a background in agriculture had died in a plane crash that also took the lives of his wife Sherri and their two children.
Litton was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972 at the age of 35. The day of his death he had won the primary for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from Missouri. The crash occurred when a private plane carrying the Litton family took off from the Chillicothe Airport to fly to Kansas City for a victory celebration. Litton’s life and accomplishments are recorded in a book titled “Jerry Litton, 1937-1976 – A Biography,” (used copies currently available on Amazon.com).
Figure 3: National FFA Secretary Jerry Litton with President Truman
Figure 4: U.S. Representative Jerry Litton (D-MO)
Since its beginning in 1928, the Future Farmers of America has developed outstanding leaders and citizens. Many of these members have used their experience in the FFA to become public servants or elected officials on the local, state, and federal levels. Presidential candidates, sitting Presidents of the United States, and former Presidents have all spoken to FFA members attending the National FFA Convention.
As the FFA approaches its centennial in 2028, it will continue to prepare outstanding leaders for the agriculture industry and public service positions. Perhaps there is a freshman FFA member out there today sitting in an agricultural classroom who will someday be elected to the state legislature, U.S Congress, U.S. Supreme Court, or one day be elected President of the United States. For that reason, FFA must continue to provide premier leadership, personal growth, and career success to all of its members.
1. Work with your FFA Alumni chapter to make a list of former FFA members who have entered careers in government service, politics, or the legal profession.
2. Make a list of former FFA members in your state or former state FFA officers who have worked in local, county, state, or federal government positions.
3. Interview former members of your FFA chapter who have entered politics and ask about their leadership development through FFA.
4. Attend a school board meeting, city council meeting, or county commissioner meeting to learn about service on government bodies.
5. Visit your State Capitol and attend a session of your State Legislature, House or Senate Agricultural or Education committees. Research what agricultural policy issues these groups address on a regular basis.
6. Invite your state representative or senator to your agriculture class or FFA meeting to discuss agricultural issues in your local community, county, or state.
Agriculture Loses a Leader (1976, October-November). The National Future Farmer, 25(1), p. 14.
Lessons in Leadership (1965, October-November). The National Future Farmer, 14(1), p. 26-28.
National FFA Organization (n.d.). National FFA Organization Prominent Former Members. Indianapolis, IN: Author.
The Jerry Litton Biography (1979, February-March). The National Future Farmer, 27(3), p. 15.
Weller, P. (1963, April-May). Jerry Litton: Farmer-orator. The National Future Farmer, 11(4), p. 38-39.