I Smell a Rat! (9/3/2021)

It is Monday morning. What would you do if your students came to class with bags filled with rat tails, sparrow feet, hawk heads, coyote ears, and groundhog tails? If you were an agriculture teacher 75 years ago you would start assigning points for each item and tallying the points for each student. This would be part of the pest eradication program conducted by your FFA chapter. It was a big deal. In this Friday Footnote, you will learn more, possibly much more than you want to, about the FFA pest drives of the past.

Figure 1. Image from the Winona (MN) Daily News. February 23, 1953

The Early Days of FFA Pest Drives

Scranton’s Fun and Work for Future Farmers book published in 1934 (p. 199) suggests:

One way to have a lot of fun and at the same time do worthwhile service to the community is through organized drives to eradicate destructive animal and insect pests. Usually competing teams are organized; the rules and regulations for the campaign are drawn up; a scale of points arranged for determining the winners, the time is set, and the hunt is on. The winning side is ordinarily rewarded by being entertained by the losers, thereby giving opportunity for a good party and plenty of fun to wind up the contest.

Scranton then provides details about successful pest eradication drives in Illinois, Ohio, and Louisiana.


Figure 2. From The Journal News (Spencerville, OH), March 9, 1933. Note this was before Scranton’s book was published. It appears numerous FFA chapters were conducting pest drives early on.

Apparently, the National FFA was paying attention since conducting a pest eradication campaign became an objective in the 1934-35 National Program of Work. Objective 10 was “Encourage Pest Eradication.” A total of 1,253 chapters in 39 states out of 3,977 chapters nationally reported they conducted this activity (32% participation) during the 1934-35 year.

The same objective was found in the 1935-36 National FF Program of Work with a goal of 50% chapter participation. A total of 1522 chapters in 38 states participated.

The 1936-37 National FFA Program of Work contained “Encourage the control of farm pests” as one of the activities. The goal was to have 65% of the FFA chapters participate in this activity (37% actually participated – a total of 1,852 chapters). But there was a dark cloud on the horizon.

The minutes of the spring 1937 FFA Board meeting shows there was some concern about the pest eradication program (p. 2):

Pest eradication and conservation were discussed. It was brought out that some question had been raised as to what extent the F.F.A. should engage in organized pest eradication since in some instances this had become a destructive sport and thereby trespassed to some degree upon conservation activities. The Board felt that due consideration be given to this matter before including the item of pest eradication in the 1937-38 National Program of Work.  An effort will be made to have informed speakers on this subject to appear on the program of the Tenth National Convention.

While I found no record of an “informed speaker” at the 10th National Convention the Program of Work adopted for 1937-38 did not mention pest eradication. The eradication of pests disappeared from the National FFA Program of Work for the next 15 years. But that did not stop FFA chapters from having pest eradication drives. Even though pest eradication was no longer a part of the national program of work it appears many local chapters include it in their programs of work.

Apparently, the state FFA reporting form still called for pest eradication information. In 1937-38 1,964 FFA chapters held pest eradication drives. That number rose to 2,579 chapters in 1938-39 and topped out at 3,314 chapters in 1939-40.

The eradication of pests disappeared from the National Program of Work until it reappeared in 1954. The National FFA Program of Work committees between 1954-55 through 1959-1960 recommended “Sponsor campaigns for the eradication of pests and rodents” be a part of the National Program of Work. Then it disappeared again. Apparently forever.

How Did the Pest Eradication Drive Work?

The pest drives operated in a number of different manners. In Figure 2 we learn there were no teams as such with the York Township FFA and the top 14 scorers were treated to an event by the lowest 14 scorers. In some chapters two team captains were selected and the two captains chose the members of their team. In Figure 3 we see this approach used by the Avoca FFA in New York in 1940. However, if you pay close attention, you will see the two team captains were female (a past Friday Footnote reveals that a compromise was reached in 1937 allowing females to be members of state associations but not the national association depending upon the laws of the state or commonwealth).

Figure 3. Misses Loretta Livingston and Dorleah Barnes were pest team captains. From The Star-Gazette, Elmira, NY. November 8, 1940.

In some schools, the teams were formed according to geography. All the students who lived on one side of the school district would be on a team and compete against the students on the other side of the district. This would remove the stigma of being the last person picked. In Claflin (KS) Highway K-4 was the boundary between the North and South teams.

In other schools, the students competed by class. The teams were made up according to which vocational agricultural class you were taking. It was not unusual to have county-wide competition involving a number of different FFA chapters. See Figure 4.

Figure 4. From the Telegraph-Forum (Bucyrus, OH) December 13, 1935.

After the teams were formed, a point system was created to determine the winners. Various pests were assigned various values. In Figures 2 and 4 you can see the point values assigned to various pests by the FFA chapters involved.

Students were required to bring in “evidence” of their kills. The evidence was typically tails, claws, heads, or some other body part. You typically did not bring in the entire animal. However, there were exceptions. Albert Weeks, the agriculture teacher in Arcadia, Wisconsin in 1953 required the entire carcasses of mice, moles, weasels, and fox. But he admitted that disposing of carcasses became something of a problem.

The Kouts FFA in Indiana required (Rule 7) “Parts shall be brought in a container with a tight lid while parts are relatively free of odor.” Dirck P., a Claflin, KS FFA member in the 1950s wrote:

FFA moms hated Pest Eradication autumn. We’d keep the remnants of our victims in paper bags on the enclosed back porch for the entire week and take them in for counting each Monday morning. You couldn’t leave them outside because the farm cats and dogs would run off with them, thus wiping out valuable hard-earned points for your team. By the time Monday rolled around the whole house stunk like hell. Thus farm moms were happy when November became December and pest remnant storage was no longer required.

The losing team had to treat the winners to a chili supper prepared by them in the school cafeteria. The jokes were rampant about what was in the chili considering the nature of pest eradication.

Benefits of the Pest Hunt

There were several benefits from the pest hunts. This was good public relations for the FFA and also provided a tangible financial benefit to the community. Newspaper articles about the pest hunts often mentioned the thousands of pests exterminated and calculated the dollar value of eradicating the pests.

An article in the Newark, Ohio Advocate (March 29, 1934) had headlines that read “Boys Slay 8,177 Pests, Saves $5,541). The Boise (ID) Statesman (May 16, 1934) reported the Boise FFA “Eradication Campaign Ends; 21,311 Victims”. The Boise members also collected sparrow and magpie eggs in addition to the varmints.

The Ashland, Nebraska FFA took their 1931 pest eradication drive to a higher level. They sent the cottontail and jackrabbits they killed to Lincoln and Omaha where they were inspected, dressed and frozen, and distributed to the needy. This was during the great depression/dust bowl era and served a dual purpose – getting rid of pests and helping feed those in need. (See Figure 5)

Figure 5. News item from the Ashland (NE) Gazette. December 10, 1931.

In some areas, bounties were paid in addition to earning points in a chapter contest. The Idaho Fish and Game Department paid bounties of one cent for magpies and two cents for crows. In Iron County Utah, the county commissioners established a “Pest Patrol” in cooperation with the Parowan and Cedar Chapters of the FFA. The following bounties were paid to FFA members (See Figure 6. Pay attention to the suggested guidelines for handling the pests and to the “evidence”):

  • ·         Coyotes                                               50 cents
  • ·         House & field mice                          1 cent
  • ·         Jack rabbit                                           7 cents
  • ·         Kangaroo mice                                  2 cents
  • ·         Pack rat                                                3 cents
  • ·         Ground squirrel                                5 cents
  • ·         Gophers and moles                         3 cents
  • ·         English sparrows                              ½ cent

Figure 6. From the Iron County (UT) Record, Cedar City, July 13, 1939 (Ctrl + enlarges)

In 1949 the Walkersville, Maryland FFA chapter developed a point system for identifying the outstanding agricultural students in grades 10, 11, and 12 (The Agricultural Education Magazine, October 1949, p. 89). Students could earn points in 14 different categories such as scholarship, farming projects, contest participation, and involvement in school activities. One category was “Pest Eradication”. This was the only category that had a maximum number of points allowed and that was 20 Points. Here are the point values one could earn:

  • ·         Mice Tails            .2 point
  • ·         Rat tails                .4 point
  • ·         Sparrow feet      .2 point
  • ·         Starling feet       .4 point
  • ·         Crow feet            1.0 point
  • ·         Hawk head         1.5 points
  • ·         Fish crane feet  1.5 points
  • ·         Weasel tail          2.0 points
  • ·         Groundhog tail 2.0 points
  • ·         Opossum tail      1.5 points

I Smell a Rat!!

Glenn S. was an FFA member in Arcadia, Ohio in the 1950s. He recounts his pest eradication experience in an essay titled “Pest Hunt Champion” which can be found on the Internet.

My neighbor, Mr. Fetters, had a large pig farm and it is common knowledge among farmers that rats like to hang out around pig coops, as pigs are sloppy in general, but are profoundly sloppy when they eat. I approached Mr. Fetters and asked if we might come to his place after school and lie in wait for rats who had staked a claim on the space under the pigs coops. My suggested plan: We would place some bait outside the pens, then hide nearby … when the rats came to dine, we would shoot them with our 22 caliber rifles. Mr. Fetters said that we could not do that as we might accidentally shoot one of his valuable pigs, but that he had another idea. It seems that four or five years before, other FFA Pest Hunters had the same brilliant idea as us and were turned away by Mr. Fetters. He said he felt bad that he could not help them but anticipating another request, had been saving the tails of all the rats he had killed in gallon jugs of brine. He asked me to follow him into the barn to see the trove of rat tails. I was shocked! He had collected five gallon jugs of rat tails!!! Not a pretty sight for some of my readers, but a glorious moment for Glenn, the Pest Stalker!

The next morning, I hauled my rat tail jugs into the furnace room of the school (Where pests were counted and incinerated! I’ll bet the EPA would issue a finding to schools using their furnaces to incinerate pests!) My instructor said that since I did not actually kill these pests, he would have to seek guidance from the state office regarding whether-or-not they could be counted for contest purposes. He called the state office and the ruling was they could be counted if caught in our county and not used for any other contest. Yeah! We broke the jugs in a portable coal bin and counted and counted! I had several thousand points…enough for our Chapter to not only win the state contest, but for me to win the individual title…Pest Hunt Champion. My FFA Chapter received a check for several hundred dollars and I received a letter stating that I won the individual award. My team and I were state champions!

Concluding Remarks

While it is interesting to remember the past, there are some things we might not want to repeat. The FFA Pest Hunt contest might be one of them. In this day and age, some groups might take a dim view of this activity regardless of the outcome. But there are teaching opportunities this Footnote can provide.

1. In practicing parliamentary procedure the motion to have a chapter pest hunt could be a perfect motion to generate some worthwhile discussion and amendments.

2. You could ask the students to identify the agricultural pests in your community and determine the point values to assign each pest if there was to be a pest hunt.

3. Students might brainstorm ideas on how to control the pests in the community other than having a pest hunt.

4. When teaching about pest control methods, you might discuss whether pest hunts would be the desirable method of controlling pests or are there better ways today to control pests?

5. You might have the students read the story about Glenn and discuss whether or not the rat tails should have been counted? Why or why not? You could touch on other topics such as plagiarism or discuss the idea of “… above all, honest and fair in the game of life” stated by the FFA president at the end of an FFA meeting.