Have You Heard of the “Present Farmers of America”? (5/13/2022)

I recently stumbled across a short notice in the Potter Enterprise newspaper of Coudersport, Pennsylvania. It was dated May 18, 1939. The notice identified the winner of a milking contest sponsored by the “Present Farmers of America.” Here is the clipping:

Figure 1. From the Potter Enterprise of Coudersport, PA, May 18, 1939.

Hmm! I had never heard of the “Present Farmers of America.” This aroused my curiosity. Then I found an article in the Whitewright (TX) Sun dated March 19, 1936:

Figure 2. From the Whitewright (TX) Sun. March 19, 1936.

Wow? I have been associated with agricultural education and FFA for over 60 years and never heard of the Present Farmers of America. In the Footnote we will explore the Present Farmers of America. Was this a real organization or merely a literary device?

Was there Really a Present Farmers of America?

In the early days of agricultural education the nation was divided into four regions and there were regional meetings. At the 20th Annual North Atlantic Regional Conference in 1938 someone commented that too few FFA members become farmers. If more FFA members became farmers, then we would need “an organization of the Present Farmers of America.” [Curator’s Note: I found this information by searching Google Books. However, I could see only a snippet from the original document. It is most likely that a state agricultural education official made this comment.]

The next reference I found for the Present Farmers of America had me scratching my head. In an article titled “Kresge F.F.A. Chapter 18 Years Old” that appeared in The Daily Record of Stroudsburg-East Stroudsburg (PA) on October 18, 1953 it was stated:

Most of the boys who attained these degrees [the Keystone Farmer degree] have graduated from the Future Farmers of America to the important Present Farmers of America while still others in the group have chosen to remain with the Future Farmers of America and are now teaching the present members of the organization.

A newspaper article in California from the 1980s told about farmers test driving John Deere tractors at a farm show. The article written by Tim Miller stated “Prospective customers –ranging in age from Future Farmers of America to Present Farmers of America – were lined up at the California Farm Equipment Show and International Exposition display, trying to get a shot at driving the three, huge green-and-yellow, eight-wheel 50 series tractors” (Tulare Advance, February 11, 1982).

Now I was really confused. I was asking myself was there really an organization known as the Present Farmers of America. If so, how had I missed knowing about this organization?

The two preceding articles spanned 30 years (1953 to 1982) and were across the country from each other (Pennsylvania to California). The first two articles in this Footnote were from the 1930s but again had some distance between them (Pennsylvania to Texas). In every instance the words Present Farmers of America were capitalized which would indicate a real entity.

At first, I thought the words Present Farmers of America was merely a literary device to refer to a group of people who once might have been in the Future Farmers of America. But given the geographic distribution of the articles and the time span involved I began to wonder.

Digging Deeper

Next, I decided to consult my authoritative resources that I consider to be official. A search of the National FFA archives and the History of Agricultural Education of Less Than College Grade in the United States found no mention of the “Present Farmers of America.” So, I decided to continue digging in the Newspapers.com archives for clues about the existence of such an organization.

The Morning Chronicle of Manhattan, Kansas for October 27, 1937, gave me a clue. There was a brief news blurb that was originally published in the Kansas City Kansan newspaper shortly after the national FFA convention in 1937.

Figure 3. From the Morning Chronicle, Manhattan, KS, October 27, 1937.

The journalist who wrote this was so impressed with the farming record of the FFA members recognized at the national FFA convention that he or she concluded they were really the Present Farmers of America.

The next piece in the puzzle came from New York in 1937. Fourteen young men who were no longer in school but were farming met with the agriculture teacher at the Central School and formed an organization known as the Present Farmers of America. See Figure 4.

Figure 4. From the Middletown (NY) News. October 16, 1937.

It appears the Central School Present Farmers of America club was active. An article in the Middletown Times Herald (January 19, 1940) stated “The last of a series of Present Farmers of America Club meetings will be held at the Central School Monday. The organization has invited as its guests the members of the Future Famers of America Club of Goshen.” The meeting was to include a basketball game between the Present Farmers of America and the Goshen Future Farmers of America. This was to be followed by a film – “The Soil”.

A search of the Bibliography of Agriculture (Volume 10, Number 6, June, 1947) published by the USDA led me to an article in the April 1947 issue of The Agricultural Education Magazine titled (of all things) – “Present Farmers of America.” The article was written by C. S. Miller, an agriculture teacher in Bassville, Mississippi. [Curator’s Note: Even though the Ag Ed Magazine identifies Mr. Miller as being from Bassville, there is no Bassville in Mississippi. However there is a Bassfield.) Here is a synopsis of the article.

Mr. Miller had taught agriculture for 16 years and had experienced the power of the FFA in “increasing the efficiency of education in vocational agriculture.” He had also made an “honest effort to teach evening classes” but “had not obtained results of which I could truly feel proud.” He arrived at the conclusion “if the FFA had raised the efficiency of vocational agriculture with boys, why wouldn’t a similar organization do the same for adult farmers.”

Mr. Miller divided his school district into seven meeting centers and started conducting adult classes in each center. The farmers in each center decided on the topics to be discussed. At times all the groups came together for a meeting. After using this procedure for a while “the question of an organization naturally arose.”

At a supper for the adult farmers and their wives, the group decided to create an organization. A representative from each of the seven centers met and decided on a slate of officers. The president, vice-president, secretary-treasurer, and vice-presidents from the four other centers made up the Board of Directors. Membership dues were set at fifty cents annually. “The members voted unanimously to name the organization the Present Farmers of America.”

The objectives of the P.F.A. were 1). To train for more efficient farming, 2). To sell advantageously, and 3). To purchase judiciously. The P.F.A. developed a program of work and started operating like a FFA chapter.

At the time Mr. Miller wrote the article there were 115 members. What Mr. Miller did not say was the Brassfield Present Farmers of America was incorporated under the laws of Mississippi. It was incorporated in 1946. Dennis Fortenberry is listed as an officer. It is interesting to note that today there is one high school in Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi, and a Career Center – The Dennis W. Fortenberry Career Center. Mr. Fortenberry passed away in 2020 and had been the Superintendent of Jefferson Davis County Schools between 2000-2007. Apparently, he was active with the Present Farmers of America in the 1940s.  Currently there is not an agriculture teacher in the county. So it seems the Brassfield Present Farmers of America is no longer active.

The most recent reference I could find that mentions the Present Farmers of America was from The Talon (Volume 8, Issue 8) a newsletter published by Vienna High School (IL). In May of 2002 The Talon had several features about the Class of 2002. There was an interesting prophecy for Senior Rebecca Yandell. She had been active in the FFA and won the sectional public speaking contest, held the state FFA degree, was a state FFA officer and was the state proficiency award winner in agricultural communications. Her prophecy was that she would become President of the Present Farmers of America. Interesting.

Closing Comments

Trying to determine the reality of the Present Farmers of America was like putting together a picture puzzle with missing pieces.

I have tentatively concluded the Present Farmers of America did exist, but they were local organizations of young and adult farmers. There was no nationwide organization. It appears there were such clubs in Pennsylvania, New York, and Mississippi; perhaps in Texas and California and possibly in other locations.

I have also concluded that some of the mentions of the Present Farmers of America were merely literary devices to convey a concept or idea that some FFA members actually become present farmers.

It appears the National Young Farmer Educational Association that does exist and is active in about 35 states is serving the audience represented by the Present Farmers of America. Also the FFA Alumni and Supporters may be doing the same thing. There are also similar programs operated in some states by the Extension Service and the Farm Bureau.

I know the plate of most agricultural educators is pretty full, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a FFA Alumni group or work with the NYFEA and related groups. They can be great supporters and provide valuable resources for your program.