Future Farmers harvest renewed interest in rural life

How are you going to keep the kids down on the farm? It's a little easier these days, thanks to the success of a rural communities improvement program that the Future Farmers of America (FFA) has cultivated the past 10 years.

Through their Building Our American Communities (BOAC) program, FFA members have built a schoolhouse in Louisiana, planted a million seedlings in a Washington State reforestation project, constructed a heliport to connect an Arizona community with emergency medical facilities, and stopped beach erosion threatening a Florida highway after local officials and thousands of tax dollars had failed to do so.

When the program was created in 1971, rural areas had been declining for decades. The brightest kids sought their futures in the big cities, leaving small towns. The US Department of Agriculture's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which looks after rural America, was searching for ways to reverse this trend.

The FmHA decided to try harnessing the FFA's adolescent energies to the task of improving rural communities, and the BOAC concept followed. With 485,000 members drawn from vocational agriculture programs, the FFA is one of the nation's largest high school organizations.

A participating FFA chapter surveys its community to identify a local need, and then organizes a project to meet that need. The students provide thousands of free man-hours, utilizing skills acquired in their vocational agriculture classes, while the community comes up with equipment, materials, and professional services.

FFA chapters in 11 states get seed money for approved BOAC projects in the form of small grants (about $500) from rural rehabilitation funds, but those in the remaining states have to get projects started on their own. Since programs rely heavily on community resources, sometimes a priority project is put aside for one that can be more easily done with available resources.

While BOAC projects spruce up rural America, the long-term benefit involvesel 3l

plugging the rural youth drain.

''The kids are learning to get things done in their communities,'' says Ted Amick, BOAC's national director. And participating gives students a stake in their communities that will hopefully encourage them to remain there.

Something does seem to be keeping them there - or attracting people from elsewhere. The BOAC's 10th anniversary celebration last spring got an added lift from the 1980 census figures. Small towns, only recently considered faded relics , are now growing faster than urban areas for the first time since the predepression era.

The rural boom hasn't been felt in Bennington, Vt., yet. ''In the 1840s, it was the sheep capital of the world, but since then it's been all downhill,'' says Dick Lutz, the local FFA chapter adviser and vocational agriculture teacher.

To give a boost to local food production, the Bennington FFA chapter organized a Main Street farmers' market under the auspices of the BOAC program. The market meets every Wednesday for 18 weeks from late spring to early fall, and gives local growers opportunity to sell their produce. FFA students involved in food production themselves can also sell at the market.

''The FFA tends to conservation projects, so the Bennington chapter has reached out into something different; the kids are learning a lot more than community service,'' says FFA alumnus Wesley Mook, now president of Bennington Cooperative Savings and Loan.

BOAC officials agree, making the chapter the eastern regional BOAC award winner this year. Bennington will compete with the three other regional winners for the national championship at the annual FFA convention in Kansas City Nov. 12-14.

Though individual chapters have demonstrated BOAC's potential for improving rural areas, the role BOAC plays varies from state to state. For example, a Louisiana FFA chapter can build a schoolhouse, while building regulations prevent an Ohio chapter from doing so.

But in these lean economic times, the program - which gets no funding from tax revenues - can offer any rural community a few things it wouldn't otherwise have. And at the very least, says Mr. Lutz, ''it keeps the kids' hands and mouths busy.''

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