By SEAN ELLIS
MERIDIAN, Idaho -- With farm kids becoming harder to find in this rapidly growing city, Meridian's FFA program is by necessity turning to youths with no prior agricultural background.
FFA Advisor Shane Stevenson estimates less than 20 percent of the 275 students in the Meridian FFA chapter have farm backgrounds.
Though the students start with little knowledge of the food industry, Stevenson said it has not been difficult to gain their interest.
He said the students are particularly interested in the high number of agriculture-related jobs in Idaho, a state that attributes 20 percent of its jobs to the farming industry.
"When we talk to them in class about the opportunities in agriculture, they get excited," said Stevenson, who teaches ag science technology at Rocky Mountain High School. "We're really trying to show our students some of those more specialized careers and that they don't have to live on a farm to find a career in agriculture."
Another way Meridian FFA advisors pique the interest of non-farm kids is through the chapter's annual Ag Expo, which includes 35 booths that teach 3,800 elementary school students about the basics of agriculture.
The booths are manned by FFA students, who themselves gain valuable knowledge about agriculture during the three-day expo, which concluded Oct. 4 and included about $1 million worth of farm equipment and an introduction to the latest farm technology.
The Ag Expo has been one of the district's main tools for creating non-traditional advocates for agriculture, said FFA Advisor Alan Heikkila, an ag education instructor at Meridian High School.
"We're teaching our kids in the classroom and now they're being an extension of us and going out and teaching another group of students about agriculture," Heikkila said. "When you get a hands-on activity like that, you create a spark in kids that maybe you wouldn't get by just talking about it in the classroom."
The list of urban kids involved in Meridian's FFA program includes junior Toby Carleton, 16, who made the transition from the surfing culture in southern California to the farm fields of southwest Idaho last year.
"It's a totally different atmosphere, so it's kind of a culture shock," he said. "But I like the agricultural lifestyle. I think it's cool that you can grow your own stuff and not depend on anybody else. I also think the people involved in farming ... tend to be pretty good, honest people."
Meridian, now Idaho's third largest city, saw its population rise from 34,919 in 2000 to 75,092 in 2010. That rapid growth created a situation where many farm fields are now partially surrounded by subdivisions, which supply the district's students.
"They are our future and it's extremely vital that they have a clear picture of where their food comes from and that it takes a lot of science, technology and hard work to get these products to the table," Heikkila said.