Michael Velazquez

Michael Velazquez works on a poster for an upcoming schoolwide career day while FFA advisor Joshua Billingsley examines flyers for the event.

WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. — The move from urban Colorado to rural Illinois opened Michael Velazquez’s eyes in more ways than one.

FFA was virtually unknown to him before he got here. Now he’s actively involved, serving as vice president of the chapter at Frankfort Community High School.

The organization long ago expanded its reach to subjects outside farming. That appeals to Velazquez, who has zero background in agriculture.

The introduction to FFA came by accident to Velazquez. A scheduling mix-up put him in a horticulture class taught by advisor Joshua Billingsley, who convinced him to join. He did, and liked it so much he decided to run for office. He hopes one of the legacies of the current makeup is a growth of enrollment.

“It has fallen over the decades. Not a lot of people even knew we have an FFA club,” he said. “Now the word is getting out. We’re going to have an influx of people wanting to join. We’re going to start talking to junior high students.”

The school’s chapter has contracted over the years, as overall enrollment has taken a hit. Total enrollment at the Franklin County school has fallen from a high of more than 1,000 students to only about 600 today.

There are now 32 “official” members, but only 15 to 20 actively participate. Fundraising challenges make it difficult for Billingsley and his students to become involved in more regional, state and national events.

“This school is small. Everybody does everything,” Billingsley said. “My chapter president does cross country, National Honor Society and other things.”

On a recent day, for instance, many were on a school trip to a nearby college. Outside activities make it difficult to get a quorum in the FFA room.

But the chapter is making moves. It has taken on the major responsibility of organizing the school’s career day every year. Students at the high school complete an annual survey asking them what professions they would like to see represented. That is whittled down to 25 speakers, each with a classroom for individual presentations.

The chapter signs up speakers, makes signs, arranges the logistics and helps run the event, which is its biggest activity. The members also sell fruits and plants as fundraising activities.

Velazquez said he enjoys using parliamentary procedure for official actions. But largely, the shared interests and fellowship appeal to him.

“We just have conversations and see what our members want to do,” he said.

“Michael is a super kid,” Billingsley said.

A senior, he is considering attending Murray State University in Kentucky, where he plans to study history. He likes the scope of FFA and agriculture in general, especially the marriage of agronomy and technology.

“It’s more diverse, more technological,” he said. “Those things are grafted into each other. I didn’t realize just how much. I was never exposed to that until I joined FFA. People around here always think it’s all about cows, plows and sows.”

Though Velazquez has no plans to work in the agricultural sector, he values his experiences with FFA.

“It’s taught me self-discipline, how to engage with others and be a leader,” he said.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.