CLEMSON — If there is one word that defines the FFA organization, it is “opportunity.”
This is the one word that kept resurfacing during the annual South Carolina FFA Convention held at Clemson University June 7-9. The one word that kept coming up as leaders and others discussed the organization and what it has meant for them was “opportunity.” About 1,000 members attended the convention.
DeShawn Blanding, the first FFA national officer from South Carolina since 1967, appeared at the convention so that he could tell others about “opportunities” he’s had since becoming an FFA member his freshman year in high school. Blanding is the FFA southern region vice president for 2016-2017.
“I’ve been in FFA since my freshman year of high school,” said Blanding, from Manning, who is now in college. “When I started participating in FFA, I was an overweight boy who didn’t have confidence in himself and didn’t like speaking in front of large groups. But I joined FFA and found a family of members who encouraged me to take advantage of every opportunity given to me to succeed. I did and now I’m a national officer.”
Blanding made history when he was elected as one of six college students to head the 2016-17 National FFA Officer team; he’s the first FFA member from Clarendon County to receive such a distinction.
His brother, Darius, was another reason Blanding joined FFA.
“When he was growing up, Darius had a stuttering problem,” Blanding said. “He joined FFA where he was given an opportunity to practice and participate in public speaking. He overcame his stuttering and learned to speak in front of people. He is now at the University of South Carolina Medical School.”
Since being elected to the FFA National Officer Team, Blanding has been traveling across the United States touting FFA and the vast amount of opportunities afforded youth who become members. He’s traveled to Japan and he’s met with Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, as well as numerous chief executive officers and others.
“FFA has been a blessing,” Blanding said. “It has taught me who I am and who I can be. I am very humbled to be a part of such a fine organization as FFA.”
While Blanding is proud to be a member of FFA, FFA is proud Blanding is a member. Steve Brown, National FFA advisor, said he is proud to have witnessed Blanding become the “fine young man” he is today.
“DeShawn has evolved since he has been involved with FFA,” Brown said. “He grows and continues to grow. He exudes confidence and he is fine example of youth involved in FFA.”
Brown said belonging to FFA gives youth opportunities to be a part of something bigger and better.
“FFA benefits students by helping them develop skills that will help them throughout life,” Brown said. “FFA members learn about leadership, personal growth, as well as how to succeed in careers. They learn how to be employable and earn a sustainable wage so that they can be productive members of society. I encourage all youth to belong to FFA where they will have opportunities to be the best they can be.”
Brown said FFA is a “progressive organization” whose members “learn to do and do to learn.” Knowledge FFA members learn today will benefit them in the future, he said.
“FFA members have opportunities to develop skill sets that help them learn to live and live to serve,” Brown said. “We live in an ever-changing world. Agriculture is changing. Our environment is changing. Technology is constantly changing. FFA members have opportunities to develop knowledge and skills to help society learn to adapt to these changes.”
Teaching agriculture is one of those skills, which is increasingly important as the number of ag teachers is on the decline. Mariah Swygert and Matthew Bonnette are two FFA members who are coming to Clemson University in the fall (2017) to begin their degree paths in agriculture education.
“I live on a family farm,” said Swygert, 18, of Leesville. “I have always been involved in agriculture and I understand how important it is to our society. I love agriculture and I want to teach others to love it as much as I do.”
Swygert said she plans to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then return to her hometown to teach. Her plans also include creating a program to teach agriculture to younger children.
Bonnette, 18, of Chapin also plans to attend Clemson University this fall (2017).
“I believe it’s important everyone understands where our food and fiber comes from so that they can appreciate it more,” Bonnette said. “I want to teach high school students the same skills I have learned so that they can become educated consumers of agriculture. We all like to eat and wear clothes, and I want to teach people about where their food and clothes come from.”
George Askew, dean of the Clemson College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, said FFA members are just what America’s agricultural industry needs.
“I feel joy when I see blue jackets on the Clemson campus,” said Askew, in reference to the blue jackets FFA members wear. “I am happy because I know the future of agriculture is in good hands.”
Jim Clements, Clemson president, agreed.
“When Clemson Agricultural College opened its doors in 1893, there were just 446 students,” Clements said. “Today, we have almost 25,000 students and we are ranked among the top universities in the United States. Agriculture is strong here at Clemson and we support all you do. FFA is a great organization that provides great opportunities for youth to succeed.”
Also during the convention, state officers were elected for the 2017-2018 year. They are:
• Philip Rhodes, state president, Calhoun Falls Charter School
• Allison Harman, state secretary, Gilbert High School
• Lauren Kirkley, state vice president, McBee High School
• Matthew Bonnette , state vice president, Center for Advanced Technical Studies
• Samantha Parker, state vice president, Pendleton High School
• Christle Tindall, state vice president, Edisto High School
The mission of FFA is to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education, said Keith Cox, executive director of the South Carolina FFA Association. FFA chapters are located in middle and high schools, as well as colleges throughout South Carolina.
“I encourage students in middle school, high school or college who have an interest in agriculture and leadership, as well as making a difference in their communities, to join their local FFA chapter,” Cox said. “Being a member of FFA is one of the best, most positive things a young person can do.”
Denise Attaway is with the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Public Service and Agriculture, at Clemson University.