Founded in 1928 as the Future Farmers of America, today’s 477,000-member National FFA Organization is expanding our views of traditional agriculture. In this story, we feature FFA members who are using and developing farming methods of the 21st century.
From the time she pedaled a toy tractor, Lynn Rohrscheib, 21, knew she wanted to be a farmer. Like her great-great-grandfather Adam Rohrscheib, who broke the Illinois prairie with a plow in the late 1800s, Lynn and her sister Stacey, 18, are breaking ground too.
These modern prairie farmers in Fairmount, Ill. (pop. 640), plant and harvest corn and soybeans with help from satellites 11,000 miles above Earth. The Rohrscheib sisters are among the new generation of American farmers using space-age technology and science to boost production to feed the world.
"I like having the new technology for better performance yield-wise and better management of the soil," says Lynn, driving a tractor linked to the Global Positioning System (GPS) by a receiver mounted atop the cab.
As she drives, the GPS pinpoints Lynn’s precise location and works with her dashboard computer that provides information such as number of seeds planted, soil temperature and moisture content, and tillage depth in specific sections of each field. Likewise, a GPS-guided sprayer applies varying amounts of farm chemicals as needed.
"This area may need 300 pounds of fertilizer, whereas another area needs 400 pounds," adds Lynn, a plant and soil science major at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (pop. 20,681).
During the fall harvest, Stacey’s GPS-equipped combine rumbles through the fields recording how much corn and soybeans are being harvested.
The young women each own a fourth of the family’s 5,000 acres and farm with their father, Vernon, 51, who says a big advantage of today’s high-tech agriculture is having a precise electronic record of farm operations instead of the handwritten notes that he and his father, Clifford, 87, kept for decades. Being able to track crops from planting to harvesting, just as high-tech ranchers track livestock with computerized ear tags, is important for accountability and quality control.
Hard work and responsibility
Like the Rohrscheibs, Joe and Bill Erdenberger use computers to manage 850 acres of farmland near Glen Haven, Wis. (pop. 490). A tractor-mounted monitor keeps track of "how much I’ve planted per acre, how fast I’ve planted, and how far apart the seeds are," says Bill, 22, a business major at Upper Iowa University at Prairie du Chien, Wis. (pop. 6,018).
But more than sophisticated equipment is needed to be a farmer. Farming requires know-how and old-fashioned hard work, whether it’s gathering the harvest or selling livestock at a profitable price.
The Erdenberger brothers learned about both—and about assuming responsibility—at an early age. Bill and Joe were preschoolers when they began bottle-feeding Holstein calves and teenagers when they found themselves in the role of full-time farmers after their father, William, died in 1998.
"It was unexpected; Dad died November 10, and we still had corn out in the field," Bill recalls. "The feedlots were full of cattle. It was a tough month."
"After school, we’d work from 3:30 ’til whenever," adds Joe, 20, who takes computer-programming courses at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore (pop. 2,387).
Today, the Erdenbergers raise 900 hogs and 400 beef cattle, along with soybeans and corn. They juggle college schedules to keep the farm operating smoothly.
Their mother, Lynnette, who handles the farm’s office duties, is proud of her sons, who put in long hours last fall harvesting a bumper corn crop. "The boys have a self-propelled chopper, and they chopped the corn off and filled the silo," she says. "They worked sunup to sundown to get the harvest in."
Hydroponic tomatoes and holiday poinsettias
While the Rohrscheibs and Erdenbergers monitor soil quality, dirt doesn’t even figure into the farming picture for Jeremy Glaspie, who set up a soilless hydroponic tomato business at Springport High School in Springport, Mich. (pop 2,182), in 1999.
"We grow the tomatoes in heated lava rock," says Glaspie, 21, an agriculture education major at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He began his greenhouse and plant pathology research at Michigan State University in East Lansing (pop. 46,525).
The high school’s greenhouse continues to thrive, and students harvest about 1,000 pounds of "big, juicy, great-tasting" tomatoes each week.
While the tomatoes grow under plastic, another innovative farmer and entrepreneur Keenan Rogerson, 17, grows poinsettias inside 3 1/2-inch glass balls for holiday ornaments.
In his biotechnology class at North High School in Bakersfield, Calif., Rogerson learned to make a plant-growing mixture—which anchors roots and supplies water and nutrients—needed to produce poinsettias from pieces of plant stem. His FFA chapter has sold 6-inch poinsettia plants for years for a fund-raiser, and that sparked his ornament idea.
"My idea was to find a market for the skills I learned in my biotechnology class," Rogerson says. "These living plants can hang on the Christmas tree."
After 18 months of experimenting, he perfected the sterilization process, which allows the flowers to grow, and bloom after direct sunlight exposure, while inside the ornaments.
Clifford Rohrscheib, 87, smiles and shakes his head as he marvels at the farming changes he’s seen during his lifetime—from his dad’s plow hitched to horses to his granddaughters’ tractor, a virtual wireless and air-conditioned office.
"I rode a two-row planter, and on a good day we could get 20 acres planted with the horses," Clifford recalls. Today, the Rohrscheibs’ 24-row planter completes 20 acres in less than an hour.
Although biotechnology and satellite technology have changed farming’s implements and methods, the same down-to-earth passion for planting and nurturing seeds links the generations.
"I was just crazy for the farm," Clifford says. "I like it because you’re independent. Nobody’s out here telling you what to do."
His son, Vernon, adds, "You’re possessive about what you do. It’s your land, and you’re trying to make it better."
His daughter, Stacey, also gets a great deal of satisfaction from the family-run business. "The best thing is you’re clothing and feeding America," she says. "Whether it’s meat, book bags or leather shoes—everyone is touched by agriculture. I find a little pride in helping people other than myself."
Top FFA Achievers
Each year the National FFA Organization honors the top achievers among its members.
Last October, Bill Erdenberger was named the American Star Farmer and received $2,000 during the 2004 National FFA Convention in Louisville. Lynn Rohrscheib was a finalist for the award and received $1,000.
Jeremy Glaspie received the American Star Farmer award in agriscience.
The American Star Farmer award is the highest honor bestowed by FFA to its members. Nominees must earn and productively invest $7,500 through a supervised agriculture project.
Keenan Rogerson received a $1,000 National FFA Agri-Entrepreneur Award last fall for his Living Tree Poinsettia business.