FFA has been preparing students for careers in agriculture since the first FFA National Convention held in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1928. At the time, 33 delegates from 18 states attended. Today, there are FFA chapters in all 50 states, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Two high schools in New Jersey excel at minting state FFA officers: Northern Burlington County Regional High School in Mansfield Township and Salem County Career and Technical High School in Woodstown.
Salem Tech challenges students to lead
“I’ve been teaching at the school for 11 years,” said Keely DiTizio, who teaches agriculture classes at Salem Tech. “There hasn’t been a year yet that we haven’t had a student on the state executive board for the New Jersey FFA.”
That may in part be because students don’t want to ruin a streak of successes, she joked, but it’s more likely the result of the award-winning teacher’s infectious enthusiasm and passion for FFA.
A graduate of Cape May County Technical High School with a certificate in ornamental horticulture, DiTizio said she was inspired by a teacher to pursue leadership through FFA. She now she is paying it forward.
“I served two years at the state level as a representative for, at the time, probably about 2,000 members,” DiTizio said. “Now, in New Jersey, it’s probably closer to 2,500 FFA students. They are agricultural students, but they are also part of the youth organization (FFA).
Enrolling at nearby Stockton University, DiTizio was well on her way to becoming a wildlife biologist when she changed her mind in her senior year.
“I worked for the Cape May Whale Watcher … and I also worked for the Wetlands Institute over the summer as an education intern,” she said. “And that’s when I decided to become a teacher.”
DiTizio graduated in May 2012 and by August had been approved as an agriculture teacher.
He made the perfect choice, he said.
“I think just having passion for what you do is really important,” DiTizio said. “And I think because I love my job so much, I think it’s just kind of an emanation and people want to be a part of it.”
They also want to be empowered, he said.
“I try to be like ‘the side guide’ and not so much as an authority figure who asks for things,” DiTizio said of his teaching style. “So I kind of give them a chance to take the leadership role and challenge them to create their own solutions.”
That sort of cooperative autonomy carries over into the mechanics of the FFA itself, he said.
“What’s really interesting about the FFA organization is that it operates very similar to traditional politics in terms of voting and representation,” DiTizio said. “So the students are the building blocks and shape the organization, which enables all of the leadership development and allows them to take the organization where they want to.”
It is a continuous passing of the baton.
“It’s been 15 years since I’ve worn the jacket,” DiTizio said. “These guys are different, have different thoughts and want to handle things differently.”
Northern Burlington: A Proud Heritage
Brian Hayes teaches greenhouse landscaping and agricultural mechanics and is one of four FFA consultants at Northern Burlington High School. He said that while FFA rightfully has its roots in farming and agriculture, the program that recently produced four of the state of New Jersey’s six FFA officers in one year focuses on developing a broad skill set.
“We really try to work with the students and develop their leadership qualities, who are all good public speakers, who have the ability to write a resume and have real hands-on work experience,” she said.
Northern Burlington has a proud heritage of churning out state FFA officers dating back to the 1960s, Hayes said. Among the school’s recent products, Jamie Specca was shortlisted to become a National FFA Officer in 2020.
Many of Northern Burlington’s state officials have gone on to educational careers and are now statewide agricultural teachers.
“I went to a very small high school and they had an agricultural education program,” Hayes said. “So I got into FFA, and when I was younger I was always trying to beat Northern Burlington.”
When the opportunity to teach there arose, she jumped at it.
“We’ve gone from a program with two or three teachers now to where we have four teachers in high school and we have one in our middle school. So every student can really experience farming in some way,” she said.
The school also benefits from an idyllic infrastructure, thanks to a 2018 referendum that allowed for a major renovation, said agriscience department head Nan Hamilton, a Rutgers University animal science graduate who worked in Northern Burlington for 23 years.
“We have a brand new (5,500 square foot), state-of-the-art greenhouse, we have an agricultural mechanics shop that contains two classrooms and the shop area, and we also have an animal science classroom,” he said. “And we have animals. We have too many horses and a bunch of other creatures running around. And there is a floral design room that I use for floral design.