A sure sign of summer on Capitol Hill is the blue jacket with gold trim worn by hundreds of teenage Future Farmers of America as they visit lawmakers during their annual Washington Leadership Conference.
"We call it National Blue and Corn Gold," said the longtime leader of the National FFA Organization, Larry Case.
This year's conference, which attracts hundreds of FFA members in each of its seven weeks, has been a rite of passage for Case. He announced he will retire at the end of this year, after 26 years as national FFA adviser and coordinator at the Education Department.
"Forty-four years is long enough," said Case, 66, referring to a career in agricultural education that began in 1966 at the University of Missouri-Columbia. A self-described "Missouri farm boy" from the tiny town of Stet, about 40 miles east of Kansas City, Case spent 10 years teaching at the university level, moved to administration at a technical school, then became Missouri's director of agricultural education in 1978.
His duties at the state level included serving as an FFA adviser, which led Case to his appointment in 1984 as head of the national FFA.
Though it seems surprising that the federally chartered FFA is overseen by the Education Department rather than the USDA, education is what the organization that started in 1917 is all about. Only high school students who are enrolled in agricultural education are eligible to join FFA, and the organization itself is "an integral part of vocational ed," Case said.
When Case took over in the '80s, farming in America was in a depressed state, he said. "Publicity was bad, and people didn't want to become farmers," he said, and as a result FFA membership was plummeting.
Case and the FFA board decided the group needed "drastic changes" and commissioned a study of agricultural education from the National Research Council. It recommended more emphasis on science and applied agriculture, Case said, and the shift in focus turned the tide for FFA. Today its membership is approaching an all-time high of 520,000, and the FFA center in Indianapolis has more than 130 employees.
On Thursday, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-Mo., presented Case with a congressional resolution that ends with the words, "agriculture owes him a debt of gratitude for his good work."
Case plans to remain in the Washington area, reconnecting with his wife, Joy. "I've told people I've been married for 44 years, but only been home about 20 of them," he said. Still, Case said he won't be able to resist playing some role with FFA during retirement. "Those blue jackets get in your blood," he said.
This article appears in the July 24, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.