GERALD BEPKO Commentary: FFA is important to our future

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What major, national, student-oriented not-for-profit organization with deep roots in Kansas City moved its headquarters to Indianapolis in the last decade and now has made commitments to bring a huge number of visitors to Indianapolis each year into the future? If you think the answer is the NCAA, you would be half right. The complete answer is that there are two such organizations: the NCAA and FFA.

Both the NCAA and FFA brought economic benefits along with their headquarters. Through recent commitments, however, they now are bringing more visitors.

Much has been written about the extraordinary commitments President Myles Brand and the NCAA have made to host major events in Indianapolis. Less may be known about FFA’s forthcoming impact on the flow of visitors to our city.

Formerly known as Future Farmers of America, FFA has transformed itself beyond a change of name. As FFA says, “If you limit your image of … FFA members to row crops and livestock, you’re missing 90 percent of the story-the part where students use computers rather than combines to harvest data, rather than grain.”

With this forward-looking vision, it is not surprising that FFA’s 490,000 members and 7,300 chapters are found not only in areas known for farming. FFA chapters are in 11 of the country’s 15 largest cities, including New York, Chicago and Houston.

In a pattern typical of professions such as law and medicine, there was once an organization composed mostly of African-Americans-the New Farmers of America-that operated parallel to the FFA. In 1965, New Farmers and FFA merged, resulting in a more diverse organization that in 1994 elected its first African-American president, Corey Flourney from Chicago.

What has not changed in FFA is a set of educational values grounded in practical experiences. The FFA motto sums this up in 12 words: “Learning to do. Doing to learn. Earning to live. Living to serve.”

FFA alumni are found not only in agriculture, but in nearly every walk of life. This includes politics (President Jimmy Carter), journalism (Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff), popular art (our own Hoosier creator of Garfield, Jim Davis), entertainment (rock musician Don Henley) and sports (football and baseball star Bo Jackson).

In 2006, while the NCAA brings the men’s Final Four to Indianapolis, FFA will bring its national convention with a commitment for seven years. This convention will attract 53,000 FFA visitors each year, who will use more than 45,000 hotel room-nights and produce $30 million in annual financial impact. During these seven years, the FFA Convention will be Indianapolis’ largest annual meeting event and will produce as much as $250 million in total impact.

This represents another important element in the growing convention and tourism industry that is destined to be an important part of our future. It will support many of the regional and downtown amenities that serve as a magnet for visitors and that elevate the quality of life for all.

Also, FFA should help define Indianapolis as a city of the future. Central Indiana is a new exemplar of a diverse population center that combines sophistication, high technology, research excellence and great university resources with enduring values of integrity, honor and community commitment, especially to young people and education. FFA is another building block in creating a new Midwestern model that will help attract bright, wealth-creating people (including FFA members), reverse the “brain drain,” and recapture the congressional seat lost to the Sun Belt.

Bepko is IUPUI chancellor emeritus and Indiana University trustees’ professor at IUPUI. He also is cochairman of the local organizing committee for the FFA Convention as well as chairman of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. His column appears monthly. He can be reached by e-mail at

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