Editorial: Hail the return of the blue jackets

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We love this time of year, when throngs of blue-jacketed teens and young adults make downtown hum with the activity and excitement of youth.

Yes, the herds of FFA members from farming communities across the nation can sometimes clog the streets, slow downtown traffic to a crawl and overwhelm some favorite lunch spots.

But this week’s return of the huge and growing FFA convention is an especially welcome sight after the height of the pandemic walloped downtown commerce and resulted in the calling-off of the 2020 FFA gathering and so many other huge events that are the lifeblood of the city’s convention and tourism business.

The city’s long relationship with the FFA convention is one to cherish. The event has taken place in Indianapolis annually since 2006, with the exception of a three-year stint in Louisville from 2013-2015 and the pandemic cancellation.

But since 2020, the convention and downtown have gradually been regaining steam. Last year’s convention saw 69,600 people in attendance, which outpaced pre-pandemic numbers from 2019. As Alex Brown of Inside INdiana Business reported, the convention is expected to surpass the 70,000 figure this year, a reflection of the increase in membership.

To its credit, the Indianapolis-based agricultural education organization has managed to grow membership amid a shrinking rural population by offering group memberships to high school agricultural classes, rather than just relying on individual membership fees.

“We have an opportunity, what we call affiliate memberships, so all students in their classroom can be part of FFA if they pay one flat fee,” National FFA President Molly Ball recently told Gerry Dick on his “Business & Beyond” podcast. “That’s what more and more states are doing. … we want all students in agricultural education to be part of FFA.”

Among the benefits of having the annual four-day FFA convention in Indianapolis is that it is expected to generate nearly $40 million in economic impact, filling downtown hotels and restaurants and bringing all sorts of discretionary spending.

The event, which ends Saturday, also helps fill several entertainment venues, with country music star Lainey Wilson performing at a sold-out concert at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the World’s Toughest Rodeo taking over the Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and hypnotist Michael C. Anthony entertaining FFA members at the Indiana Convention Center.

But perhaps most important, the event will expose many rising agriculture students to the state’s emerging ag-tech sector and potentially lure them to Indiana when it comes time for them to find employment.

That could help fill troublesome gaps in the state’s talent pipeline—a problem economic development officials are working feverishly to address.

Indiana colleges, as well as organizations and businesses based or operating in the state, are among the many exhibitors that have reserved space on the exposition floor. Among them are Nestle, Rose Acre Farms, Miller Poultry, Purdue University, Purdue’s extension service and the Indiana Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One inside advantage the vendors have is proximity. They can actually take FFA members on field trips to visit their facilities while the students are in town.

Among the Indiana businesses students will have a chance to visit are Beck’s Hybrids in Atlanta, Corteva Agriscience in Indianapolis and Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks.

All the exposure promises to do good for Indiana’s economy and its future workforce.•

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