Jill S. Alexander is the author of The Sweetheart of Prosper County, about a girl named Austin, her rooster named Charles Dickens, and her quest to become the FFA Sweetheart in the annual Christmas parade.
In The Sweetheart of Prosper County, Austin Gray joins the FFA, pining to be their sweetheart, and raises a rooster to show in the county fair. Teens like Austin enjoy participation in the Future Farmers of America organization, an iconic part of communities and schools across the country. The FFA is in all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Isles. Established in 1928 by a group of Kansas farm boys, the Future Farmers of America offers middle- and high-school students a practical study in all areas of agriculture.
My father, the son of a sharecropper, was an FFA member back in the 1940s. He learned to graft pecan and peach trees like a botanist and to castrate a bull quicker than the average college-trained veterinarian—important skills when you have to farm to eat. Thirty years later, my brother also participated in the FFA. His agriculture instruction included hands-on training in welding, and designing everything from fences to feed troughs. He’s now an engineer.
Currently, the FFA is celebrating its 40th anniversary of allowing women to join. When I was in high school, girls did participate. I even had a Hereford bull named Buster. However, our FFA chapter mainly consisted of boys, so I signed up for Home Economics class. Although today’s Home-Ec courses offer cool opportunities like Top Chef competitions and fashion design, my teacher was old school. We sewed aprons and learned to can peaches or pickle cucumbers. I felt like Laura Ingalls and feared I was one embroidered hankie away from a prairie skirt and braids. When my wandering eye caught a glimpse of the velvet and sequined high kickers on the drill team, I thought I’d found my passion—top hats, red lipstick, and jazz hands. But I’ve always regretted not giving Buster his opportunity to shine.
Nowadays, the FFA boasts a female membership of 41 percent, and at least 50 percent of the leadership roles are held by women. Many FFA chapters still hold to the tradition of electing a Sweetheart, a girl who reflects the organization’s values and serves as their ambassador. And, yes, represents them at events such as Christmas parades or ribbon-cutting ceremonies. However, girls in the FFA are not just waving from the hoods of cars. Much like Austin and her friend Sundi in the novel, girls are showing prize-winning roosters and lambs, and they’re leaders pursuing careers in the science, technology, and business of agriculture.
Learn more about the FFA here.