On June 23, John Stewart of Knightdale was elected president of North Carolina’s FFA Organization – 30 years to the week that his father, Marshall Stewart, was elected state president of the same organization in 1981. They are believed to be the first father and son to serve as state FFA presidents for North Carolina.
Marshall Stewart, head of N.C. State University’s Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences and associate director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, went on to a career with FFA – known as Future Farmers of America when Marshall was state president. For more than eight years, he was state agricultural education coordinator and state FFA adviser at N.C. State University. Prior to that, he worked for the National Association for Agricultural Education and National FFA Organization and, at the local level, as an agriculture teacher.
“For me, this is obviously a proud moment,” said Marshall Stewart. “It’s rare to get to be a state president, and more rare to have two from one family.” Marshall is proud that he can still zip into his signature blue corduroy FFA jacket, embroidered with the State FFA President’s title.
Both John and Marshall agree that today’s FFA is not your father’s FFA. In 1981, FFA was still a program mainly for farm youth, but today many FFA members – including John and Marshall – did not grow up on a farm. Once a predominantly male organization, today more than half of FFA members are female. And the organization’s focus has expanded to include agriscience, biotechnology and leadership.
In some ways, Marshall and John had similar paths to FFA. As a freshman at Midway High School in Sampson County, Marshall Stewart had to choose between high school electives of agriculture or home economics. The tradition then was that boys took agriculture, and girls took home ec. Marshall says it was an interesting choice, given that today his Cooperative Extension position is in family and consumer sciences, formerly known as home economics.
After his freshman year, Marshall attended state FFA camp and was sold on the experience. His agriculture teacher, A.A. Warren, came to ask Marshall’s father to let him participate in FFA. “My father said I could go anywhere that my agriculture teachers, Mr. Warren and Mr. (Charles) West (and later Weldon Faircloth) wanted me to go,” Marshall said.
Though Marshall didn’t grow up on a farm, many other FFA members at the time did. He credits his three agriculture teachers with seeing something in him that he didn’t see in himself.
“They really believed that I was capable of doing some special things,” Marshall said.
Marshall’s tenure with FFA was a good one, meeting state leaders like former Gov. Jim Hunt and the late Jim Graham, state commissioner of agriculture. When he entered N.C. State University as a freshman, he was the first person in his family to attend a major university.
Like his father, John Stewart didn’t grow up on a farm, but in a Wake County subdivision. He had hoped to attend a Wake County magnet high school, but that didn’t work out, so he enrolled in his base school, Knightdale High – one of nine Wake high schools that offer agriculture.
Even Marshall didn’t believe that his son John would become involved in FFA or the school agriculture curriculum, based on the direction that his education was taking. But then Knightdale High’s agriculture teacher Scott Robison invited John to come to FFA camp, and later John enrolled in his first horticulture class.
“It was a game changer for me,” John Stewart said. “I am extremely thankful for my agriculture teachers — Mr. Robison and Mrs. (Josie) Griffin — who guided me.”
John served as an officer for both chapter and regional FFA groups. He competed on the national level in public speaking. He attended state and national gatherings, meeting FFA members from around the country. The National FFA Convention held in the Indianapolis each year attracts more than 55,000 members.
“FFA will take you places you cannot imagine,” he said.
Since John’s election in June, he’s been to many places, including “Blastoff Training” for state officers; National Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C.; State Leadership Conference at FFA’s White Lake camp; as well as board meetings, foundation meetings, Grange Camp and State 4-H Congress. 4-H and State Grange are close partners of FFA.
John expects to be busy up until he reports to N.C. State University in August, where he will be a freshman studying agricultural education. In fact, all six of North Carolina’s FFA officers will attend N.C. State this fall, and four of them plan to study agricultural education.
John expects to be busy as state FFA president this year. A state officer can put 30,000 to 40,000 miles on a vehicle traveling in a year. And he’ll have to balance his studies with presidential duties.
After finishing at N.C. State, John would like to follow in his father’s footsteps as an agriculture teacher and inspire other young people, just as his teachers and his father’s teachers inspired them. “John’s agriculture teachers really made a difference,” Marshall said. “Agriculture teachers grow their own.”
Like his father, John is pleased with the opportunities that FFA has already given him, and he’s looking forward to more. “FFA provides you with a gateway,” John Stewart said. “It’s a chain reaction: Once you zip that blue jacket, you are changed.”