When the teacher of Garrett James Keenan’s gifted-and-talented class asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Keenan didn’t care if his answer seemed surprising.

“A pig farmer,” said Keenan, a freshman at Limon High School in Limon, Colo.  “I’ve always been dead set about that.”

He recounts this incident with a laugh, a sense of maturity and focus that exceeds his 14 years. His resume is already more impressive than most. He has his own small operation, six years showing pigs and a clear career goal of producing high-quality swine.

Not only is Keenan remarkable in his accomplishments, but his interest in agriculture is becoming increasingly rare. Statistics from the latest Census of Agriculture note that there are twice as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 35. With agriculture aging rapidly, maintaining interest among young people is becoming critical to the industry’s survival.

Youth organizations such as 4-H and the National FFA Organization help develop future ag leaders by providing educational programs, hands-on experiences and career exploration opportunities. Students like Keenan who are involved in these organizations show exceptional promise and indicate a bright future for agriculture.

Keenan credits his family’s agricultural roots with instilling his early passion for pork production. He became personally involved with agriculture in fourth grade when his mother loaned him $250 to buy pigs for fair. He started a lawn mowing service to buy feed for the pigs and did so well at fair that he was able to repay his mother.

“After that, I just kept the same process going, to where I could still have all that money saved, and now it’s become quite a large sum,” Keenan says.

This year, he’s been able to work towards his goal of starting his own herd through his FFA involvement. Though this is just his first year in FFA, he is already a junior officer and has a Supervised Agricultural Experience project-- a hands-on program that allows FFA members to gain real-world agricultural experience through entrepreneurial endeavors.

“I’ve been in the 4-H program for six years, and I decided to take the next step and go into the FFA program,” he says. “It’s been really good. My FFA advisor pushes me and drives me to do every opportunity I can.”

For his SAE, Keenan breeds show pigs to sell at fair. He was able to get initiate his SAE thanks to a grant from Novartis Animal Health U.S. Keenan used the grant to purchase pigs and housing facilities for his herd. In 2009, Novartis Animal Health established eight $1,000 grants for students interested in starting or improving SAE projects in the areas of veterinary medicine, dairy production, swine production and beef production. The company wanted to provide opportunities for FFA members who had a passion for production agriculture but did not have the finances to explore it fully.

"As the human population grows in the years ahead and as food demand increases, the need to keep young people interested and involved in production agriculture will be critical," says Julie Groce, company communications manager at Novartis. “We hope that by guiding students with their projects, we can help positively shape the future job pool for agriculture.”

Cody Blunier, a junior at Midland High School in Varna, Ill., and Crystal Gruber, a senior at Clearfield High School in Clearfield, Utah, were the other Novartis recipients in pork production. Gruber won specifically for veterinary medicine, an interest that she developed as a young child growing up on a farm and one that she has deepened through her FFA involvement.

“Being around animals really made me want to become a veterinarian so I could help them,” Gruber says. “FFA has been very beneficial to me because I took animal science, which taught me more about my hogs and helped me understand all different types of animals.”

For her SAE, she raises, shows and sells hogs, and after graduation, she plans to attend Utah State University to study veterinary medicine. Gruber is interested mainly in large-animal medicine and looks forward to continuing to be a part of agriculture.

“If we didn’t have agriculture, we wouldn’t have any food in stores,” she says. “Every animal needs to be taken care of and helped. I have always worked with animals, and it is my dream to keep working with them in a way that allows me to contribute to production agriculture.”

Though Keenan has just finished his first year of high school, he has given significant thought to college. He plans to study animal science at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo., and then transfer to Colorado State University to study genetics.

For now, he spends his time educating his peers about the importance of agriculture. He admits it’s not easy being a young person involved in agriculture, as he has to balance homework, sports and school activities with his SAE, which requires about 21 hours per week. Still, he feels it’s important that youth get involved in the industry. He serves on an FFA committee that visits different schools in the community to promote agriculture among students.

“We want to get up close with them and tell them about our experiences with agriculture, how it’s changed our lives and how it could potentially change their’s,” Keenan adds. “We want to say ‘Without agriculture, our nation would not thrive. We’re the future, and we need your help.’”

Here’s a snapshot of the three Novartis grant winners in pork production for 2009.

Grant Recipient

FFA Chapter

High School

Advisor

Garrett James Keenan

Limon FFA Chapter

Limon High School, Limon, Colo.

Cody Weber

Cody M. Blunier

Midland FFA Chapter

Midland High School, Varna, Ill.

Darin Blunier

Crystal Gruber

Clearfield FFA Chapter

Clearfield High School, Clearfield, Utah

Erica Haskin

The National  FFA  Organization is a national youth organization that strives to make a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education and programs.

Source: Novartis Animal Health