Twenty-one career development events, an FFA Stars program, a landscape display competition, a floral design event and many more opportunities were held over a recent two-day period. Are we talking about the national FFA convention? Not quite. It’s the Eastern States Exposition, more commonly known as The Big E.
In September, more than 2,000 FFA members traveled to Springfield, Mass., to compete, network and refine their leadership skills at The Big E. The 17-day exposition is like a state fair for the six New England states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont – but FFA members from the entire 18-state Eastern Region of the National FFA Organization are invited to participate. Agriculture has been at the heart of the exposition since its earliest days in the 1930s, and that tradition continues today.
From entertainment to education, The Big E has it all. As visitors step into the 22,000-square-foot Farm-A-Rama building, which is devoted to promoting agricultural literacy, they can experience agriculture at all levels. People of all ages can watch chicks hatch, view landscape and floral design displays, learn about edible plants, milk a model cow, watch a sow take care of her young piglets, and get a close look at Clydesdale draft horses.
A Focus on FFA
Milton Natusch, Connecticut FFA executive secretary and the FFA coordinator for The Big E, says the FFA organization has been a prominent focus of the event since the very beginning.
“The Big E prides itself in its support of FFA and the promotion of student leadership and career development for young people,” Natusch says.
He says the FFA Planning Committee came into being as the exposition commenced, and the planning meetings developed into an annual meeting to assess the strengths and weakness of the FFA program and propose new additions or deletions.
“Sometime prior to 1950, the state supervisors convinced Neville Hunsicker of the Agricultural Branch of the then Federal Security Agency that The Big E was the place to hold an Eastern Regional FFA Public Speaking Contest,” Natusch says. “Thus the beginnings of the regional participation in all of the FFA events offered by the planning committee.”
During the two-day event focused on FFA, members can participate in 22 career development events (CDEs), march in a parade, build landscape displays and enjoy the fair activities. It’s a well-orchestrated, carefully organized event that’s made possible through the organization of superintendents, local advisors and community volunteers.
“Success is measured not only by how many students participate, but also by the quality of the programs and activities for the students – we try to develop CDEs that contain the same essentials as national CDE events,” Natusch says.
Beyond the opportunities to compete, FFA members who attend The Big E also serve a bigger purpose. “FFA Day” is held the first Saturday of the event each year, where FFA members are celebrated, and the general public can learn more about the organization.
“The FFA students are seen throughout the fairgrounds with their FFA Official Dress from the 18 Eastern Region states,” Natusch says. “This provides a great showcase for FFA to the general public who may not know what FFA is or what it represents.”
Another major initiative Natusch leads is the State FFA President Internship Program. FFA state presidents throughout the region can serve as interns, coordinating aspects of the Farm-A-Rama building and gaining experience managing events and people.
Anthony Brooks, the Delaware FFA president, has attended The Big E for four years, participating and helping in different events, but this year he also served in the State FFA President Internship Program.
“I chose to apply to become an intern this year in order to gain experience in what goes on behind the scenes of a larger fair to make it successful,” he says. “It was really cool to be a part of the hard work making the competitions and awards banquet run smoothly.”
Brooks, a Delaware State University student majoring in agricultural education, admits that he enjoys trying all the different fair foods, but his second favorite part of The Big E is getting to meet and network with other FFA members and state officers from the region. This helps him gain knowledge and ideas to take back to his home state. The Big E also provides a showcase for the state FFA president interns and the national FFA officer in attendance, inviting them to attend VIP receptions with dignitaries and media to tell their story.
Brooks says he found those opportunities invaluable. “Two key things I gained at The Big E that I can use immediately are communication and organizational skills,” he explains.
To celebrate the two-day marathon of FFA events, The Big E hosts an FFA banquet for 700 members, advisors and stakeholders. But the fun isn’t over. When the FFA wraps up their events, The Big E has really just begun its 17-day show that will continue to entertain and educate more than 1 million people.
– Katy Mumaw