Alumni say the youth organization taught them self-confidence and helped form a lifelong network of friends

Canadian parents who have teenagers or 20 somethings at home worry about the same things: how do I pry my kids away from the X-Box, how do I get them involved in the community, will they ever get out of the basement?

In rural Ontario, there is a four-letter answer to all of those worries: JFAO.

The JFAO, or Junior Farmers Association of Ontario, is a leadership development and community service organization for young people aged 15 to 29. Despite its name, the association is open to all young people, whether they are farmers or not.

As described on the JFAO website, it’s mission is “to build future rural leaders through self-help and community betterment.”

There are about 20 JFAO clubs across Ontario. Unlike other youth organizations, JFAO is self-directed, so the teenagers and 20-somethings are in charge.

“You are kind of thrown in the deep end when it comes to running an organization,” said Joe Dickenson, a JFAO alumni who runs a mixed farm near Oil Springs, Ont., southeast of Sarnia.

“It puts the responsibility on those members right from the start.”

JFAO is a mix of a community service club and a leadership development group. Its slogan is Building Leaders, Building Communities.

It was formally established in 1944, but earlier versions of Junior Farmers began in 1914. At its peak the group had about 10,000 members and the Ontario government provided funding for decades.

The province cut off financial support in the 1990s. Since then, the club has relied on former JFAO members and other sources of funding.

“We are funded through … alumni donations, as well as corporate partners,” said Erich Weber, JFAO president.

“That’s how we’ve been able to operate for the last 20 (or so) years.”

Membership is now around 400, much lower than the 1950s and 1960s.

“In the last 10 years or so, membership has stayed relatively stable,” Weber said.

“We’re small but mighty. We do a lot of great things…. We believe in developing strong leaders…. One aspect of it is by giving back to the community.”

Junior Farmer members collect and donate about $80,000 a year to charities in Ontario, “along with countless hours of volunteer service,” the JFAO website says.

Each year the JFAO selects a provincial charity, and individual clubs raise funds for that group. In 2017, for example, JFAO raised money for Second Harvest — a non-profit group that collects unused food and distributes it to people in need.

JFAO clubs also support charities in their community. When Dickenson was part of JFAO, his local club organized a battery drive, collecting used tractor and car batteries from local farmers and selling them to a battery recycler.

In addition to charitable work, the JFAO runs leadership camps, communication workshops and the Ontario Young Farmers Forum.

The leadership training and related events are helpful, but many JFAO members become leaders because they have to. There are no 45-year-old moms or dads around telling them how to run the association and how to make a difference in their town or county.

This means the young people must figure it out on their own.

“It’s like when you’re learning how to swim. 4-H is amazing at giving you the basics. You’re going to be in the shallow end. You’re going to have somebody … helping you,” Dickenson said.

“Junior Farmers is more like jumping into the deep end…. The two (4-H and JFAO) work really well together.”

Members also have an opportunity to travel. The JFAO participates in exchanges with 10 other countries, including England, Germany, Switzerland and Australia.

Dickenson, now in his late 30s, joined the Lambton County JFAO club as a teenager and then the club in Guelph when he attended university. He stayed with JFAO until he was 30 and strongly believes that the experience made him a better person.

“I’ve always been a bit of an introvert. Junior Farmers brought me out of that and allowed me to interact with people a little more easily and naturally,” said Dickenson, who raises Simmental cattle and grows corn, soybeans and winter wheat on his farm.

During his years at Junior Farmers, Dickenson served as JFAO representative to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture policy advisory council and represented the association at the Canadian Young Farmers Forum.

“It developed my self confidence,” said Dickenson, who is a former JFAO president and is vice-president of the Lambton County cattlemen’s association.

Weber, 29, has had a similar experience at JFAO. He joined while studying agriculture at the University of Guelph and then served as financial director with the provincial JFAO for five years.

He became president in 2018.

Besides learning how to run an organization and get things done, Weber now has a network of friends across the province.

“I can tell you this, if I was to have a flat tire somewhere in Ontario … I can give (a friend) a call and they’ll be there to help me,” said Weber, a business management specialist with the Ontario agriculture ministry.

Weber will graduate this year from JFAO because he will soon be too old for the organization. After eight years, it will be hard to move on.

“It’s been a big part of my life…. Once you’re in, there are so many great opportunities,” he said.

“To be honest, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself afterwards.”

Dickenson said JFAO gave him the confidence to overcome his shyness and become a leader in the agricultural community. It also forced him to think about people and issues beyond his farm gate.

Lambton County, where he lives, no longer has a JFAO club.

He hopes it makes a comeback and is optimistic that JFAO will carry on in Ontario for many years.

“(There’s) an incredible group of members that they have right now.”

Joe Dickenson, who farms near Oil Springs, Ont., is a former president of the Junior Farmers Association of Ontario. Now in his late 30s, he is a proud alumni and continues to support the association. | Sharon Grose photo

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Junior Farmers develops leaders in Ontario