BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Growing up on a farm is not a prerequisite for success in FFA, said Jake Zajkowski, the newly elected Ohio FFA president.
“I come from a nontraditional ag background,” said Jake, who spent his childhood living in Monclova Township’s Olde Farm subdivision. “There’s a place for everyone in FFA, whether it’s STEM- and research-based or vegetable and tomato production.”
That’s the message that Jake plans to share during his gap year between graduating from Anthony Wayne High School on May 28 and heading to Cornell University to study plant science in the fall of 2022.
“My job is to listen to students and members and bridge the gap between the people and the many opportunities that FFA has to offer for every individual, whether black, white, urban or rural,” he said.
Based out of Columbus, Jake will not only represent FFA at the state and national level but also visit Ohio’s 26,000 members. While Ohio FFA can now boast that 50 percent of members are female, inclusivity and diversity will be a major focus. Expanding into urban areas is a goal that requires an interest in schools launching programs and giving students the message that careers in food production and related fields are worth exploring. FFA helps students learn about support industries such as research, landscaping and veterinary science.
“Every journey is unique,” he said of FFA.
Jake’s journey to becoming AW’s first state FFA president began in eighth grade. With Penta Career Center instructors Courtney Bockbrader and Whitney Short offering ag science classes for grades 8-12 at AWHS, Jake also joined FFA – an organization that prepares members for leadership and careers in the business, science and technology of agriculture.
Through FFA, he has done well in state and national competitions, but Jake was thinking of a career in political science until he met Wade Smith, a 1992 AW graduate and FFA alumnus. The owner of Whitehouse Specialty Crops, Smith grows tomatoes year-round vertically from the ground up inside his Ramm Road greenhouses.
“Wade’s a great mentor. He changed my path toward plant science,” Jake said.
Walking recently through the rows of grape, cherry and beefsteak tomatoes, Jake explained that while working at the greenhouse, he’s able to see research in action, such as testing different types of lights to see the impact on growth.
When he heads to Cornell next year, he’ll be studying in one of the best horticultural programs in the country when it comes to greenhouse production. Ideally, he’ll make his career in greenhouse management and field production after earning a degree.
“I like to get my hands dirty,” he said.
That love of dirt began in his freshman year, when he started a landscaping business that provides planting, weeding and relocating shrubs for residents in Waterside and nearby subdivisions. In addition, Jake has his own photography business.
How does a senior in high school manage a job, FFA duties and two side gigs?
He credits his parents, Amy, a special education teacher, and Chad, a hydrogeologist, for teaching him the importance of dedication and hard work.
“They told me that you never work a single day if you love what you do,” he said. “It set me up for success and to know who I am as a person and my potential.”
Jake encourages teens to work past the fear of failure that can be paralyzing. He also recommends placing more emphasis on launching a business and getting work experience over stressing about the perfect GPA or ACT score. Those real-life skills provide valuable lessons that will last a lifetime, he believes.