The photographer drove 65 miles for a picture of the newly elected president of the Future Farmers of America. Hopefully in overalls. Maybe beside a prize bull. But when he got to Winchester, he found 20-year-old Douglas Rinker standing beside a 1971 Chevrolet, dressed like an insurance salesman.
"You don't look much like a farmer," said the photographer, shifting his focus from Rinker's white shirt and blue necktie to a pair of patent leather shoes that no self-respecting chicken would peck at.
"Being in the FFA doesn't mean you have to go around stepping in cow piles," answered Rinker, who was elected head of the 500,000-member FFA at last week's national convention in Kansas City, Mo. The business of farming, said Rinker, is "no longer cows and ploughs, chicks and hicks."
Rinker did not grow up on a farm. His father is a construction contractor.
His mother works in a Winchester factory inspecting magnetic discs. The family lives on 76 acres of land, but except for migrating ducks that seasonally stop to swim in the pond behind their home, there are no animals to care for. Alarm clocks, not roosters, trumpet their dawn.
But if Rinker does not fit the farm stereotype, neither does the association he represents. The FFA, a non-profit organization of high school and college agriculture students established in 1928, may have its roots in the small farms of America's romantic past, but its modern branches cover more corporate ground.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that only 3.9 percent of the population is involved in the actual production of food and fiber in this country. An estimated 20 percent of the American labor force, however, is employed in agriculture-related occupations. Those jobs, which range from marketing to mechanics, are the current core of the FFA vocational training programs.
"You need people to take care of all the machinery in the field, people who know sales and service," said Elliott Nowels, director of information at FFA national headquarters in Alexandria. "We train people who can, for instance, take hogs from the pens, through the slaughterhouse to the consumer . . . so people can have their pork."
FFA officials say most of their student membership still comes from rural America. But only a minority are the sons and daughters of farmers. And statistics indicate that few of them will return to those farms to pursue what has become an increasingly difficult lifestyle.
"It takes a half a million dollars to set up a farm today," said Rinker last week, sitting in the living room of his family's small, wood-frame home at the head of the Shenandoah Valley. "The attrition rate for farmers is atrocious. Today's farmers have to be very sharp, or they don't make it."
Rinker has milked a cow or two in his time. After class during his last two years at Winchester's James Wood High School, he worked on a 500-acre farm. But Rinker, a sophomore at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg majoring in agriculture education, is more comfortable discussing national agricultural programs than pasteurization.
During his year as FFA president, Rinker will be doing a lot of talking. He expects to travel 130,000 miles and visit 30 to 35 states and a few foreign countries while representing, as the FFA puts it, "the backbone of a nation."
He seems well suited for the task. A confident speaker, Rinker can articulate American platitudes of economic patriotism with convincing sincerity. He doesn't drink or smoke, and his worst vice is a passion for racquetball.
"Doug always exemplified American youth," says Hylton Clark, an FFA teacher at James Wood. "He has a glow about him."
Those characteristics will make him sought after by America's large agribusinesses, which traditionally recruit FFA leaders as young executives. But Rinker says he will resist those temptations. He plans to become an agriculture education teacher or a Methodist minister.
His ultimate goal, he says, is to educate Americans who think "milk comes from Safeway and not from cows," and to restore some "dignity" to the American farmer.
"Agriculture," says Rinker in his best FFA tones, "serves you three times a day."