It might be called Camp Couchdale. But there’s certainly not much sitting around. Especially in the summer months, when scores of spirited FFA (Future Farmers of America) students descend on the camp as they’ve done for decades.
There will be all manner of activity, including zany water games, rigorous ropes courses, manual service projects and impromptu line dancing during three weeks of Arkansas Leadership Challenge. That will be followed by one week of Teachers In-Service, two weeks of Chapter Presidents Conference and a week of Rec Camp.
Constructed in the 1920s on the banks of scenic, serene Lake Catherine, south of Hot Springs, Camp
Couchdale has been synonymous with Arkansas FFA since the early 1930s. That’s when the state FFA secured the lease of 37 acres from Harvey Couch, the camp’s namesake and founder of Arkansas Power and Light Company.
John Jones has been the camp’s director since the summer of 2019, though the retired agriculture teacher’s history with FFA and his attachment to the camp goes back much further — a common theme among all the adults we’ll meet.
“The first time I came to Couchdale was for State FFA convention,” Jones says about his first visit in ninth grade. “And I remember it was hot in the Chapter House; there was no air conditioning, and we had on official dress, and there were pedestal fans around. It was actually hard to hear the speakers over the fans. But I remember thinking, ‘Hey, this is a big deal.’
“I was just a small-town country boy, and to be brought up here to see that FFA was more than just what I
had been exposed to at Thornton High School made a lasting impression on me.”
Today, air-conditioned buildings, including updated cabins where students bunk, host campers. The most modern structure will be the expanded and improved Leadership Center; the building that Jones says the camp outgrew is under renovation. The camp also has plans to build an Ag Mechanics Lab, a state-of-the-art educational facility for teachers and students.
Jones describes the split personality of the camp, which hosts weddings and other groups during the FFA’s off-season.
“When there are no kids here, it’s just peaceful and quiet — you can hear the birds and all that kind of stuff. Then, all of a sudden, you hear the school buses pull up, and it takes on a totally different feel. “It just comes to life.”
Lively it is on this sweltering June Tuesday — the second day of the first four-day Arkansas Leadership Challenge that Couchdale will host this year. Vitality has returned to the camp that has been unnervingly quiet during the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
From flowers to floors
After the raising of the flag and a hearty breakfast of biscuits, gravy, bacon, eggs and love, courtesy of longtime Kitchen Manager Patty Fulton and staff, students who have come from all over Arkansas are ready for a full day of large-group activities, expedition challenges, an agriculture career panel and small-group
The blissfully cool cafeteria — with the lingering aroma of bacon and upbeat tunes of Shania Twain and Florida Georgia Line filling the air — is temporarily transformed into a florist design studio.
Students, wearing mandated masks, are seated in groups with a basket of supplies on each table. They’ll be given a picture of a flower arrangement with the goal of verbally guiding teammates — sometimes blindfolded — to duplicate the bouquet with faux carnations. Next, they’ll erect towering pipe cleaner structures as teams and play charades, acting out concepts like “welding” and “farming.” They’ll be encouraged to write down careers that fall under the categories of Mechanics, Floriculture and Communications on sticky notes and adhere them to corresponding wall posters.
Allyssa Andrews, Eastern District vice president and a recent graduate of Wynne High School who is leading the session, explains, “The purpose of this one is to dig a little bit more into ‘ag’ careers, and show them that there are more possibilities than just the basic stuff.” It’s also intended to encourage teamwork, she adds: “Communication in any field is a good thing.”
Camaraderie, after all, is what inspired Allyssa to become so involved in FFA and return to Camp Couchdale as an officer. Camaraderie, and maybe the cooking. “I like my friends. I’ve made four new best friends out of my team.
“And I like Miss Patty’s food, a lot too.” (As does this writer who enjoyed a meal catered by Fulton, complete with her unforgettable coconut cake, last fall.)
But now it’s time to leave the comfortable, temperature-controlled cafeteria and head outside on this nearly 90-degree morning. Most days, campers — wearing shorts, sneakers or sandals — are spared the formality of FFA official dress. But there will be a dressy banquet with skirts/long pants, collared shirts, zippered iconic corduroy jackets, neckties/scarves and dress shoes/hose and heels required on Thursday evening.
Next up is an expedition challenge — or rather, an eggs-hibition challenge.
In the shaded pavilion, where ceiling fans and coolers filled with water provide some heat relief, students group up. They’re tasked with building a contraption with assorted materials — cotton balls, straws, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, a paper cup, a plastic baggie, a brown lunch sack and tape — that will protect an egg from breaking when dropped from a raised platform.
As the Zac Brown Band’s theme-appropriate song “Chicken Fried” plays, an officer leading the exercise announces, “If you need any more tape, let us know.”
“The whole roll!” one student jokes with a laugh.
After all egg cradles have been engineered, they are dropped one by one to the ground. Most remain intact;
others go splat. Those who failed the “eggs-ercise” get to do it again. Those who have “eggs-celled” are free to talk, play cornhole … or line dance/line sit. Songs like “Cha-Cha Slide” get students to their feet, while “Fishin’ in the Dark” gets them to their backsides, clapping and carrying out choreographed seated moves on the floor.
Speaking of floors, tomorrow the same teens will be cleaning and sealing some, as well as painting picnic tables, washing camp vehicles and completing other service projects. After all, “Living to Serve” is the last, but not least, piece of the FFA motto.
After lunch is an agriculture career panel in the rustic, historic Chapter House, where FFA chapters from around Arkansas have their names etched in the masonry. Representatives from a variety of organizations,
including the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, a welding academy, a farm equipment dealer, the National Agriculture Law Center and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension speak with students about future career possibilities.
Because, while FFA of course, stands for Future Farmers of America, its membership is not limited to them.
Explains the FFA website (ffa.org), “These letters are a part of our history and our heritage that will never change. But FFA is not just for students who want to be production farmers; FFA also welcomes members who aspire to careers as teachers, doctors, scientists, business owners and more. For this reason, the name of the organization was updated in 1988 … to reflect the growing diversity and new opportunities in the industry of agriculture.”
Rob Roedel, corporate communications director for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, visits Camp
Couchdale often in his role as the current Arkansas FFA Foundation chairman.
“Arkansas’ electric cooperatives have a long, rich history of partnering with Arkansas FFA to prepare young people to become the leaders of tomorrow. The FFA motto — “Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve” — closely aligns with the principles that guide our nation’s electric cooperatives in our quest to improve the quality of life for the members we serve, thus making our partnership a natural one.
“Camp Couchdale has provided thousands of people with learning experiences that still guide them today.
The cooperatives will continue to work to improve learning opportunities for FFA members as we continue our partnership.”
Kevin Barenberg, an agriculture teacher at Lincoln High School, has brought many students to Couchdale over the years, including his son, Kaleb, an FFA state officer. Barenberg is clear about what FFA is and is not.
“FFA, in short, is not cows, plows and sows, hicks, chicks and sticks, weeds, seeds and feed,” Barenberg says. “Everyone thinks of agriculture as The Beverly Hillbillies if they’ve not been around it. But the reality is, it’s the nation’s and the world’s largest industry. Every person on the planet is impacted not once in their life but daily, multiple times daily, through the industry of agriculture. … What FFA does is really open members’ eyes to see that there’s a whole world out there that is involved in agriculture.”
And it shows them that there is a whole world out there, period.
Education and opportunities
Jennifer Cook, foundation director for Arkansas FFA, says the organization broadened her horizons and,
ultimately, her future.
Cook says, “My life was changed by the FFA. … I didn’t grow up on a farm; I grew up in a government-subsidized home in a single-parent household. A really great teacher saw something in me that I didn’t really know was there.” He urged her to get involved with FFA, and in time, she became the first female state president. “Leadership skills were developed. … I developed a work ethic from being involved in FFA.
“As much as it made a difference in my life, I see that it does the same for others. And it’s worth investing this part of my life.”
Sunni Wise, who manages the state officers as Arkansas FFA executive secretary and serves as program
adviser at the State Department of Education, shares a similar story.
“I was a kid who grew up in poverty and didn’t really know what was in store for me in life,” Wise says. And my ag teacher said, ‘Come and try to be part of this team and make something happen for yourself.’ And he really poured into me. And I found myself in the FFA and found what I was passionate about. … From a member to a state officer to an intern to an ag teacher to now state staff, I’ve really gotten to grow through that process.”
Likewise, she’s watching others grow through the Camp Couchdale experience. Especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic that hindered educational and social opportunities for students.
“Honestly, after a year of pretty much nothing, kids are more alive and hungry,” she says, adding that camp this year “has been phenomenal. This is what our kids needed.”
Camp Couchdale comments
It was really fun. I did not think I would have as much fun as I did. I met a ton of people from different schools. We
got to do a bunch of different activities and learned a lot. I like the water activities that we did. I like the team activities that we did with our groups, where we had to think and work together to try to figure things out.Kamren Halcrombe, 16, Mayflower
I liked everything. I like how they kept us on our toes. And just all-around, it was a great experience. I really enjoyed the service day. We remodeled this old porch and helped clean up and get it like new. I enjoyed just being there with my friends; we had all signed up for the same thing, and we just enjoyed each other’s company while doing it. Madison Mode, 14, Guy
It was super fun. We all really enjoyed it and hope to go back next year. I liked the constant involvement with the activities and the other members that were present. Getting to meet all the advisers and the state officers was really cool. Just to get to know more people, that kind of thing, was super neat. I liked the camp-style kind of activities like the water games, and the ropes course was really fun to me. Haden Richardson, 15, Mayflower
The first time I went to Camp Couchdale, I was 15 months old. … I have some very fond memories of being a kid and coming with my dad (Lincoln High School agriculture teacher Kevin
Barenberg) and seeing all the kids, just sitting and
listening to the state officers as they taught about
leadership. It was amazing as a kid to see it …
and coming as a high schooler and learning to be a
better leader.” FFA State Secretary Kaleb Barenberg, 18, Lincoln