FFA the cornerstone of career development for young people

Want to ensure the future of food? Encourage the next generation of kids in organizations like FFA and 4-H.

Amanda Radke

November 26, 2019

8 Min Read

Last weekend, I spoke at a local FFA chapter’ community agriculture appreciation night. This event wrapped up a speaking tour that ran from Halloween through Thanksgiving. It included eight stops, four states, six planes and several thousand miles.

I’m always grateful for the opportunity to share my story to audiences. In the past month, I spoke to culinary and animal science students at a technical school, two women in agriculture events, an Angus breeder meeting, a gathering of Idaho ranchers and FFA students.

And along the way, I got to talk about two main topics — first, successfully navigating the crazy dynamics of a multi-generational family business, and two, advocating for agriculture using kindness, facts, transparency to best make connections with consumers, politicians and celebrities who have questions about how their food gets to the dinner table.

These are big topics right now, and although I don’t have all the answers, I do enjoy being on the road and getting to share my experiences with so many wonderful people.

And it seemed fitting to conclude this speaking tour at an FFA event. After all, I owe a great deal to the FFA organization; it helped me develop as a young person, hone in on my passions, try new things, meet incredible friends and peers in the industry and open up many doors that have helped me in my career.

Related:5 tips for youth competing in ag contests

I recently read a blog post featured on Raised In A Barn titled, “40 reasons to be thankful for FFA and 4-H” that really got me thinking about my own experiences in these youth organizations.

Please allow me to reminisce. I promise there is a point to this stroll down memory lane.

Seventeen years ago (wow that makes me feel old), I was a high school freshman, and I joined FFA not knowing anything about the organization and what it entailed. My advisor encouraged me to do a leadership CDE, and since I had given 4-H speeches for so many years, I dusted off an old one I had written when I was 12-years old titled, “America’s Beef Cattle - The True Unsung Heroes” and decided to try my hand at the FFA Public Speaking Contest.

I surprised myself and my advisor when I won districts and state. However, I bombed at nationals and didn’t even make it out of the first round. In fact, it was so bad that after presenting my very pro-beef speech, a vegetarian judge threw some questions at me about eating animals that I raised, and let’s just say, my response didn’t earn me any extra points.

To cheer me up, my advisor took me to see the final four compete in the Extemporaneous Speaking contest. I remember watching those kids flawlessly present their 5-8 minute speeches like they were perfectly memorized. After seeing them compete, I adamantly told my advisor, “I could NEVER do that contest!”

Related:Activists target 4-H youth with vandalism at the county fair

Fast-forward to 2006 — my senior year of high school. I caved and signed up for Extemporaneous Speaking after my advisor continued to press the subject.

And once again, I surprised myself and my advisor when I won district and state and earned another trip to nationals. Even crazier was I somehow made it past the first two rounds to end up in the final four, a spot I couldn’t have even dreamed up just a few years prior.

The night before the final four, I attended a now infamous Carrie Underwood concert at the National FFA Convention, where I used the new tool, Facebook, to encourage FFA students to walk out of the concert in protest of Carrie’s support of the Humane Society of the United States. (But that’s a story for another day.)

Anyway, the next day, tired but running on adrenaline from the evening before, I went to compete in the final four. When it was my turn to draw my randomly selected topics out of the bowl, the first two were not in my wheelhouse at all. I started to panic. What if the third topic was just as hard? How would I get through it?

But I can only credit God for watching out for me, because my third topic was on beef cattle, and I had just won the 2006 National Beef Ambassador Contest, using the same trusty 4-H speech I had used to kick off my FFA career. “America’s Beef Cattle - The True Unsung Heroes” continued to resonate as I shared the amazing story of beef by-products and how they enrich our daily lives.

So back to the final four — A reenactment of the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. commercial and a run-down of beef choices in the meat case, and I secured the national championship in Extemporaneous Speaking.

Now I tell this story for several reasons, and I hope you’ll share this blog post with your ranch kids and any FFA and 4-H members that you know.

First, never underestimate your God-given abilities.

At 14, I was absolutely certain I could never ad lib a 5-8 minute speech, and I vowed to never even try. At 18, thanks to strong mentors and people who believed in me, I didn’t just do the contest, I won the contest. And today, I travel the country speaking off the cuff for an hour at a time, or sometimes longer! Sometimes life will surprise you, and if you doubt your own capabilities, you’re cutting yourself short.

Second, there is a great deal of personal growth that can be experienced in programs like 4-H and FFA.

This growth is because of mentors, advisors, teachers, volunteers, parents, friends and the support of community members and agri-businesses.

When I prepared for speaking contests, I utilized the help of the Toastmasters Club. When I prepared for the job interview contest, I worked with local businesses including the owner of a grocery store in town to practice answering questions and to polish my resume. And when I prepared for extemporaneous speaking, I practiced in front of my FFA friends who later become college roommates and even members of our wedding party when Tyler and I tied the knot to help me work through the kinks of my presentation style.

You can’t achieve success alone. The best way to improve in anything in life is to find someone who already does it well, and ask them to help you or show you the way. My mom always used to say, “What’s the worst someone could say when you ask them for help? No?” And I’ve never forgotten that as I’ve navigated through my own career in agriculture.

Third, when your days in FFA and 4-H are over, it’s time to give back and help young people succeed, as well.

In between speaking events, fall harvest and wrangling my own kids, I have had the distinct pleasure of coaching three Ag Issues teams and one student who is competing in the Job Interview contest. It is so rewarding to pass on my own knowledge and experiences from competing so many years ago with eager and talented young people.

Now as soon as I write this, I know I will get more requests for coaching. Sadly, I’m probably maxed out at the moment, and I prefer to devote most of my time to the students who attend the local school where my kids attend. However, in every community in rural America, there are agricultural professionals who are willing and able to help and offer their expertise and a listening ear. Utilize these people and learn from their experiences and advise!

Moral of the story, if you had asked me at age 14 if I would have been on the road speaking professionally at ag conferences, I would have laughed and said, “No way!” But God has a funny way of guiding us in life exactly where we need to be, and I’m incredibly grateful to have this platform and the opportunity to share my story and my passion for being a steward of the land, livestock and people with so many great audiences.

It’s because of my time spent in youth organizations where I had strong support, great role models and incredible opportunities to learn and grow as an individual that truly helped me in this path.

And when asked how I felt about this challenging year in production agriculture, where we are facing ongoing trade wars, crazy weather, market uncertainties, rising debt loads, increased bankruptcies and more, I acknowledge that 2019 and 2018 have been incredibly difficult.

However, I am optimistic about the future. Why? Because getting to connect with so many amazing young people in FFA in the last month has reminded me that there is a lot of talent in our next generation. With a projected 57,000+ agricultural jobs available for college graduates in the next couple of years and an anticipated 33,000 applicants, the sky is the limit and the potential for agricultural careers is great!

So let’s continue to encourage and support these young people. They are the future of agriculture, and we need these talented kids to feed the world!

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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