I just returned from Indianapolis and my first National FFA Convention. Having missed the first 82 of them, I figured it was about time to see what these folks were up to. I grew up in a part of northern New Jersey where there was no active FFA presence and where 4-H existed to help the wealthier suburban kids who actually got ponies for Christmas learn how to care for them.
I learned to appreciate FFA while working for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, where the partnership with the state FFA leadership is very strong. I was blown away to learn that the largest FFA chapter in the State actually is at W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia. I have been to the state FFA convention and often sent others to the national convention, but I’d never seen it with my own eyes.
Picture 46,000 high school and college age students, about the same number that you would find at a major land grant university, all wearing blue jackets, all polite, all committed to this nation and to agriculture. It was an exciting, empowering experience.
My main reason for going was to speak to ag-entrepreneurship winners and their families. About a hundred FFA members, their families and sponsors were there. Each winner had found some unique way to start a small business or develop an operation. I’m proud that USDA Rural Development is a sponsor of this competition.
What I told the group was that my favorite animal is a turtle. If you walk into my office or into my home you will see likenesses of turtles everywhere. It’s because I was told as a girl that, like the turtle, if you don’t stick your neck out every once in awhile, you’ll never get anyplace.
My primary message to these bright, young students was to find an issue that makes you passionate and go for it. Become a leader, but be someone who can motivate those around you. A leader without followers is just someone going for a walk.
Finally, I told them about an exciting new program which Congress put into the new Farm Bill and is enthusiastically supported by Secretary Vilsack and by those of us here at Rural Development: It is the Microentrepreneurship Assistance Program. What we’re going to do is select non-profit intermediaries and provide them with funds that they can loan to people who want to start a business. It’s perfect for the members of the FFA. The amount to be lent is no more than $50,000 per applicant. All the details about the program were posted in the October 7th edition of the Federal Register. If you want to find out more or comment on the program, that’s the place to go.
You know, walking around Indianapolis and seeing all of these great young Americans from Hawaii to Puerto Rico and Florida to Alaska, all together, all motivated, gives me a great feeling, not just about agriculture and its future, but in the future of America. Trust me, it won’t be another 83 years before I attend my next FFA convention.
Cheryl L. Cook, Deputy Under Secretary