On February 22-23, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted the 94th Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum (AOF), welcoming hundreds of current and rising agricultural leaders. The event brought together public and private stakeholders to discuss key issues in U.S. agriculture. Among those representing the future of American agriculture were this year’s USDA Student Diversity Program winners, students from the Virginia chapter of the National FFA Organization, and students from the 1994 Tribal Colleges and Universities. These special guests shared their impressions of the event.
Thirty winners of the USDA Student Diversity Program visited Washington, D.C. to attend the Agricultural Outlook Forum and get first-hand exposure to federal policymaking. These undergraduate and graduate students major in agriculture-related fields at land-grant universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and non-land-grant colleges of agriculture. They were selected for the Diversity Program through an essay contest on the topics of agricultural careers and challenges.
University of Missouri senior Jamie Luke was one of the Student Diversity Program winners. “I’ve learned about the issues and challenges facing agriculture right now,” Luke noted. “In the coming years we will need as many viewpoints and backgrounds and experiences as possible to overcome these challenges and work together to find solutions to the problems that we have,” she added.
Wesley Yu of Oregon State University emphasized the unifying nature of food production and consumption. “One thing I learned coming to D.C. was the importance of food in bringing together people. It doesn’t matter if you are from California or Maryland or Puerto Rico, we all have a need for food. That common ground, believe it or not, can bring us closer together,” Wesley explained.
Other guests included student officers from the Virginia Chapter of FFA, a national organization that fosters leadership development through agricultural education. The USDA and the National FFA Organization have embarked on a partnership to attract, educate, inspire, and prepare students to enter careers in the agriculture, food, and natural resources industries. The FFA officers spoke about how ag education has benefitted them, and were encouraged by the USDA’s interest in involving younger generations in all areas of agriculture.
“A really cool part of agriculture education and FFA is a project called a supervised agriculture experience,” said Mason Sowers, Virginia FFA state secretary. “You take what you learned in the classroom and apply it to a project at home -- I had a vegetable garden. Getting to use those life skills, not only did I learn how to grow a tomato plant, but I got to learn how to balance a checkbook and manage a checking account,” Sowers remarked.
Chris Kuhler, Virginia FFA state sentinel, urged all students to consider careers in agriculture, not just those from farming families. “No one in my family has come from an agricultural background for a few generations,” Kuhler noted. “By the time I got to high school I had the opportunity to take an agriculture education course as well as join FFA, which for me opened so many doors into the industry as a whole.” Kulher plans to attend Virginia Tech to study agricultural business.
The USDA also welcomed eight faculty members and students representing 1994 Tribal Colleges and Universities to the Agricultural Outlook Forum. The USDA is proud to support 1994 Tribal Colleges and Universities, other land-grant institutions working with them, as well as programs that support Tribal students and young professionals.
Letisha Mailboy is a member of the Navajo Nation and a student at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she studies Natural Resource Management and Environmental Science. “Coming from the Navajo Reservation, I felt that it was necessary that I come to Washington to represent my tribe, mainly because agriculture is a part of our culture and traditions, and slowly our traditions are fading,” Mailboy pointed out. “I feel it is necessary for me to be here and find out what new innovations, what new changes are going on, so I can take it back to my reservation and share the information with my people to empower traditions, culture, and most of all health.”
Rusty LaFrance, a member of the Crow Indian Nation and a student at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, discussed why agriculture should embrace diversity. “It’s really important because not only can you learn from them, but they can also learn from you,” LaFrance observed. “Especially with Native American students, agriculture was pretty much a part of our lifestyle before the colonization and enforcement onto reserves, so you know we have a lot of agriculture embedded into our personal identity that we have yet to share. Collaboration and reciprocation of knowledge is really the main goal here.”
Letisha Mailboy offered some parting suggestions for students interested in attending next year’s AOF: “My advice to students, Native American students particularly, is that if you don’t come, no one is going to do it for you. You have to take the initiative to come and learn all of the new opportunities and also be aware of the obstacles that lie ahead. As Secretary Perdue said, ‘innovation is change, and everything is always changing.’ Everything you are disgruntled about in life, everything you don’t like in life, or your unhealthiness or anything, is not going to change unless you come.”
Students who are interested in next year’s Ag Outlook Forum and Student Diversity program may visit www.usda.gov/oce/forum/diversity.