Vilsack challenges FFA members to help diversify agriculture

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 20, 2016 - In his final address to a National FFA Convention, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urged FFA members to be the generation that opens up the doors of agriculture for all.

Speaking today in Indianapolis at the opening session of the organization's 89th annual convention, Vilsack said FFA members can be some of the nation's best ambassadors for agriculture, a field that he says should be open to new producers and all kinds of production systems. 

“Your generation is the generation that can invite everyone to participate in agriculture,” he said to a packed audience clad in blue FFA jackets. “It is your generation that can revive and remind Americans of the incredible contribution that rural America makes to every single person every single day in this country.”

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Vilsack started his speech with familiar talking points about the work of USDA during his tenure and the value of rural America, but his off-the-cuff remarks then turned to a challenge. He said FFA members need to take part in telling agriculture's story. That's a common appeal in agricultural circles, but Vilsack approached it from the perspective of using that story to open agriculture to everyone.

“You need to tell the story of an America that was built strong because of agriculture,” he said. “You need to tell the story that whether you're a big farmer and have a large-scale commercial operation, or you're a small farmer who's selling to a farmers market, you're equally important to the American economy, and equally important to telling the agricultural story.

“You need to be the generation that says it doesn't make any difference whether you're a man or a woman, you can be a farmer. You can participate in this great calling of American agriculture. It doesn't make any difference whether you've been in this country for a year or been in this country for 100 years. You can be part of agriculture. You need to be the generation that welcomes everyone into agriculture.”

Kaitlyn Schmeichel, South Dakota FFA's vice president, said a committee of FFA members focusing on diversity has actually been meeting during the convention, a signal of agreement with Vilsack's rallying cry for inclusion.

“We have been looking into all the different ways that we can be inclusive to our members and the different opportunities that we can utilize to incorporate all the members of our organization,” she said.

The message of communicating agriculture's story resonated in particular with Alison Simon, the South Dakota FFA president. She told Agri-Pulse she wants to work for USDA some day, to be a “strong advocate for agriculture” as part of her career. Using agriculture to reach people, she said, “is something I'm passionate about.”

Taylor Lexow, an officer with the Chapman, Kansas, FFA chapter, said she used speech class assignments to explain ag issues to other students, including several speeches about genetically modified foods. She said her chapter is very active in her community, which she says spurs further community involvement in FFA.

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“We're so involved in everything, and I think when people see that, it makes them want to get more involved too,” Lexow told Agri-Pulse.

Vilsack has spoken several times at FFA conventions in the past, and he said based on his interactions with FFA members, he believes the organization's membership is well positioned to handle the challenges of communicating about a changing industry.

“I have tremendous confidence in all of you; I have tremendous faith in all of you,” he said. “I know how you feel, I know how passionate you are, I know how energetic you are and I know that you happen to be some of the best spokespeople for American agriculture that exist anywhere.”

This year's convention is expected to draw record attendance, potentially topping 65,000 FFA members and guests.

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