The future of America is entirely about its youth. According to figures provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sixty percent of the farmers in this country are 55 years old or older. Will the next generation take over for their parents and accept a rural lifestyle? What options are available for promising students, many of them minorities, living in economically challenged rural areas?
Last week, USDA welcomed two Native American members of the National FFA organization to the Agriculture Department for meetings with Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse, Arthur “Butch” Blazer, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, and representatives of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations (OTR), including Director Leslie Wheelock. FFA members Hannah Nichols (Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana) of Elton, La. and Jessica Wahnee (Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Okla.) of Morris, Okla. were in the capital for the FFA Washington Leadership Conference (WLC) and were accompanied by Kent Schescke, director of government and non-profit relations for the National FFA.
The two FFA representatives came to USDA as part of a five-day trip to Washington. During their trip, they participated in meetings designed to foster citizenship, personal growth, advocacy, diversity and service. The meetings were intended to raise awareness of rural issues and engage in advocacy for Native American youth in agricultural education.
“We’ve been working for the last few years as part of our diversity and inclusion efforts to be aware of and elevate the role of students from underserved communities,” said Schescke. “FFA is reaching out to African American, Hispanic and Native American youth. We have about 12,000 Native Americans in FFA now, out of a total of 557,000. Our goal is to provide leadership opportunities. We are in the initial steps of developing a program that meets their needs, challenges and opportunities.”
Both of the students said they became interested in FFA because a sibling was involved and they joined in. “My agriculture teacher got me into judging dairy cows, which my father also did,” said Ms. Nichols. “FFA has helped me in public speaking. I plan to go to college.” She said, though, that she loves rural America. “Where I live there are fields and farms everywhere: lots of rice fields. As for the future of ag, there are opportunities but some challenges. We have to get kids involved, get them motivated. We live on 140 acres of woods. I love the country, the quiet, trees and nature.”
Jessica Wahnee lives in a town so small that “everyone knows everyone.” “I am hoping to get an ag scholarship, work on recycling projects, and help improve the environment. ‘Big’ doesn’t fit with me.”
“We have, and continue to work with USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations,” said Schescke, “These two young members will serve on a Native American Youth Council as we continue to work to connect with the Native American community.” It is apparent that no matter what the future holds, a rural upbringing and support from the National FFA will help these two young women become leaders of tomorrow. Ms. Nichols and Ms. Wahnee attended the FFA WLC with financial support from the Farm Credit Council and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law.