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USDA’s Agricultural Ties Run Deep

Mary Louise Reynnells (right) and Shellie Wallace-Polin in their FFA jackets, 1977.

Mary Louise Reynnells (right) and Shellie Wallace-Polin in their FFA jackets, 1977.

Earlier this year, in preparation for the 2015 opening of a new business history exhibition, American Enterprise, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History put out a call for current and past members of the National FFA Organization to submit their FFA jackets accompanied with their own personal agricultural history. The jackets and stories, to be featured in the agricultural portion of the exhibition, will examine the significance that agricultural education continues to play to our national identity.

At a ceremony last week, five jackets and their stories were selected; among them, a jacket from President Jimmy Carter and a jacket from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service employee Mary “Louise” Reynnells. USDA employees work every day to ensure that American farmers have access to the opportunities they need, and many of their ties to agriculture extend well beyond their time at USDA. Here is Mary “Louise” Reynnells’s story, and with it, her contribution to our agricultural heritage.


FFA Changed my Life

By Mary “Louise” Reynnells, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service

I grew up in the house my great-grandfather had built. It was four houses down from Pacific High School in San Bernardino, California. When I started high school, I decided to try the vocational agriculture classes. The area had been rural, but was steadily becoming a very large city. We were still considered in the county area. The high school still had an agriculture department, complete with barns, shops, greenhouses and pastures. I liked plants and animals, so I decided to see what “ag” was all about. I was soon interested in the Future Farmers of America, or FFA Chapter, there. I went to a couple of meetings and was hooked. It was a great way to meet people at the high school and to be involved in school and community projects. I felt liked I was a part of something much bigger than myself that had an impact on all. That was the start of the rest of my life.

Agriculture has been a big part of my life ever since, and I owe a lot of that to my high school agriculture teachers and the FFA program. In FFA I started raising sheep. I started out with the high school sheep and showing one of those at the fair. I later raised them at my home, where there was just enough room to raise a couple of sheep. In FFA I became Treasurer and then my senior year President. I raised sheep and showed at the fairs, worked in the greenhouse, and learned a lot about wood and metal work in shop. I represented my area as a State Delegate for FFA and also was voted as the FFA “Chapter Sweetheart,” which had an all-white jacket different than the traditional blue. I was taught a lot about leadership, respect for others and the earth as well as the plants and animals on the earth that help to feed and clothe us all. I learned a lot through working hard for what I wanted and the importance of giving back to my family, friends and community. My agriculture teachers were not only my high school instructors, but mentors for life. Even after I graduated, they stayed in touch while I went to college, where I got my Bachelors Degree in Animal Science.

My first job after college was with the University of California at Riverside with the poultry area of the Cooperative Extension Service. It was a dream job. I worked outside with the birds and then inside in the office on original research. That is where I met my husband, a USDA Extension Service National Program Leader for Poultry in Washington, DC. We were married and I moved back to the Maryland area near Washington, DC, and got a job also with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library as an Information Specialist – where I am today after 27 years.

I have traveled in my job all over the U.S. and have met many people working in agriculture. I have also met four sitting Secretaries of Agriculture and numerous Under Secretaries. I have made agriculture my life, and mostly because I got involved at high school in an organization called FFA.

2 Responses to “USDA’s Agricultural Ties Run Deep”

  1. Dean Shank says:

    Like Mary, a lot in my life originated with my early years spent in FFA. Also, as Mary had said, I still keep in touch with my FFA Advisors. They touched alot of lives in their careers… not just mine. This article brought back many good memories for me. Congrats to Mary for having her FFA jacket selected for this project!

  2. Angie Vanatta says:

    Congratulations Mary on your jacket being selected what an honor. As Mary I too wore the jacket with pride and was also very invoved in FFA and I am a 4-H completion member. I have given back to both organizations in my older years as and FFA Alumni member at my local FFA chapter school I was in and a 4-H volunteer. I love helping the kids succeed and watch them grow into great young people.

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