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Mississippi FFA alumni: It’s not about us, it’s about them

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For some FFA alumni, the memories of their time spent in the association get hung up with the blue corduroy jacket, but for others those little moments can leave a long-lasting impression. That was the case for Mississippi FFA alumni Rachel Red and the reason she decided to pen her personal story in her college newspaper.

Red grew up in Sarah, Mississippi on her family’s small 80-acre farm. The family also planted a half-acre garden for as long as Red can remember, and for a few years, raised and sold beef cattle for a little extra money.

Red’s brother and sister were in FFA years before, and her parents were friends with the local high school’s FFA adviser, so there was always that subtle push to keep up tradition.  It wasn’t until ninth grade, however, when a female advisor asked Red to join the new Strayhorn Envirothon team that she gained a personal interest in FFA.

While in the Strayhorn FFA, Red worked in the campus greenhouse, participated in the annual fruits and meats sale, and enjoyed diverse competitions such as the Envirothon, Tool Identification, Opening and Closing (Student Advisor, then Secretary), and Horse Judging.  As a junior, she served as Student Advisor; then as a  Secretary her senior year.

Courtesy of Rachel Red

“The thing I found most valuable, however, were the friendships and memories I made with people,” Red said. “Even if I was too shy to join in on every conversation or hop in every picture, I’ll never forget the laughs I shared with my fellow Strayhorn FFA-ers, nor the throbbing headache of endless practice or the sinking stomach of not placing as high as hoped in competition.”

Now a student at Delta State University, Red is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in English education and wants to teach high school English.  She hopes to one day return to school and earn her master’s and doctorate degrees.

But Red hasn’t forgotten her formative years in Mississippi FFA and thus the reason she decided to share how the program drastically changed her perspective on life with her fellow collegians.

“The ‘moral of the story,’ if you will, in How a Pig Taught Me a Lesson is only one of many I experienced, but it’s a lesson I treasure and one I hope others experience and come to treasure for themselves, as well,” Red said.

With permission from Red, here is her article in its entirely, as originally published February 7, 2017 in The Delta Statement:

I was miserable. Feet shifting, I shoved my gloved hands in my coat pockets and ground my teeth against the chattering that threatened to seize me. Every breath snorted through my nostrils, which were already numb from the chill October air, and hung like frosted curtains before my eyes, only to be swooshed away by the breeze that grappled for hold on my exposed face. The wet stench of mud and manure not yet hardened from the stalls to my left refused to dissipate. How much more of this would I be forced to endure?

I glanced down at my jailer and pursed my lips. “At least one of us is having fun. Found any bugs yet?”

The bristle-haired racing hog snorted at me and thrust its snout back into the three-inch dirt-and-straw mixture padding its pen. Taking that as a no, I lifted my head to scan the other stalls shoved together under the maroon tent flaps, but my gaze caught on my FFA advisor, who stood at the entrance to the makeshift barn talking with our Farmtastic representative.  Every head nod and lackadaisical gesture towards me and my fellow “volunteers” made my stomach clench tighter.

When our advisor told us about the Farmtastic event Mississippi State University was holding at the Mid-South Fair, my FFA team had jumped to volunteer our Saturday. After all, we had whispered to each other afterwards, as soon as we’re done unloading stuff and setting up the pens, we can hop over to the rides. It’ll be great!

Three hours in, and all I had seen of the fair was the kid-coated top of the Ferris Wheel.  Exhaling a plume of crystallized breath, I shot our president a glower across the tent. Her back was to me, however, as she stroked the nose of the quarter horse to which she had been assigned. Why couldn’t I have gotten a horse? Heck, at this point, I would have taken the pygmy goats two pens down, though Marcy, who had been assigned there, looked as if she would disagree.

If it had just been about the animals, however, I would have been able to bear the situation well enough. At least the hog had the excuse of not understanding me, whereas the adults wandering through the tent most certainly spoke my language as they avoided my gaze and prodded their wide-eyed, open-mouthed children onwards without pause. Then there were the older visitors, who knew way too much about hen cycles and goat bladders and wouldn’t leave fast enough.

Just as I was contemplating approaching my adviser about taking a break, a haggard-faced man and his two girls, both under six and with their hair in lopsided pigtails, started my way. I closed my eyes. My fingers tightened around the scrap of paper I had tucked away in my pocket after pouring over it for ten minutes straight. If I could get through with these people, I told myself, I would be home-free.  The fair was already calling my name.

“Did you know,” I opened my eyes and began reciting as soon as my visitors were within hearing distance, “that there are over seventy different pig bree––”

“Look, Daddy!” one of the girls squealed, yanking her hand back from where the hog had tried sticking its snout through the pen bars.  “It’s tryin’ to eat me.” Despite her words, she didn’t seem to mind and, in fact, reached out again to pat the hog’s sloping forehead. Her wrist was just thin enough to fit.  “Nice piggy.”

Despite myself, I grinned and knelt beside her. My gaze swept from her and her sister to the beady-eyed barrel of a hog. “Actually, that thing she does with her nose—that’s called rooting. She’s an omnivore, which means she eats plants and animals, so she’s using her nose to feel around for bugs and insects to munch on.”

“Wow,” the second girl breathed. Her eyelashes fluttered. “Daddy, I want a piggy.”

Before their father could turn a baleful eye on me, I hurried to add, “Oh, but she isn’t just any kind of pig. You see, this here is a racing pig. People line her and her friends up over at the raceways, then let them go at it around the track, their little ears just a flappin’ as they speed off down the lane. Isn’t that neat?”

The girls, their mittened hands limp at their sides, stared up at me. “A racing pig,” the first sister mouthed, while the other hurriedly tugged on their father’s sleeve and demanded to see a pig race.

“The races aren’t for a few more months,” I cautioned the girls. “So, you’ll have to wait a bit, but in the meantime––” My head nodded towards the wooden brooder at the front of the tent.  “––we just hatched some baby chicks this morning. They should be all fluffy and cute by now. Why don’t you go take a look, maybe name a few for us?”

As the girls raced off, dragging their father by his hands behind them, I rose to my feet and preened at the hog. “And you doubted me, pork chop.”

“You seem to be having a good time,” our Farmtastic representative spoke up behind me.

I whirled around to blink dumbly at her. A smile on her brown lips, she gestured around us at the people meandering through, and nodded. “This is why we do this. We’re not just showing off our animals, we’re showing them to people who’ve probably never seen a farm animal except on TV. We’re showing these people there’s more to life than YouTube and Disney Channel.”

Her words scratched at my insides for some reason. A huff flopped from my lips, and I turned away to study my fellow volunteers as they gestured for passersby to approach and invited the children to pet the animals. Always, the FFA members kept a smile on their faces, even Marcy when she had to kneel to stroke one of the pygmy goats’ noses, as instructed by a little boy through his mother’s scoldings.

“It’s not about us,” I murmured, realization dawning. “It’s about them.”

Shame swamped me at the memory of my team’s reasoning for coming. We had been ready to come and do some inconsequential lifting and transporting, then vanish into the crowds pouring into the Fair, all too happy to leave behind the people who had taken the time to visit our stalls. My team and I hadn’t come here to help; we had come to have fun––our version of fun, anyway. As I glanced down at the pig pen and met the gaze of its inhabitant, my frown softened into a smile.

“Yeah,” I said, kneeling. My fingers brushed the hog’s forehead. “I think I get it now.”

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