Taylor McNeel and Sydney Snider believe in the future of agriculture … so much that they both took off a year from college to lead the world’s largest agricultural youth organization.
Since 1928, millions of high school students have proudly put on the blue corduroy jacket and recited the words, “I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds …” but it takes a dedicated leader to step up to the position of National Officer for the National FFA Organization.
“I was encouraged because of my dad, and when I think about the students this year and what encourages them, I really think it is their curiosity of agriculture,” McNeel said. “Once they get involved in agriculture, they see that it is something that connects us all.”
“Serving as a state FFA officer developed my leadership abilities and involvement with agriculture far past my expectations,” Snider said. “My time as a state officer also helped me realize that service is a value that is rooted deep in my heart. My desire to serve as a National FFA Officer stems from my passion for agriculture and a yearning to serve others.”
McNeel has served as the 2015-2016 national FFA president; Snider as Eastern region vice president. They, along with the four other officers on the team: Nick Baker, secretary; Abbey Gretsch, Southern region vice president; Abrah Meyer, Central region vice president; and Sarah Draper, Western region vice president; committed the last year to serving the National FFA Organization.
Each traveled more than 100,000 national and international miles to interact with business and industry leaders, thousands of FFA members and teachers, corporate sponsors, government and education officials, state FFA leaders, the general public, and more. The officers spent 300 days on the road, hitting every state convention (except Vermont due to a board meeting scheduled at the same time) and even Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Snider herself traveled to 30 states. Coming from a traditional beef operation in Moscow, Ohio, Snider valued seeing the different aspects from traditional agriculture. From learning about aqua and regional fruit production on the coast to unique water challenges in California and Nevada, Snider said she gained a “wealth of knowledge.” Alaska was her favorite stop this year.
“The agriculture there was so much different and it was neat to learn how ag is not their number one industry,” Snider said.
The officers also led personal growth and leadership training seminars for FFA members throughout the country and help set policies that will guide the future of FFA and promote agricultural literacy.
“One thing our team is really proud of is we get to select what we call a legacy platform and something that we really feel passionate about and want to help promote over a year. At the beginning of our year we chose the alumni as a group initiative with FFA,” McNeel said. “It is estimated that there are about 8 million FFA alumni out there but how we can get those people engaged using their time, talent, treasures at the local level and really help our students? To have FFA to continue to grow and become relevant to students and continue to be an incredible organization, we really have to rely on those alumni to fill this out.”
The National FFA Organization announced a record-high membership this year with 649,355 student members who belong to one of 7,859 local FFA chapters throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. However, it was the national FFA Alumni membership that exploded with 225,891 members, growing from 62,705 in 2015. This year, graduating high school seniors automatically received alumni membership, which the growth numbers reflect.
The officer team also helped to develop a grant to help boost alumni chapters and helped to spread the message that you don’t have to be a past member to join the alumni program, but just have a deep appreciation for what FFA does for students and an eagerness to help out.
“FFA is really strong at high school and that’s where our membership lies and it’s been how we can connect with students on the alumni side after they leave that high school setting and getting them more involved as alumni to give back to the organization,” McNeel said.
Snider echoed McNeel’s words, saying the alumni program is a great opportunity to consider “when the time wearing the blue jacket is coming to a close.”
The highlight of the year for the officer team is, of course, the National FFA Convention. Last year’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky, had a record-breaking attendance of 65,000, and the officers hope to break that again next week when the 89th annual convention returns to Indianapolis.
“It is an incredible opportunity for students, one to not only celebrate the year, but also be involved in different service projects around the city and be involved in leadership workshops. Our career expo will have about 300 different agriculture businesses represented and about 100 colleges from around the country,” McNeel said. “It’s a really cool opportunity for students to have that, but also learn those leadership skills and take some things back to their local community.”
After convention, McNeel will return to Southern Arkansas University to pursue an agricultural business major with a minor in Spanish. Snider will go back to The Ohio State University to study agricultural communication. Before passing on the gavel to the next team of officers, both McNeel and Snider along with the other officers will make retirement addresses at the national convention.
McNeel is looking forward to hearing what her teammates have learned this year, with the hope that it will help inspire other students’ journeys in FFA.
“To that student who is maybe considering agriculture, but knows nothing about FFA, my advice is to try it and know that ag connects us all,” McNeel said. “We can all find a home in ag and FFA, and there is something for everyone within the organization.”
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