A Farm Girl’s Top Three Tips for a Successful Career in Agriculture
At nine years old, I stood in front of a small crowd and competed in my first public speaking event. I was scared. I had been angry with my mother for the hours she had encouraged me to spend practicing my speech which generally occurred when I couldn’t escape her persistence while trapped in the truck riding shotgun with her checking pastures. The competition was held in conjunction with a cattle show and I was probably more concerned with seeing my show friends and taking care of my calf than getting in front of a group of judges to give a silly speech. But, I showed up, delivered my speech, answered the judge’s questions, and in the end I scored well enough to win a show heifer. The win lit a fire and was the first of its kind that taught me lessons that continue to guide me in my life and career: put in the work, get outside your comfort zone, and know what to do when things don’t work out.
1. Put in the Work
Confidence comes more easily when you are prepared. And, being prepared requires you to put in the work to get there.
I showed cattle growing up and my husband I continue to show the cattle we raise. Anyone that has raised and trained a show animal knows that winners are made in the barn. Don’t put in the work and don’t be surprised to be dragged across the midway at the fair. Most things in life are much like the calf you have to get ready for the fair. It’s really hard in the beginning, you have to work at it consistently, and if you budget your time wisely, you have time to fine tune just before game day.
When I walked in for my first day at the Floyd County Farm Service Agency, I was 25 and the first female County Executive Director in the county’s history. Suddenly, I was in charge of distributing millions of dollars in accordance with the U.S. Farm Bill. Growing up in a family of farmers, I knew the agricultural producers of the county would see right through me if I didn’t know what was going on so there was no room for bluffing. I had to learn the programs, and I had to be confident when I answered the questions they asked me. In the face of this challenge, I chose to dig in, learn from those around me, and put in the work necessary to understand the agricultural community I had been chosen to serve in addition to the complex government programs I was in charge of administering. Because of my hard work and preparation, I wasn’t seen just as a 25-year-old girl, I was seen as a person the farmers and ranchers could trust to accurately and effectively sign them up for programs that were a major part of their livelihood.
Whether it’s halter breaking the heifer that seems unbreakable or you are an unlikely candidate for a job you have earned, putting in the work and preparation are the foundation of success in the agriculture industry.
2. Get outside your comfort zone.
Many times, getting out of your comfort zone means trying new things. For me, it has generally meant biting off a little more than I can chew and getting it done anyway.
As an FFA member, I competing in as many LDE and CDE activities that I was eligible for while still taking advanced courses, graduating second in my class, caring for a string of show animals, and doing my part on my family’s farm. It’s difficult to know what activity or experience will come in handy down the road, so why not try a variety.
For instance, on a whim, I signed up for the Job Interview FFA competition. I practiced and was pretty good at it, but I never won a significant title in the event. Similarly, I competed in Agricultural Issues and it was another event where I practiced public speaking and, maybe more importantly, I enhanced my ability to think on my feet during the question portion. My team was solid and was named second place in the state that year but still no state title. Neither activity ended with my name in lights, but when it came time to interview for scholarships, I had a leg up on the competition. Because of the events I had participated in, I felt comfortable in the hot seat, answered questions with ease, and came out on top when it really mattered. I landed a $15,000 FFA scholarship and while I had decent grades, I remain convinced that my interview skills put me in the winner’s circle.
Flash forward a few years later after I had graduated from Texas A&M University. It was the height of the recession and it was a difficult time for a college graduate with limited work experience to get a job. It seemed it didn’t matter how good my grades were or what I had been involved in, I simply couldn’t catch a break. Finally, I had an interview and I needed make it count. Luckily, because of my involvement in leadership activities as I mentioned above, I was comfortable during the interview process. Again, the experience paid off and I was chosen to be a management trainee for the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.
But, the true test occurred six months later as myself and ten other trainees sought our permanent worksite. I desperately wanted to work in a county close to home and only two of the ten office options existed remotely nearby. When interview day came for the office at the top of my list, I was the only female and youngest person to be considered. I am sure the panel of interviewers saw me walk in and thought there was no way I could handle their office that not only served producers of traditional products such as cotton and cattle. but also had a large number of acres of specialty crops such as pumpkins. In the interview I shared with them my experiences growing up on a cotton farm in West Texas and the many times I visited with farmers at the local cotton gin while tagging along with my grandparents or while hauling cotton trailers during cotton stripping season. By working on the farm and sharing conversations with farmers, I showed that I well versed on production agriculture while also proving that I had the ability to learn from farmers of that county about the crops they grew. I highlighted the projects I had completed as an FFA member and used the skills I earned through years of speech competitions to deliver my message. The interview went well and I simply had to wait for a decision in my favor which came later that day while sitting at the local café with my fellow trainees.
It’s easy to decline participation because you feel that you are too busy to get involved. But, if I had not gotten outside my comfort zone and competed in the variety of activities that I had or been afraid to do the type of jobs growing up on the farm that maybe weren’t likely suited for a girl, I would not have the confidence and skill to be able achieve my goals in this industry.
3. What happens if things don’t work out?
My hard work has not always resulted in blue ribbons. In fact, a lot of times it has not. My earliest memory of defeat occurred at age seven at the Texas State Fair when I walked in with my prize heifer only to be excused moments later because she didn’t make the cut to be placed. But, instead of hanging up the show halter, I continue to show cattle competitively. And, don’t get me wrong, I am competitive by nature and I don’t take losing easily so picking myself up after set back comes as a challenge to me. When something doesn’t go exactly how I hope, I remember something my Ag Teacher told my Ag Issues team after we lost the state competition, “Maybe today just wasn’t meant to be the greatest day of your life and that day is yet to come.” And you know what, since then there have been some great days. It’s easy to throw in the towel after a loss, but the real winners get back in the ring and keep fighting. Just like the farmer that continues to plant seed in the ground despite years of drought or bad prices, each person in the agricultural industry must be able to muster that same resolve. And, in hindsight, the overall experiences gained through different activities outweigh defeat in any single competition.
Sometimes you move on to get over a loss, but sometimes you move on just to move to something better suited for you. Three years ago, I decided to leave my job that I loved at the USDA Farm Service Agency. I had thrived in the position and had worked with my staff to create one of the most efficient, productive county offices in the state even in the face of employee reductions. While in my position as County Executive Director, I was able to serve agricultural producers, but I knew that there was a way I could do more. So, I moved across the state and attended law school. Because I was willing to take that risk, I am now in a position as a soon to be licensed attorney able to assist farmers and ranchers in a way that is more well suited for my strengths.
A prosperous career in agriculture is rewarding, but it comes to those that are willing to put in the time to get there. So, while the path may be different for every person, my career is proof that agricultural producers respect those who make an effort to develop their skills to best serve the agriculture industry.