By Sara Brown
Where does a girl go, after stepping off the National FFA Convention stage after an entire year of service as a national officer? Retired from the blue jacket at age 21, Nessie Early is headed back to the farm—specifically the beef research unit at Cal-Poly State University.
But before going back to school in January, Early has been busy visiting FFA chapters and agriculture companies, like Novartis Animal Health. A week long internship at the company was just one step back to the ebb and flow of school and career—a path grounded in animal science.
“Being here for a week, I’ve gotten a greater scope and understanding of the animal health industry. Throughout the week, I’ve met with some of the heads of the company and learned more about the farm animal and companion animal businesses, as well,” Early says.
Growing up on a ranch in Shandon, Calif., in the central coast area of the state, Early has always had an interest in animal ag production. In her high school, there were 83 students in the school, 77 of which were in FFA. For her, FFA was as much as a social event as a learning opportunity.
“I wanted to show a steer so bad as I was growing up. But I also knew the livelihood that comes with having a ranch and a breeding facility. And so that wasn’t really the facility we had, so I ended up getting to show a few heifers and finally in high school, one steer. After that, cattle were always an interest and many of my friends were involved in livestock projects.”
After high school, FFA propelled Early to California state vice president. After her year of service to California, Early went on to attend Cal-Poly, where she worked at the beef unit in San Luis Obispo under the direction of Mike Hall. There, she was involved in the annual Cal-Poly bull test. She was also active in Cal-Poly Young Cattlemen, San Luis Obispo County Cattlewomen (part of California Cattlewomen), California Collegiate FFA at Cal-Poly and the college’s Ag Ambassadors.
Running for a national office meant she had to put the rest of her college plans on hold. “Only being there for a year, I was just getting my feet wet in the different clubs and organizations there at Cal-Poly. So I look forward to getting back and seeing what opportunities there are for me.”
A mile a memory. Early has traveled many miles in the last year—more than 120,000 miles by airplane, spent about 320 days of the year on the road and visited more than 30 states. Yet her and the rest of the officer team’s mission was ever-clear in their mind.
“What is really important to the organization is developing students. And that doesn’t just have to be careers in the agriculture industry. Its leadership, communication and responsibilities in and out of the classroom,” Early says. “What is neat about ag education is it ties in math, science, literature, reading and writing, and turns it into applicable activities and skills that you take to real-world activities as well.”
“Our national officer team spent two weeks in Japan. I learned more about U.S. agriculture, while in Japan, from a new perspective, than about Japan itself while I was there. To watch corn coming in on the ship is an incredible view. To hear the Japanese talk about their relationship with U.S. agriculture and why it is so important—access to our safe, reliable products—was amazing. To see that U.S. agriculture is really part of the global market, it’s so much bigger than just your high school ag class.”
Our stories, our legacy. Early sees clearly the challenges and opportunities ahead for her and other young people in the agriculture industry. “There is a public agriculture literacy disconnect. It doesn’t mean you have to grow up on a production agriculture farm, but know where your food comes from and understand how that impacts your own life. That is already impacting the agriculture industry. We each have our part in that—it can mean FFA members writing and giving speeches or rubbing shoulders with people at the county fair. We all have our part.”
Early, showing a market lamb at the Los Angeles County Fair, says she heard a gentleman and his young son behind her as she led the animal through midway area say, “Look at the camel!” “I was like, ‘Oh, no!’ But that is exactly what kind of disconnect the public has,” she explains.
“I’ve done a lot of speaking about becoming an advocate for agriculture and your industry and I look forward to actually becoming a part of that effort myself.
“In agriculture, sustainability is also important,” Early adds. “As populations continue to go up, people need safe, wholesome food and fiber products that they can turn to. We also need sustainability in water and energy, quality use of our resources.
New horizons. Even amidst the challenges young people see, and producers face every day, Early sees golden opportunities ahead for her, and the industry she loves. As she continues her education at Cal-Poly, Early is excited to get back to it—especially the beef farm. “I think that is where my better understanding of the beef industry came from. The scope of the beef industry is so important for students to understand. From having beef cattle, to working in the feedlot, to marketing to publicity, education—there are a variety of aspects of the beef industry that I love. I think it is such a viable industry and it is something I’m looking forward to learning about. I’ve really enjoyed my experiences so far.”
Early sees herself as a future animal science professor at the college level. She knows, though that there are a lot of opportunities and experiences ahead of her.
“As we have talked during my time here at Novartis, the professors that are most engaging are the ones that have had experiences that they can talk about, stories they can share and education they have had in different ways. That’s why as I go through school, I’m going to stay in animal science but I’m going to look for different opportunities within the industry or within an animal health company. I don’t know what that will look like until I become a professor. It all just depends on what you want your classroom to look like.”
With all the experience and enthusiasm Early brought to Novartis, her suitcase was a bit lighter. There was no white shirt or black skirt in her bag. Her FFA scarf wasn’t needed and for the first time in seven years, her blue and gold jacket was left at home. While her clothes may be different, and her eyes a little more wise, she knows that one thing will always remain the same. She and fellow FFA members, young and old, will still believe in the future of agriculture.
Now and Into the Future
“Novartis actually increased its sponsorship level of FFA a few years ago, because the students that are members make up our future job pool. The type of training they receive in high school and college really makes them an excellence candidate for our organization. Several Novartis employees, myself included, are former FFA members and we know the life skills learned through FFA are needed to run a successful business,” says Julie Groce, communications manager for Company Communications at Novartis Animal Health.
“This year, Novartis wanted to branch out a bit and support the FFA in a way that lasts all year. We are giving two $1,000 grants each in the areas of beef production, dairy production, swine production and veterinary medicine. These grants will go to FFA students who have a strong interest in these areas but may not have the money to start a Supervised Agricultural Experience project in them. . We are excited to see what these kids can do.” (The deadline for the SAE grants is Nov. 15. Read more about SAE grants from Beef Today and the National FFA Organization’s SAE Web site.)
About four years ago, Robert Jones, currently head of International Businesses for Novartis Animal Health, was serving a three-year term on the National FFA Sponsors’ Board when he surveyed Novartis employees about their involvement in FFA.
From that survey, nearly 20% of employees at that time were former FFA members. And a majority of survey respondents who held a director, manager or senior level position were either an officer in their local chapter or state association.
“This proves that the leadership and business skills that are developed through the FFA truly stay with the person as they pursue a career,” Groce says.
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