Brennan Costello: We Must Tell Our Story

FFA members compete in the Poultry Evaluation Career Development Event at the 2012 National FFA Convention & Expo in Indianapolis.

by Brennan Costello

A recent video by a food retail chain has launched a lot of dialogue around the way our food is produced in the United States. The theme of the video promotes locally grown food – a great part of American agriculture – but it also paints an often inaccurate picture of modern American agriculture.

As a student who has goal of a future career in the agriculture industry, this is concerning. Everyone needs to eat, meaning everyone is affected by our agriculture industry. This connection makes it imperative that the general public both trusts and supports what we do. But this trust and support isn’t something that just happens magically. We have to bring the story to the public.

How can you help this?

We need to tell the story of agriculture that is clear and honest. We need to tell the story of agriculture that we’re rightfully proud of. We have to demonstrate the measures that agriculturists across the country and across the globe take to ensure food safety and bountiful supplies.

I recently had the chance to see firsthand an agriculture education program taking strides to inform its students – all students, not just the agriculture students – about how food goes from farm to fork.

I was touring New York with the New York FFA state officers when we visited the career and technical education courses in the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership. The program offers an Animal Science path as an intense two-year supplement to standard high school education. Classes are available to high school junior and seniors and range from conservation to health care, but what blew me away was the connection that the Animal Science had to another program in Genesee Valley: Culinary Arts.

In the relationship, the animal science students raise everything from chickens to sheep to guinea hens and supply the culinary program with its ingredients. In turn, the culinary students learn a variety of dishes and compete at statewide contests.

It’s a complete collaboration: Students visit each other’s programs to gain an understanding of how food moves from farm to plate. For example, culinary students recently entered the animal science barn and were introduced to the four-day old chickens that were being raised. They were taught how they are maintained, the different breeds and what they are fed. Then the chef, who led the students, made it clear that the chickens were a production animal and in 16 weeks they would be ingredients that they would use during their classes.

Similarly, animal science students visited the culinary class to learn how the food is prepared and what type of ingredients a favored for dishes. They use this gained knowledge to make adjustments to their feeding patterns or time to market process to make a better product for the culinary students. By the end, all the students gain a respect for food and how it is prepared.

When describing the program, and how her students are trained to treat animals, agriculture instructor Holly Partridge said it best.

“We are raising a product,” she said, “And the only way to get the best product we can is the best care for our animals.”

The Genesee Valley facility is a positive and perfect example of how students can take the lead in being the messengers of where food comes from and the process it goes through. It also reminded me of another conversation I once had on a production farm.

While moving just over 200 head of cow/calf pairs in a central Nebraska pasture, my boss Britt Anderson paused from our work to explain to me how important ‘care’ was when managing a cattle herd. He explained to me that his family had been farming for a long time and, from his experience, the only way to get an animal to produce was to ensure that animal was free of disease, stress, and danger. He told me how important it is to make sure that the animals on his farm had a good life.

“When we take care of our animals, they take care of us,” he said.

FFA members must tell the story of agriculture.

The Andersons farm over 2,000 acres and care for 500 head of cattle. Yet, the values displayed on the Anderson Farm paralleled those taught in the small Genesee Valley facility.

Agriculturists around the country take pride in our crops and our animals. It’s not just the standard ethical priority; it’s the best way of doing business. And it’s right there in the FFA Creed, when it mentions “the ability of progressive agriculturists to serve our own and the public interest in producing and marketing the product of our toil.”

That’s the agriculture that I believe is being misrepresented, and that’s the agriculture that we must promote.

Do you have a similar story of your experience in agriculture? Share it! Share it with your friends, family and neighbors. Post it on Facebook, tweet it on Twitter or snap it on Instagram. The only way to inform the public is to tell your story about agriculture.

We as agricultural education students, FFA members, FFA Alumni and supporters are in a unique position to share our personal knowledge and experiences with agriculture to a public that is interested in learning more. We’re also in position to hold our industry accountable to not cut corners and to always raise a safe, high quality product. That is the higher ground we should reach for as future agriculturalists—and as consumers of agricultural products.

An executive at this particular food chain referenced above did say something I can agree with.

“The more you know about your food, and what it takes to produce it, the more you likely you are to take care in seeking out something that’s raised responsibly,” he said.

I’ve been taking a good long look at my experiences in the agricultural classroom, at home and at the farm. In my heart I know that I have responsibly raised food for our nation – food that I am comfortable eating and that I would feed to my family. It’s a measure that I’m proud of, and a goal that I’ll never waver from. We owe it to ourselves and our industry to always maintain the level of quality and professionalism. What we do directly affects our families, our neighbors and our fellow citizens.

I believe American agriculturists are standing true to these values. That’s why I’m determined to tell their story. That’s why I’m determined to tell my story.

I am certain that many of our young FFA leaders can echo this statement. Do you?

Speak up. The public needs to hear us.

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costello_largeBrennan Costello is an FFA member from the Gothenburg FFA Chapter in Gothenburg, Neb. He is currently serving as the 2012-13 National FFA Central Region Vice President. Costello will return to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to continue studying agribusiness at the end of his term with the National FFA Officer Team.

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