What do you call someone who (1) has a full-time job, (2) is a mom with two young children, (3) is working toward completion of a Ph.D., (4) helps her husband with a family cattle operation, and (5) is deeply immersed in promote agriculture programs that have earned state and national recognition?
Answer: A very busy person.
For Julie White, whose day job is Mississippi State University Extension agent for Oktibbeha County, Miss., an already over-full schedule is about to expand even more as a result of being named the first-ever Mississippi participant in the American Farm Bureau Federation’s prestigious two-year Partners in Agricultural Leadership (PAL) class.
“This new PAL class represents the very best of the best among today’s farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman in announcing the honor. “They are about to embark on an exciting journey that will equip them as vital contributors to our agricultural outreach efforts.”
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Only 10 persons throughout the U.S. are selected for the intensive program designed to enhance leadership skills and agricultural advocacy roles. Other class members are Jennifer Bergin, Montana; Dr. Emily Buck, Ohio; Terisha Driggs, Arizona; Cameron Edwards, Kentucky; Brian Marshall, Missouri; Chris Pollack, Wisconsin; Derek Sawyer, Kansas; and Scott Sink, Virginia. In addition to AFBF, program sponsors are the Farm Credit System and Monsanto Company.
AFBF created the program as a high level executive training program to prepare participants to represent agriculture in the media, for public speaking, congressional testimony, and other advocacy arenas. Program graduates are expected to step forward and promote awareness of issues important to farmers and consumers.
“We’re so proud to have Julie representing Mississippi,” says Mike McCormick, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation president. “Telling the story of agriculture to the non-farm public is extremely important, and we’re looking forward to having Julie as an integral part of that effort.”
Julie, who grew up on a small dairy farm in Louisiana, says her family was steeped in the culture of 4-H — “my parents, my cousins, many of my friends were involved with 4-H. My parents felt it was important for me to have that training, and I was always showing dairy cattle and working in various projects.
“As a teenager, I knew I wanted to be an Extension agent in some capacity, and to continue to be involved with 4-H and young people. At Louisiana State University, my major was agricultural education, with an emphasis on animal, dairy and poultry science. Even when I was student teaching, my goal was still to be an Extension agent.
“After graduation, I was scheduled to begin work at the LSU AgCenter, but there was a hiring freeze and that didn’t pan out. I had met William White through a friend who was dating William’s twin brother, and we later became engaged. William had grown up on a family cattle farm in Mississippi, and was at Mississippi State University. He suggested I apply for a position with Mississippi Extension.
Coordinates Extension programs
“I interviewed with them and, to my surprise, three weeks later, in June 2000, I was offered a position as trainee in Attala County, Miss. Julie and William were married in December 2000. She subsequently worked with Extension in Lowndes and Webster Counties and in 2009 became Extension Agent for Oktibbeha County, where Mississippi State University is located.
She coordinates the overall county Extension program, which includes agriculture, family/consumer services, and 4-H, with a primary focus on adult agriculture programs that encompass livestock, poultry, equine, forestry, horticulture, and agronomic crops.
Forestry is the No. 1 agricultural enterprise in the county, followed by cattle. “We don’t have a lot of row crop acres,” Julie says. “I’ve had to learn a lot about forestry and home horticulture. Dr. Dennis Reginelli, area Extension agent here, is a fount of information, and I’ve appreciated the working partnership I’ve had with him. And I couldn’t ask for a better arrangement than being next door to Mississippi State University and all the resources that are available there.”
Husband William, who is facilities coordinator for MSU’s Leveck Research Station, which consists of beef cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. He coordinates research and hands-on teaching for the Animal and Dairy Science Department and College of Veterinary Medicine.
The Whites and their two children, Matthew, 9, and Morgan, 7, are the fifth generation to farm on their family farm, along with William’s parents, John and Patsy White.
“It’s a small cow-calf operation,” Julie says. “We also produce hay, most of which we use ourselves, and some of which we sell. We also do custom baling for other producers.
“We’re still in a herd building phase. We sell our steer calves in the fall and keep the heifers as replacements. As the children get older, we may transition into a registered cattle operation in order to give them an opportunity to show and market quality animals. But right now, with all our time constraints, we’re just concentrating on doing the best job possible with what we have.
“William and I have a strong passion for agriculture, and we take a family approach to farming, In addition to our own agriculture involvement, our children are participating in farm chores and in 4-H programs, showing livestock. We want to instill in them the same family values that our parents gave to us. We feel it’s essential for them to understand that farmers are good stewards of the land and the environment, and that they play an important role in feeding and clothing the world.”
Julie, who is working toward a Ph.D. at MSU, hopes to complete that in December.
In 2012, she and William were recipients of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s statewide Young Farmers and Ranchers Excellence in Agriculture Award. They went on to compete at the national level, winning a spot in the top 10.
That same year, Julie and Nelda Starks, a retired MSU nutrition specialist and 4-H agent, became increasingly concerned that youngsters in area schools had little or no concept of the farmer’s role in their lives.
Farmtastic: hands-on experiences
“I’d go to area schools with our Ag in the Classroom program,” Julie says, “and for the most part, kids didn’t have the foggiest notion how their food and clothing came to be. I’d ask them questions and they’d mostly just reply, ‘From the store.’”
She and Nelda developed the idea for FARMtastic, an exposition for area elementary students to see live farm animals up close and interact with farmers and various MSU and Farm Bureau ag experts to learn about crops, forestry, and livestock. With Farm Bureau and MSU support, the first FARMtastic was held in the fall of 2012 — four days for third graders in a five-county area, and a fifth day open to the general public.
“The response was outstanding,” Julie says, “and we repeated it in 2013. We followed that with a mini-FARMtastic at the Dixie National Livestock Show in Jackson and another mini-event at the Mid-South Fair at Southaven, which also drew people from Tennessee and Arkansas. We had another full-scale event at Starkville in the fall of 2014, and we have five events scheduled this year, including two this spring in south Mississippi.
“We’re trying to arrange these to reach all of the state’s Extension regions. We’ve had a really great response to these programs — everywhere we’ve done them, teachers have told us their students had a great learning experience, and they’ve asked us to come back.
“Thus far,” Julie says, “we’ve reached nearly 5,000 third graders, and hundreds of other youth and adults who came on days the events were open to the public.” They have received a grant that will fund a minimum of four FARMtastic events per year for the next four years.
An agriculture awareness curriculum that Nelda has written for use in schools, based on FARMtastic, will be piloted this fall. “We believe it will be an excellent tool for use throughout the school year to keep children aware of the importance of agriculture to their daily lives,” Julie says.
For their work in developing FARMtastic, Julie and Nelda were honored with the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s Ambassador Award, which recognizes those who have done exceptional work to promote agriculture. The award isn’t given yearly, but only when it is felt it has been earned by someone who has done outstanding service for agriculture.
Based on Julie and William’s achievements in the Young Farmer and Rancher program at the state and national levels, one of them became eligible to apply for the national Farm Bureau’s Partners in Agricultural Leadership class.
“We thought the success of the FARMtastic program would be a good tie-in,” Julie says, “and we agreed that I should apply. I got in the top 15 applicants, but wasn’t selected for the class.
“I reapplied for the 2015/16 class, again got in the top 15, and was selected for the intensive final interview process. I was really thrilled when the announcement came that I’d made the top 10. I’m very excited about this opportunity to acquire additional knowledge and tools for promoting agriculture. Our PAL class is very diverse insofar as the areas of U.S. agriculture we represent, and I’m looking forward to working with this group over the next two years.”
Increasing agricultural awareness
There are four modules to the PAL program. The first will be in June in New York City for training in communications, which will include interaction with consumers to make them more aware of the importance of agriculture in their lives. In September, the group will be in Washington, D.C., for visits with lawmakers and insight into the legislative process.
Next March, they will travel internationally to learn more about the role of U.S. agriculture in world markets. “We haven’t been told yet where we’ll be going,” Julie says. “The previous class went to Brazil. Although my key interests are dairy and livestock, I’m looking forward to whatever the sponsors have planned for us.”
The final module will be at St. Louis in the summer of 2016, with graduation ceremonies for the class in February 2017 in Washington.
“We’re told to expect an average of five hours weekly of ‘homework’ related to various aspects of the program,” Julie says. “We’ll also be participating in activities involving the utilization of social media, and working on ways to increase awareness of agriculture in our home states — basically, just be prepared for anything.
“The Internet and social media provide quick, easy, inexpensive ways for producers to help consumers learn about everyday farm life. If each farmer could change the perception of just one person each year, the outlook about agriculture as a whole would slowly change. It’s all about making agriculture local for consumers.
“The PAL program is going to be challenging, but I’m really looking forward to being a part of the group for the next two years, and to the opportunity to become a more effective spokesperson for U.S. agriculture. I appreciate very much the support William and I have received from Farm Bureau and the honors and recognition they’ve accorded us.
“When I dreamed, as a teenager, of one day being an Extension agent, I couldn’t have imagined that things would’ve have turned out as they have,” Julie says. “Agriculture is my life; our family is involved in agriculture virtually 24/7.
“This is where my heart is, and it’s a joy to see kids’ faces light up when they see a cow close up, or understand how cotton gets turned into a shirt or a pair of jeans. I wouldn’t take anything for having grown up on a farm and having a career that allows me to be a part of agriculture each day.”