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State Officers Reflect on Leadership, Legacy and Their ‘FFA Family’

Portrait of state FFA officers
The 2016-17 State FFA officers (left to right): Trey Palmer, Sarah Thomas, Katherine Miller, Layne Baker, Mary Kate Morgan and (front center) Clark Fowler.

Six CALS students will retire this week from what they describe as the rewarding, exhausting and ultimately life-changing experience of being a North Carolina FFA officer.

The state’s annual FFA Convention takes place June 20 to 22 in downtown Raleigh, and this exceptional group of students has worked hard to make it a meaningful event for thousands of high schoolers from all over North Carolina.

They’re also excited – and a tiny bit sad – to turn over the reins to the next generation of FFA leaders.

On the eve of Convention, they sat down with us to reflect on the impact of FFA on their lives, what it means to serve, and their hopes for the future.

Read on to meet:

  • President Layne Baker, 18, a rising sophomore from Sanford, N.C. Layne is an agricultural education major who hopes to teach in North Carolina after graduation.
  • Vice President Sarah Thomas, 19, a rising sophomore from Snow Camp, N.C. Sarah is an ag business management major who would like to become the youth program specialist for the Holstein Association, based in Vermont.
  • Vice President Katherine Miller, 20, a rising junior from Pittsboro, N.C. Katherine is a double-major in crop and soil science and international studies who hopes to pursue a career in international agriculture.
  • Vice President Trey Palmer, 19, a rising sophomore from Hillsborough, N.C. Trey is an agricultural education major who hopes to teach agriculture and work in the production swine industry.
  • Vice President Mary Kate Morgan, 19, a rising sophomore from Currituck, N.C. Mary Kate is an agricultural education major who hopes to have a career in agriculture after she graduates.
  • Vice President Clark Fowler, 19, a rising sophomore from Hot Springs, N.C. Clark is an agricultural education major with a concentration in animal science who plans to teach agriculture and run for public office.

Why did you decide to become involved in FFA?

Sarah: I figured out at the age of about 4 or 5 that I really liked cows and that I really wanted to do something with them for the rest of my life. I decided to pursue all that 4-H had to offer. Then I transferred into FFA in high school.

Trey: I had heard about FFA but didn’t know much, and walked into the classroom and just sort of fell in love with it. My teacher asked if I wanted to buy a pig to show at the State Fair and … that’s what hooked me, was the opportunity to work with animals.

Layne: One of the biggest reasons I decided to become involved in the FFA was actually right after the poultry judging contest my 8th grade year and a leadership conference I went to that fall. I learned that I could use agricultural education and FFA as the vehicle to develop my leadership.

How did FFA impact your life as a high schooler?

Mary Kate: In the beginning, I was really involved in theater and student government and some other things I really enjoyed. As I progressively got more and more involved with FFA, it … morphed from being something that I did as an extra-curricular to being something that basically I devoted my life to.

Katherine: High school FFA really gave me the skills to develop my leadership, but also it gave me awesome opportunities to compete, which gave me really useful skills.

Layne: FFA provided a home for me, a community where I felt welcome and could be myself. It impacted my life as a high schooler definitely because it gave me that community. It also kept me extremely busy.

What is a Career Development Event, and why do you think they’re important?

Katherine: A career development event is a competition where students get to practice real life skills that are used in the agriculture industry, from veterinary science public speaking. Students compete against chapters all over North Carolina and the nation.

Tell us about your favorite Career Development Events.

Clark: My favorite had to be parliamentary procedure. I use parliamentary procedure to this day. I was thankful to be on a team that placed first in a debate and went on to the national competition to place in the silver division. That’s what really got me interested in wanting to run for public office. I realized that being able to speak well and convey your thoughts, as well as debating respectfully with others is … a wonderful thing to do, and it’s something that each of us as FFA members should strive to do on a daily basis.

Sarah: My favorite career development event was definitely dairy evaluation because I’ve been showing dairy cows since I could basically start walking. It gave me a sense of purpose.

Layne: My favorite is definitely the job interview contest. You fill out an application and send in a cover letter and a resume, then you have an actual interview for a job. I competed in that contest my junior year and was lucky enough to place second in the state. To me, it’s the most practical competition because it gave me the skill set that allowed me to go on to be a Park Scholarship finalist and a Caldwell Fellow here at NC State.

Portrait of state FFA officers

What made you decide to run for FFA office?

Clark: To give back to an organization that had presented me with so many opportunities.

Mary Kate: Making an impact and learning from the people who are making an impact on you.

Katherine: I think that’s about the gist of it. A lot of it is service and getting opportunities to travel across the state and see all the diverse agriculture North Carolina has to offer.

What has it been like leading such a huge, impactful organization?

Sarah: I think that being one of the leaders of this organization has shown me even though there are 20,000 members in our state association … once you know one person from one county, you end up knowing everybody in a way. It’s definitely made my world smaller.  And it’s given me a lot of connections that I can use in a future network.

Mary Kate: Another reason why running for state office was the opportunity. I’m from Currituck, which is as far northeast as you can get in the state. It’s pretty isolated. It’s been really cool for me to be able to travel the state and meet with so many members … those are opportunities that I otherwise never would have had.

What do you like best about being an FFA officer?

Mary Kate: The members. They’re awesome.

Katherine: Being able to travel and visit with different farmers across the state. We’ve met so many incredible farmers, and I think it’s really cool how diverse North Carolina agriculture is.

Layne: One of the best things about being a state FFA officer to me, coming from a small chapter back home in Sanford, is being able to see all the different programs throughout our state and how diverse they are.

Trey: And also getting the opportunity to interact with the members, because we see every type of student within FFA because we’re so diverse, whether we’re working with a student in the inner-city school or if we’re working with a student in a school that has 100 kids.

Clark: Also, the impact that these members have had on us and me individually. I’m a pretty shy person. So these North Carolina FFA members have helped provide me a network and a family all across the state … and they’ve had a tremendous impact on me.

What would you say are your biggest accomplishments as a team this year?

Sarah: We made a pretty big move to visit a lot of chapters (63) and I think that’s something that we’ve taken a lot of pride in this year. I know that sometimes that might mean getting up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and not getting home until way past midnight. I think that’s really been awesome.

Mary Kate: We’ve chartered five new chapters this year, and I think that’s another really cool thing. We have done a really good job of trying to go to chapters that may not get the most attention. We’ve tried to recognize those chapters and try to encourage those members and show them the opportunities that FFA can provide.

What will you miss most after you retire this month?

Trey (laughing): The late nights and early mornings.

Layne:  I’ll miss the opportunity of getting to interact with so many different students, hearing their stories and working with them on different projects throughout FFA.

Katherine: I’ll miss the most, for sure, visiting all the different farmers across North Carolina.

Mary Kate: I’ll really miss my teammates a lot. To think of where we started when we were trying to figure each other out and then seeing us at the end of the year, it truly is like a little family.

Portrait of state FFA officersIn five words or less, what’s the best thing about FFA?

Sarah: Humble, selfless service.

Layne: The FFA family.

Katherine: Opportunities and leadership.

What advice would you give future FFA leaders?

Sarah: Expect the unexpected. And definitely take initiative. I encourage the next team to make a list of chapters that you would really like to visit and then make it happen.

Katherine: Take every opportunity you’ve been given. You never know how that one trip, whether it be to state convention or regional leadership conference or even national convention, can change your life.

Clark: Mentor someone. Find at least one person.

Layne: My biggest piece of advice to any future state officer for years to come is to realize that you were put in your position for a reason. Don’t doubt yourself. Your name is on the jacket, your position is on the jacket, and you are meant to be here for this entire year. Once you realize that, it’ll mean so much more to you.