What Leads to Leadership?

Here are a few things you probably don’t know: One of the new national officers is a twin. Another bleeds “America’s brightest orange” for the Oklahoma State Cowboys. If Tejano music is playing nearby, this officer may swing you into a two-step. Countless things make our new national officers unique, but one thing binds them to a legacy that spans nearly 100 years: the blue jacket. Members of the national convention newsroom crew recently sat down with the 2017-18 officers to learn how their days of sitting in ag class as a Greenhand transformed into leading an organization that is paving the way for the future of agriculture.

Breanna Holbert National FFA President
Hometown: Lodi, Calif.
FFA Chapter: Lodi-Tokay FFA
College: California State University, Chico (sophomore)
Major: Agricultural science and education
SAEs: Egg sales, turkey co-op, landscaping, composting and organic farming education

The moment FFA became something more than a school club for Breanna “Bre” Holbert was when she received her first blue corduroy jacket. “I remember unwrapping it from the plastic. I zipped up the jacket and immediately felt like, ‘Wow, I’m not only part of my chapter and state, but also I’m a part of this organization,’ ” she says. “I’m connected to someone, and we don’t even know each other. I’m a part of something bigger than myself.” As the first African-American female to serve as national president (and to have a twin sister), Holbert understands that people across the U.S. come from a wide range of backgrounds, but they can find common ground through FFA. “I think it’s important for students to understand that they’re not alone, and that there are students, stakeholders and teachers out there who’ve gone through these very same things or had the very same successes,” she says.
– Dene Dryden

Erica Baier National FFA Secretary
Hometown: Adel, Iowa
FFA Chapter: Earlham FFA
College: Iowa State University (junior)
Major: Agricultural education
SAEs: Vegetable production entrepreneurship and beef production placement

Erica Baier grew up working on a cow/calf operation and pumpkin farm in Iowa. Her high school did not offer agricultural education, so she traveled 20 minutes to a neighboring school to attend ag classes. This is where she first became involved with FFA, where she participated in career development events (CDEs) and grew and sold pumpkins for her supervised agricultural experience (SAE). “That eventually led me to understand the true meaning of service and living a servant life,” Baier says. The turning point in her FFA career came while she attended a Washington Leadership Conference. “It was in that moment that my group leader told me that I was worth it. I knew this organization had completely changed my life,” she remembers. Now, as a mentor to many FFA members, Baier shares her own motivation to keep going. “Be courageous and understand that failures and wins are going to come together to create these really beautiful moments.” – By Kelsey Litchfield

Gracie Furnish Eastern Region Vice President
Hometown: Cynthiana, Ky.
FFA Chapter: Harrison County FFA
College: University of Kentucky (sophomore)
Major: Agricultural education
SAEs: Specialty crop production placement, agricultural education exploration, beef production and agriscience research

For Gracie Furnish, the journey to national office started with a seventh-grade introduction to agricultural education class. “I fell in love with the ways you can learn hands-on and be challenged to learn and grow,” she says. She continued to grow with FFA, and her experience as a state officer allowed her to meet members who found their home in the organization. “I want more members to have that feeling,” she says. “This organization gives us a way to feel comfortable and allows us to grow. I want to do everything I can to advocate for and to enhance that feeling in the lives of all members.” Furnish also wants to encourage members to take chances and to have the courage to pursue their goals. “The worst thing you can do is sit back and not even take that chance,” she says. “If you don’t go on to achieve the goal, it’s OK. Think of it as an opportunity to grow.” – By Lauren Schwab

Ian Bennett Southern Region Vice President
Hometown: Hahira, Ga.
FFA Chapter: Lowndes County FFA
College: University of Georgia (junior)
Major: Agriscience and environmental systems with an emphasis in plant breeding and genetics
SAEs: Livestock showing, agriscience research and farm production placement

Hailing from a family farm in southern Georgia, it was natural for Ian Bennett and his siblings to be FFA members. “I joined FFA in the sixth grade when I was in my first ag class,” Bennett says. “I started showing livestock and never looked back.” Bennett also conducted research projects through FFA and went on to compete in the National FFA Agriscience Fair and Agricultural Proficiency Awards. In middle school, he was the first researcher ever to prove that digital infrared thermometers can be used on sheep and cattle. Bennett also served as the Georgia FFA state secretary, after which he decided to seek his state’s nomination for national office candidate. “I wanted to give more,” he says. “There’s so much more to do in FFA.” Through his year of service, Bennett hopes to help members be successful within FFA. His advice? “Take chances and accept opportunities. Get out there and try that, whatever it may be.” – By Abby Marion

Piper Merritt Central Region Vice President
Hometown: Owasso, Okla.
FFA Chapter: Owasso FFA
College: Oklahoma State University (sophomore)
Major: Agricultural economics
SAE: Raising and selling show pigs

Piper Merritt joined FFA in eighth grade after transferring to Owasso High School in Oklahoma. “I immediately became involved in FFA because my ag teachers and FFA advisors motivated me to get involved in public speaking,” she says. “Participating in prepared and extemporaneous public speaking throughout my high school FFA career is my favorite memory. I’m so thankful they pushed me to succeed in everything I do.” Similarly, Merritt wants students to feel empowered because of their involvement in FFA. “I want to be a part of the change students experience whenever they put on the blue jacket. In my mind, there is no clearer answer than to offer myself up to serve the organization.” Merritt encourages FFA members to say “yes” to the organization and to the life change that can happen. “I truly believe that whenever you step outside of your comfort zone in FFA, that’s when the real life change begins.” – By Lauren Schwab

Bryce Cluff Western Region Vice President
Hometown: Queen Creek, Ariz.
FFA Chapter: Queen Creek FFA
College: University of Arizona (junior)
Major: Agricultural technology and management with an emphasis in education
SAEs: Poultry and goat production

Bryce Cluff blames his friends and FFA advisor for his introduction to FFA, an unexpected choice he now touts as one of the best he’s ever made. “My sophomore year, I was elected Greenhand president, but not necessarily because I wanted it,” Cluff admits. “I just did it because my advisor thought I would be good at it.” The role caused Cluff to start setting small goals, such as participating in different CDEs or LDEs. From there, he became a state officer and then a national officer. Cluff was only in FFA for three years during high school, but that relatively short time left a significant impact on him. National officer candidates normally wear their state officer or national officer candidate jackets during the nominating process. Cluff wore his Queen Creek FFA Chapter jacket. “Potentially being elected to national office was going to be one of the most important days of my FFA career,” Cluff says. “I wanted to honor what got me here.” – By Katie Burns