Neela Andres is the daughter of an elementary school principal and a hardworking Ag teacher and FFA advisor. On her family’s fourth generation farm she spends her time bucking small square bales and raising beef, sheep, goats, swine for show. Whether presenting a workshop to high schoolers in Chinook, Montana or watching corn be grown in the red clay soils of Kliptown, South Africa she is thankful for the miles she and her suitcase have traveled because of her involvement in agriculture. She is excited to teach agriculture education in one of the smallest schools she can find upon her graduation from Montana State University in 2018. She is a lover of hot chocolate, a worshiper of Saturday morning cartoons, and a believer of God. 

Whether you grow 1,200 acres of organic soybeans, run 45 head of cattle, or produce enough eggs to feed Kansas City, we all have one strong unifier: our dedication to the land and its people. My weekend spent at the National Young Farmers and Ranchers conference was easily one to remember thanks to networking with other young agriculture professionals, listening to motivational speeches, watching the national discussion meet, attending educational workshops, and of course the Montana YF&R delegation.

As agriculturists we care for the lamb with the splinted leg and the heifer that still hasn’t calved. But we care a whole lot about the folks who share the same interest in their food, fuel and fiber supply. During the conference we wrote thank you cards to veterans during our free time and enjoyed meals with national producers that spent generations dedicated to similar agriculture sectors. During these networking luncheons I met a college student who grew up in the suburbs but after working on his school’s research farm decided that he wanted to become a crop scientist. I sipped coffee with the elementary school teacher who took steers to the fair as a teen and is now in charge of the Ag in the Classroom program at her urban school. As we left our cheese cakes in the lunch room and moved towards the convention hall we expected an even bigger treat.

Easily the biggest highlight of the daily sessions was listening to former NFL Center, Jason Brown. Playing for both the Baltimore Ravens and the St. Louis Rams Jason began to understand the influence of material things in his $25 Million dollar life and felt called to farm. After buying a 1,000 acre farm and spending more hours watching farming on YouTube then football film he began to figure out the ins and outs of sweet potato farming. Every year he donates the first crops to local food banks and nonprofits because he feels “a life worth living, involves a lot of giving.” He lives a life of stewardship led by faith, a story we all could relate to.

Sitting in the convention hall chairs as an audience member watching the discussion meet finals was the breath into Jason Brown’s call for agriculture advocacy. Naturally at this level, the students were educated in Farm Bureau’s programs and well versed in ag policy, but above all, poised and professional speakers. With competition this stiff buzz words like “transparency”  and “educate the public” became the flies in our old chicken coop, just a little too common. I watched as the spectator on my left began to tally the frequency of these buzz words. The grand total rounded out to one of those two phrases being dropped every 45 seconds. While borderline humorous, the fact of the matter is, educating the public and remaining transparent with our consumers is exactly what we learned how to do at this conference.

The theme of every other workshops was sharing your ag story. From listening to a pork producers wife testify in front of the US senate for fairer laws regarding her children working on their generational family farm, to the mom of three kids and 3,000 cattle who is passionate about using her gifts to blog about the truth behind GMOs, to the student recruiter of the University of Nebraska who taught us how to ace an agricultural interview, each of the presenters focused on the importance of telling our story.

What traveling 1,161 miles to the National YF&R conference taught me about Montana Agriculture can be boiled down into one simple point: a care for the land and its people.

With our felt cowboy hats and wranglers boxed in by an unbuttoned suit jacket you can spot the Montana delegation just about anywhere. And if you can’t see us you will surely hear us. Nearly 50 colligate, young adults and chaperons strong created a noise somewhere between an elementary school’s lunch hour and a small stampede. Every time I got into a packed elevator and everyone stated what state they represent I either got a, “Everyone I’ve met is from Montana! How many did you bring?” or “Do you have any pictures? I’m in love with Montana!” (The first elevator response came up regularly due to the fact that we had the 2nd largest delegation behind the state that hosted the conference.)

Basically everyone at the convention was either from Montana or wished they were. In all my travels Montana’s mystique never fails to win me new friends.  While I am obviously proud of our breathtaking landscapes or agriculture production I truly appreciate Montana’s most valuable commodity: its hardworking people.

Join the Montana Young Farmers and Ranchers May 20-21 in Lewistown, Montana for the 2016 Young Farmer & Rancher Tour. For more information, visit the event Facebook page: