I grew up surrounded by agriculture. Our house in Port Republic had farms on all four sides. While my first career choice in the first grade was stand-up comedian, I also grew up to be far too practical for that. I chose to be a mediocre hair stylist instead. I had next to zero desire to attend college and even if I had – I wouldn’t even venture a guess at what path I would have chosen at age 18. What I can tell you is that if you told 18-year-old Jennifer that she would have a career – albeit late in life – in agriculture and be an active participant in a beef farm, she would have had a great laugh. Just this morning, I got covered in manure, loading steers for market before the sun came up. Who AM I?
The path I took to get to where I am currently is long and winding. It’s filled with things I never saw myself doing, but tried to always say “yes” when presented with new opportunities and challenges. Thankfully, the mediocre hair stylist career was short-lived. I went on to work for an up and coming engineering firm in Harrisonburg for several years. When my bosses were sending me out to help their friends with QuickBooks, I saw an opportunity to do something all on my own. For 20 years, I traveled around, sometimes with my kids in tow and helped people customize QuickBooks software for their businesses.
After a bit of burnout, I scaled that back. At the same time, a long-standing volunteer “job” I had ended abruptly. Because life has a way of working out, I got a call that Virginia FFA Foundation needed a bookkeeper. That sounded like fun. My oldest was very active in FFA at the time. I married an FFA Alumni (And small beef farmer) and I knew vaguely of the positive impact it had on them and many around me. I had no idea how that single phone call would change me life, particularly at my advanced age.
At the time, I was also on the radio. Another chance opportunity that after 18 months of the news guy bothering me about it, I decided to say “yes” to. I was the female personality (myself) on WSVA’s Early Mornings. The show is ICONIC in the valley. I grew up listening to it as did just about everyone else here. I took this job in the middle of the radio thing and instantly had this huge platform to help grow the reach of the Foundation and what we do.
In June of 2017, just weeks after accepting the “Bookkeeping” position with the Foundation, I attended my first Virginia FFA State Convention at Virginia Tech. It was a blur. I was whisked around, tossed about in a sea of sweaty, blue corduroy for a solid 4 days. I showed up in a place where I knew a handful of people. I left with an extension of my family. You see, as an FFA Mom – you don’t get to sit in the bleachers and cheer on your kid who chairs the Parliamentary Procedure team. FFA just isn’t like that and in some ways it’s GREAT. I just had no idea. I had no idea the scope of what FFA was. I had no idea so many teenagers could present themselves in such a helpful and professional manner. I’m sure to this day, many of them have no idea the way they changed my life in four days.
From the moment I started back up I-81 to Singers Glen, all I could do was think of all the things the Foundation could be doing if someone would just steer the ship. I set out to get all the money in the door I could so the board could afford to hire someone to take over. For almost 2 years, that was my whole focus – let’s do these basic things and make noise so that people know how great these kids are. I was Robin and I was looking for Batman.
State FFA Foundation Directors gather once a year to share ideas and do some much needed professional development. At that “summit” in 2018, one of my mentors asked me why I didn’t think I was Batman. I didn’t have an answer and it forced me to take a good look at things. Five years later, I still struggle with the fact that I am currently Batman, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I have found a family across the country through FFA and made lifelong friends. I have learned so much, even at my advanced age, about leadership, mentorship, and all of the wonders of agriculture. I try to be open and honest when I feel I fall short, probably to a fault. I think I make an OK Batman day to day, but seeing myself as an effective leader is a whole other story. Enter VALOR.
Anyone who knows me knows I will beat the drum for Ag whenever possible. I can tie FFA into any conversation. I have big, sometimes off-the-wall ideas. I have a lot of passion for things I care about. I’ve always gravitated to people who are natural-born leaders. Leadership may mean different things to different people, but I think attributes like integrity, passion, and empathy carry more weight than skills. I am excited to gain some skills I lack through this experience so I can harness leadership attributes to do some real good in the world. I want to leave Virginia FFA better than I found it for the next Batman.
After our very first VALOR Session, I can tell these are going to be an enlightening two years!