Young advocates for agriculture and the next generation of leaders

Lura Roti
South Dakota Farmers Union

Her blue corduroy FFA jacket is a conversation starter, explains South Dakota State FFA Secretary Marie Robbins.

“When we travel for chapter visits, we typically eat in small town diners. We’re wearing our official dress and many former FFA members will come up and visit with us about their FFA experience,” explains the South Dakota State University freshman.

Together with her five teammates, Robbins traveled the state of South Dakota this year to meet with the more than 4,000 junior high and high school members who make up the South Dakota FFA Association. Established in 1928, FFA is a premier youth organization that prepares members for leadership and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture.

Robbins’ teammates include: Colton Riley, president, Rapid City; Sarah Kroeger, vice president, Lennox; Grady Gullickson, treasurer, Flandreau; Carolyn Blatchford, reporter, Brookings; and TJ Bigge, sentinel, Parkston.

During FFA month each February, South Dakota Farmers Union celebrates South Dakota FFA by highlighting the current South Dakota FFA state officer team.

State FFA officers are selected by a nominating committee during the state FFA convention each spring. These college freshmen and sophomores spend the next 12 months advocating for agriculture and developing teen leaders throughout the state.

While attending college, they host leadership camps and workshops, meet with industry leaders and visit most of the state’s 82 FFA chapters.

“We are always working to exceed expectations,” Robbins says. “Agriculture is our state’s No. 1 industry, and advocating for it is important because, we need it. It is something that cannot go away because we need it to feed everyone. Not everyone is a farmer, that is why we need sustainable agriculture.”

Growing up, Robbins learned a lot about agriculture and FFA from her dad, Dan. “My dad is an agriculture education teacher. So, I knew I was going to be in FFA since I was in the third grade,” she explains.

Although her dad got her started in FFA, it was the friendships she made with members from across the state that kept her involved.

“Whenever I would go to an FFA event, I would look forward to seeing friends,” says Robbins, who graduated from Elkton High School in a class of 31. “Many of my FFA friends ended up going to SDSU. College is such a big adjustment, it was nice to have that foundation of friends started so I was not swimming in a big ocean alone.”

And, she says FFA gave her a strong communications background.

“Through leadership development events, like public speaking, extemporaneous speaking and job interview, I gained a lot of communication skills and confidence. As a college student, these skills give me the confidence to reach out to professors with questions and be clear in emails. I’ve also learned how to interact with different communication styles,” Robbins says.

When it comes to college, her teammate Colton Riley says FFA played a large role on the college major he chose. The agriculture education major explains that prior to joining FFA his freshman year of high school, he was considering a career as a biologist. Then, he got to know his FFA advisers.

“I saw the difference an ag teacher could make in the lives of students,” Riley says.

He explains that his ag teacher, Mrs. Hendrix, provided him with guidance when he decided to start a cow/calf herd as part of his supervised agricultural experience. He explains that all FFA members need to have a supervised agricultural experience. The definition of what a supervised agricultural experience is broad — it can be anything from agriculture-focused printing shop or working for an agri-business to raising crops and livestock.

Riley was curious about raising livestock, but neither he, nor his parents had any experience or land. So, he depended quite a bit on Mrs. Hendrix to guide him through the process. She connected him with a rancher near Rapid City. Riley worked for him, and as part of the work agreement, he was able to run the six Angus cows he purchased with the rancher’s herd.

Today, Riley’s herd has grown to 14. The small herd has helped him finance two vehicles and other college expenses. But more than income, Riley says he learned what it means to be a rancher. “I didn’t have a ranching background, so I had to learn everything. General stuff, like working on tractors, driving equipment, animal health to more complex things like planning for the future so that I don’t have too many cows to pay for feed, make sure I have finances in order to make sure debts are paid,” Riley explains.

By the time he graduated, Riley was working as a crew leader, helping the rancher train other high school students.

“FFA takes the passions that students have and lets them run with it. You always have your chapter adviser to turn to for guidance, but as a member, you can pave your own path,” Riley explains.

Riley, Robbins and their teammates share their personal stories with FFA members they meet and work to help them discover their own pathway to success through FFA. They also keep busy advocating for agriculture.

“Traveling to D.C. and across the state visiting with farmers and ranchers, we have learned a lot about local, national and global issues impacting agriculture today. You look at the average age of farmers and see the importance of getting the next generation excited about agriculture,” Riley says. “Also, it is easy for people not involved in agriculture to believe the wrong idea, especially if it is something they are not familiar with. We want the truth out there.”

To learn more about FFA, visit To learn how you can get involved in your local FFA chapter or at the state level, contact Beth Mayrose at

2018-2019 South Dakota State FFA Officer Team includes (left to right): TJ Bigge (sentinel), Grady Gullickson (treasurer), Colton Riley (president), Marie Robbins (secretary), Sarah Kroeger (vice president) and Carolyn Blatchford (reporter).
State FFA President Colton Riley started a cow/calf herd as part of his FFA supervised agricultural experience.
State FFA Secretary Marie Robbins (center) takes a selfie with a group of FFA members during a leadership retreat.