Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cotton Eye Joe and County Fair

The last week of July, Katie and I were blessed with the opportunity to attend the State Presidents' Conference in Washington, D.C.  From selecting proposals from all around the nation to make our organization better to talking with legislators about the Student Agriculture Protection Act, every moment was phenomenal.
Those five days will last in my mind as one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, but one seemingly insignificant part of it taught me more than I ever would have expected.

On Friday night, 103 representatives of all 52 state FFA associations pooled together everything we had learned and took time to celebrate it.  We danced.  Now, I love swing dancing, but line dancing has always been hard for me to pick up.  It takes lots of instruction and lots of practice for even the simplest moves to stick in my brain.  The members in that room were from all over the country, and what we’d learned back home about dancing varied a ton.  As we started dancing, the first line dance came on.  It was amazing, but one I had never seen.  In the back with another new learner, I mimicked the moves, but at the end of the song, I was woefully behind.  A couple songs later some other officers quickly formed a line, started moving and kicking their feet in unison, and drastically left me in the dust.  I was a little closer to having the right moves this time around, but I still wasn’t there.

Then, a song came on that I knew!

Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton Eye Joe?

When I heard these lyrics, I was confident I knew every step.  We line dance to this one back home in Minnesota FFA!  I started with my hands together in the air on the right, moved them to the left, and looked over to see my friends from New York jumping through the air, clapping between their legs, and pulling off moves even a gymnast would struggle with!  Goodness, I think my mouth actually dropped open watching them! Nevertheless, I grabbed my new friend Ethan, mouthed “teach me,” and tried it out.

After the rest of the song (and a little bit of extra practice with Ethan), I was satisfied.  I knew the dance well enough to bring it along to my next adventure: home.  

If we take a look at the only two lines of “Cotton Eye Joe” I really know the words to, we will see the question, “where did you go?”  We also see a question asking where we came from-not just once, but twice.  I think the person who wrote “Cotton Eye Joe” really knew what they were talking about when they decided to ask it this way.  

The places we come from, whichever line dance version they teach, are what send us to the amazing places we go.  And we’ll go to a lot of them in our lifetimes!  The thing is, when we go to those new, amazing places, it is important to remember our roots.  Knowing where we came from is what keeps us in line with our values and what is truly important.

This past week, I was able to get in touch with my beginnings while showing back home at the Goodhue County Fair.  After putting in days at the fair and reconnecting with old friends, we reached show day.  Before stepping into the ring with my goat one of my last times as a 4-H member, I looked up into the stands.  There was my dad, some of my closest friends, the lady whose son taught me what to look for in a goat, and the owner of the first goat I ever showed. Then, I saw Mark, the man who helped me into the ring my very first time.  

For a moment, I flashed back to the summer after my sixth grade year.  I had been helping my dad and his students with the Cannon Falls FFA Kiddi Barnyard by holding chicks and rabbits when one of the member’s parents came in saying they needed a person to show a goat.  Chase, an FFA member a couple years older than me, had two goats entered in the same class.  
I was nervous, but after some encouragement from my dad, I walked over to the show arena to help.  Mark showed me where to set the goats feet, how to hold the show chain, and which way to walk around the ring.  Seeing I was nervous, he confided, “Emily, it’ll be easy.  The worst thing that can happen the goat getting away, and then I’ll be right there to catch it.”

And you know what? The goat got away.  Mark was right there to catch it.

I’ve become a much better showman in the six years since.  Because of the community members and mentors like Mark, who have given me tips, encouraged me, and handed out the opportunity to be an active part of agriculture, I continued to grow.  Knowing the people who invested in me as a shy sixth grader has shown me how much the agriculture community truly cares.  Remembering the common values we share, about loving people and caring and providing for other families and the land we use, motivates me to continue moving forward.  Coming back home reinforces my passion and reminds me who I am.

Whether home looks like certain people, values, or is shaped just like Goodhue county, looking back to our roots allows us to keep pushing forward on the right path. The people back home had been with me the whole time I was at our nation’s capitol. Their encouragement had carried me just as much as the wings of the plane we rode.  The confidence Mark had in me as he put a show chain in my hand six years ago transferred to my voice as I talked with congressmen during State Presidents' Conference.  Thinking of Sophia, a younger goat showman who leads just like I do, gave me the courage to run for chair, and then vice chair of a committee on the national level.  Remembering the time I let go of that goat in the show ring graced me with humility as I shook the hand of the United States' Secretary of Agriculture.

Every time I look back at where I came from, I’m amazed how far I can really go and inspired by all the people who have invested in me.  Keeping home in my heart, I can go even farther.

Let’s look back to those questions in “Cotton Eye Joe.”

Where did you come from?  
Where did you go?
Where did you come from?

Think about what's brought you to where you are. How can you carry your values, the people you've learned from, and home with you every day? Whether you keep in close contact with your community, share about them in conversations with other people, use skills you developed back home, or even reflect on a picture of you showing in shorts, (wait, that's me!) looking back will propel you forward. Decide to start your day focused on your faith, choose to capture and revisit your path in journals or pictures, or call home to thank your mentors tonight. Checking back in on where we come from helps us steer where we go next.

We are already capable of reaching phenomenal heights.  When we remember where we came from and those who invest in us, we can go even greater places.

Stationed by the plow,

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Change: Heads or Tails?

It's already August, which means all of the stores are set up with supplies to get students ready for school, but students are trying to squeeze every available moment out of the remaining summer days. However, August means a few different things for me now than it did last year. Last year August meant putting off school shopping until the week before classes and seeing what schedules my friends had. This year, August means packing up my things and moving 146.5 miles away, hoping I'll be making new friends in the classes at college.

Emily and I went to the zoo with our new friend
Matt after orientation. 
I attended college orientation last month to get to know a little more about what my life would be looking like for the next four years. Emily and I both attended the same orientation session, and we learned a lot about the classes we would need to take and the different requirements we needed to meet for graduation. They covered all of the logistical things like dorm rooms, meal plans, and student IDs. I knew about campus security, transportation, and sporting events by the end of the first day, along with a variety of other things. Our orientation leaders even covered making new friends, which Emily and I managed to do while we were bowling during the social time that evening.

I left orientation the next day with a schedule, a new T-shirt, and a whole lot of pride for the Golden Gophers. However, as excited as I was for all of the opportunities at the University of Minnesota, I kept thinking about some of the words I had heard throughout my time on campus.

New. Different. Exciting. Unique. Transition.

I found these words were used to cover up a word I haven't always liked: change.

Everything is changing and quickly. Since orientation, I've spent a lot of time talking with my high school friends discussing what we'll be doing this coming school year. Friends that used to be ten minutes down the road will be living hours away. I won't be able to visit the ag. classroom (my second home) very often at school. My family will also be downsizing my beloved flock of chickens since I won't be home anymore. For awhile I wasn't really sure I was ready for this change. But there are different ways to handle change: two different sides. Optimism and pessimism. Heads and tails.

On the flip side, I am excited for all of the things I will be able to try in college. I have the chance to make more friends and build those relationships. I have the chance to study the things I'm interested in and create my future. I have a chance to live somewhere different and be a part of a wonderful new community.

That's the thing about change. Just because life is changing doesn't mean it isn't awesome. Our reaction to change has two sides, and we can pick which side we choose to look at. Often we forget about all of the chances that come along with change.  Once we choose to flip the coin and see the new opportunities we have instead of how worried we are, we can find greater value in change.

Change in life is the only constant. We all face it.  Maybe you’re moving to a new town and school, maybe a friendship has changed over the summer, or maybe you broke your arm and are out for the volleyball season. How we react to situations like this can make all the difference. We can emerge from changes as leaders or coaches, find new friendships and opportunities, or even grow closer to those around us in spite of - and sometimes because of - change. We have choices when we face change.  Next time you are faced with a change, I hope that you choose to look to the bright side to find growth and new opportunities. It all comes down to how you choose to look at it. Optimistically or pessimistically. Heads or tails. Except it really isn’t a coin toss at all. It’s all up to you.

Stationed by the rising sun,

Katie Benson

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Wake up Smiling

IMG_6711.JPGEvery morning when I wake up, the very first thing I see is a sign on my wall with a bunch of inspirational phrases in different fonts and sizes. But, being the person I am, I usually focus on the one on top (because more than one is waaay too difficult to remember). It reads: “wake up smiling,” so that is exactly what I strive to do every day when I wake up: smile. But I can’t say I have always had this sign, and I also can’t say I have ALWAYS woken up smiling. In fact, it used to be far from smiling.
When I was a kid, even up until about two years ago when I received this sign from my sister, I had the WORST attitude when I woke up in the morning. Not only did people want to avoid me for over an hour after I woke up, they wanted to be over a mile away from me. My family can vouch for me on that one. I had a case of the crabbys every morning, and it seemed like nothing could stop that from happening.
IMG_1337.JPGOne day, my mom began to realize my attitude was affecting my personality and the events happening around me. Being that she and my dad are both teachers, they are always looking for ways to educate those around them, especially their own children in struggling times. This meant it was time for me to get a talking-to. I’ll never forget that in every situation I was down in the dumps, my mom would tell me (in different tones of voice depending on the situation): “Tomorrow is a new day, and your attitude when you wake up will determine what the rest of your day is like.” Again, being the sassy teenager I was, I would take this frequent comment from my mom as a “typical teacher move” and ignore it, waking up even grumpier than usual and choosing to NOT change my outlook on life. 

However, I didn’t realize that because my mom had this positive attitude she was and continues to be one of the happiest and most grateful people at all times in everything. Not only does she see the good in bad things, but she also sees negative experiences as growing times. This leads her to have a contagiously happier life and make those around her strive to have good attitudes as well.

IMG_2089.JPGRecently, I heard a shocking fact that only 13% of the United States workforce is passionate about their jobs. It makes me think about the attitude people are waking up and going to work with. Are they in the same boat I was in? Work performance is known to raise when we are passionate about our jobs. This is why my mom “hasn’t worked a day in her life,” because she truly loves what she does with her students each and every day through the challenges. Without an attitude like my mom has about life and her passion for students, what is the point in doing what we do?

My mom is willing to have a good attitude when she wakes up, and she continues to have great day after great day, regardless of what happened yesterday or the day before. I realized after about the hundredth time of my mom telling me “tomorrow is a new day” and showing me it is true that I could enact that belief in my life and it made all the difference. I began to love the work I did every morning in school and strive to make an awesome day no matter where I was. What steps can we take to make sure that every morning, we wake up smiling and have a good day?

Stationed by the Door,

Madeline Weninger

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Maggie & I before a jackpot show
-- Summer of 2002
Growing up on a farm raising show quality market lambs and beef cattle of multiple breeds, I was subject to spending tremendous amounts of time with my parents in the barn in the winter months and lots of time on the road in the summer as we traveled across Minnesota and into neighboring states to support our customers or “help” dad judge at a county fair. Needless to say, many of my summer days as a young child were spent ringside. I had the opportunity to watch some of the best showmen and women I know. I was always asking mom and dad, “When can I do that?” My sense of wonder turned into a hunger to do.

At the age of two and a half, I showed my very first sheep; a blue, black-faced ewe named Maggie. I instantly fell in love with the concept of working on an animal, building a relationship, and then having to work together to perform in the showring. For the past 15 summers, I have spent countless hours in the barn doing what I love. During those long hours and late summer nights, I have learned many lessons, built many relationships (with stock and humans alike), and developed a passion for agriculture I would not have otherwise had without my initial wonder. The discovery of showing livestock has led to one of my greatest passions: agriculture.

Spencer & I on TCL while at the State Fair
representing the CHS Miracle of Birth Center -- 2016
Through my hours in the barn, I have found people and organizations which supported me and possessed the same passions; FFA has been the single most influential organization in my life. With all the unique opportunities FFA has, I was able to put my passion to action. I was able to use the knowledge I had gathered through my experiences and share it with others. One of my favorite FFA experiences took place just last summer at the Minnesota State Fair in the CHS Miracle of Birth Center’s Chapter House and Leadership Center. I served as an Ambassador for  Leadership for the middle four days of the fair; these four days were exciting for me as I confidently answered fairgoers’  questions. This experience gave my knowledge purpose -- the knowledge I would not have had if I hadn’t discovered my passion; a passion I did not know existed until I fed my sense of wonder.

I recently came across this quote in a book my mom and dad gave me for graduation:
“To wonder is to feed a hunger,
To discover is to grow a passion.
To use your knowledge is to live with a reason.”
-Vesna M. Bailey

This quote is powerful; it hit me hard when I first read it and has become a new favorite. As I took a step back to think about what this meant, I reminisced on the last 18 years of my life and how my wonder turned into a passion, which grew into knowledge and a reason.

Each of us possess wonder. Now, that wonder might not be the same curiosity we had when we were toddlers...but maybe it comes in the form of awe and amazement. After all, we should never lose our sense of wonder. What does your wonder look like? How will you feed the hunger of wonder you possess?

Image result for south dakota state universityI am a firm believer in pursuing your passion. My passion lies in agriculture and the FFA. I plan to pursue degrees in Agricultural Communications and Human Nutrition & Dietetics in the fall from SDSU to continue to grow my passion and expand my knowledge. I decided to serve Minnesota FFA as a State Officer, because “I believe in the future of agriculture” and those who make FFA the incredible organization it is. What have you recently discovered? How can you grow and develop your passion? How will you pursue that passion?

Purposeful living: what happens when we discover the hunger of our wonder, grow our passion, and utilize the knowledge we possess for the greater good of others. We are blessed to be able to experience unique opportunities at school and in FFA.  How will you use your knowledge to live with a reason? How will you put your passion to action?


You have the power to determine who you are and what you do; your sense of wonder and the passion and knowledge you possess will simply guide your way and give YOU a reason.

Stationed by the ear of corn,

Kylee Kohls

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Finding You

         My all-time favorite movie is none other than Finding Nemo. On this thrilling adventure Marlin, a clownfish, travels across the ocean in search of his only son, Nemo, with a high energy and spirited, but forgetful fish named Dory. Dory adds a little glimmer of hope in this otherwise sad tale. Although this movie is filled with a roller-coaster ride of emotions, it has an underlying
theme I've picked out after watching it many times. On first glance, it might only look like a movie about a fish doing anything he can to rescue his son, but I think this movie is actually about each of our characters finding themselves through this adventure. Nemo finds he can do much more than people expect of him despite his size and “lucky fin.” Marlin discovers his abilities of being a father and unique humor as a clown fish. Dory continues to just keep swimming against all the odds despite having short term memory loss.  Just like the characters of this movie, we all find bits of ourselves on the adventures we take.   
One of these adventures I went on was the journey of high school. I went through most of high school with a concept of what the ‘ideal student’ looked like. My definition was “someone who takes notebooks worth of notes in each class, studies endlessly, and gets A`s on every test.” I spent my time squeezing myself into this perfect cookie cutter shape of the ideal student. I would spend most of my time taking endless notes in a notebook for a class with the intention of studying them for the next test only to have the notebook stack up and sit there, unstudied. It wasn’t until recently I knew why I would spend so much time taking notes but never use them. A comment that changed my way of thinking went something like this: “It isn’t about how smart you are, it’s about how you are smart.”  Meaning we all learn in different ways that play to our strengths; that is what makes you smart by taking the focus off of how smart you are. This simple statement opened my eyes. I simply learned in a different style than those around me. I hated taking notes in class, yet I would torture myself day in and day out because I thought that was what a student had to do to be successful. I was never able to find my perfect style of learning, because I was never able to find myself and accept that I was different.
Fast forward to Blast Off training with the new state officer team. If there is one thing that I noticed, almost immediately, is that I was most definitely different from the rest of the team. As we sat at our table, I look around and noticed all my teammates sat straight forward, neatly in their chairs, hunched over writing in their journals. At the same time, I noticed myself, sitting sideways with my legs over the chair arms, playing with a pen, not even considering writing anything down.  Since then we have discovered differences between our team members, and how we work together
despite these differences. Whether learning styles, choice of presentation topic, or solving a problem, it always seems as if I conquered each task from a different angle than my teammates did. With this difference staring me dead in the face, I had a decision to make, was I going to decide to change who I was and follow those around me, or was I going to be myself? The choice was mine. Luckily, I decided to find myself, to be who I was, and continue to embrace the differences on our team.
In the middle of our film Finding Nemo, we are introduced to a character named Crush, a 150-year-old turtle that has embraced his identity: riding the waves, and loving his life being who he is. Crush serves as a guide for Marlin and Dory on the journey to find Nemo. Just like Marlin and Dory needed a guide, we can all look to those around us for guidance in our journeys to find our true selves. Without the support and insight from those around me, I would not have been open to finding myself or have embraced that I am indeed different. Who serves as your guide in finding you? Who do you look up to that has embraced their identity?  We will all come to a crossroad when we have to choose to be who we are, or who we think we should be. Where are you on the journey to of finding you? Next time you find yourself at a crossroads, answer these questions, seek guidance from those around you, and most importantly just be you.        

Stationed by the Emblem of Washington,

Spencer Flood 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Growing Our Communities

“Why do you want to be the FFA Garden manager?” When this question was asked by my FFA advisors during an interview, I stumbled on it. Why did I want to be a garden manager? Other than the fact that the garden is all I have known for the past couple summers, I couldn’t think of a logical answer why hours upon hours of work was worth it. After a minute of thought, I realized the garden wasn’t about me, it was about community outreach. Getting to know others around me is something I have always enjoyed, and this summer job would be no different by combining two of my passions -- horticulture and relationship building.

Garden.JPGThe Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Garden at the Howard Lake - Waverly - Winsted High School was my home for four summers. Every day, 5 or more other individuals and I would toil in this garden for hours, but each Wednesday, delivery day, all that work would be recognized. On this special weekday, we would harvest the ripe fruit, vegetables, and herbs, putting immense thought into their design so customers could see the best aspects of our garden. Produce was always the highlight of our shareholders’ weeks, especially when there were a number of different colors represented in the basket.
Each week we packed 15 baskets into the truck and set off on the three hour trip to deliver  produce to our shareholders, unsure of what to expect. House by house, one of the other garden workers, Keith, and I drove the usual route, delivering vegetables. Along this delivery trip we found joy in the diversity of the individuals in our area, and discovered the significance of our CSA enterprise was not quantity based, but rather its purpose was to engage with those in Howard Lake, Waverly, and Winsted - all places that members of our FFA chapter call home. Our community members easily represented the baskets we would end up delivering throughout the summer months -- beautiful, diverse, and joyful.
This summer, although I didn’t work in the garden, I have kept that value of community with me everywhere I travelled. At the end of June we held the State Leadership Conference for Chapter Leaders (SLCCL) where members came from chapters all around Minnesota to Deep Portage to exchange ideas and learn how they can grow their chapters. One large component of this conference was to share activities on “Building Communities.” To get started, we asked “What is a need your community has?” This question was similar to the one I was asked during my interview; many members had to pause and really think about it. However, what came from these leaders following the pause was truly amazing.
Members shared ideas of how to resolve their communities’ needs in ways ranging from “Feed-A-Farmer” to highway cleanup to various safety programs and so many more. These members have realized they can have an impact in their area during any time of year, just like my chapter does with CSAs in the summer months. FFA is an organization that can truly make a difference in its communities. How will you ensure that your FFA chapter is involved in the community?  What can you do this month to meet a need in your community?
Stationed by the Door,

Maddie Weninger

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Just One Spark...

In July of 1776, the Continental Congress declared the 13 American colonies as one free nation, the United States of America, no longer a part of the British Empire. Ever since then, July 4th has been recognized as one huge party to celebrate our declaration of independence - full of barbecues, family gatherings, parades, and of course, fireworks. For me, fireworks are probably the most exciting part of my family’s celebration that day. After a long day of lounging around the boat on Pokegama Lake, or exploring the town of Grand Marais, like I did today, fireworks are hands down the best sort of entertainment to close out a rather important holiday.
I remember watching my first fireworks show as a child in Fraser, Colorado. My family of three would drive our Subaru into a huge, open field and park, waiting patiently (or however patiently a 4-year-old could wait) for the show to start. Then suddenly, color would light up the sky, flashing in bright hues of blue, green, yellow, red, and then my personal favorite, purple. These colors lit up the sky accompanied by a big boom, and sometimes a short fizzle as it faded into the night. I was amazed by the beauty just one firework could have and the impact the light had to the darkness around it.
When I was a freshman, I was always waiting for something extraordinary to happen. At this point, I had lived a rather adventurous life, full of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, walking across the glaciers of northwest Montana, and exploring the switch-backed trails of Colorado. As I entered high school, I only wanted to continue these adventures and satisfy my hunger for more. When I walked into the agricultural education room for the first time, I never would have guessed a new adventure would just be beginning. I was approached by a rather intimidating man, who introduced himself as Mr. Linder, who asked if I liked horses. Hesitantly (and rather terrified), I answered with a short ‘yes,’ to which he sat me down and started pulling up various judging classes, rattling along as he went. A few hours passed and I became more and more comfortable, realizing this teacher was getting more and more excited with every answer I gave. 

A few weeks later, Mr. Linder registered me to participate in my first ever region Career Development Event – horse judging. I was terrified walking in. I remember my freshman year of regions as a jumble of horses, anxious advisors, multicolored cards, and long sets of oral reasons. However, once we finished, I came out qualified for State, and a little surprised of myself.
Now, many years later, I can compare my freshman self, and all of us as FFA members, to those fireworks.
Fireworks need just one spark to set them off into a frenzy of color, light, and awestruck beauty. FFA members are the exact same way. Every member needs just one spark, maybe from an advisor, chapter officer, fellow member, or even you, to set themselves into an incredible leadership frenzy, lighting up the world around them with their unique styles and colorful qualities. When we spark other leaders, the world around us can change as we know it, and even spark others to do the same.
What was your spark?
Who needs that spark ignited in your life? How can you spark others?
Today, I watch fireworks light up the sky, and I smile because I know FFA members can do the same.
Stationed by the flag,