Missing a friend and a great teacher

Growing up as a teachers’ kid, you quickly learn what makes a good teacher. A good teacher encourages you to think, challenges your beliefs and opinions and helps you gain more knowledge than you ever thought possible.

Chris Raines was a good teacher.

Dr. Chris Raines, 1981-2011

Now, I never sat in Chris’s classroom, but I know this is true. See, like so many others, I met Chris online through his Twitter “handle”  @iTweetMeat. From the get-go, I knew this guy was smart and witty. On so many occasions, he challenged my comments when he could have so easily passed them by. One of the first interactions I remember was when I made a comment about how farmers shoudn’t be held responsible for people who get sick from raw milk, because they knew that danger was there. Chris automatically came back at me, asking if that meant meat processors shouldn’t be held responsible for food poisoning because people should just cook it all the way? It was instances like this where he forced me to re-examine my beliefs, look at them from another angle, and learn something along the way. That’s why I know Chris was a good teacher in his “real life” job as a meat science professor at Penn State. I think he did things like that with his students every day.

Last night, Chris lost his life in a car accident and the online community of “AgChatters” and “Agvocates” lost a great friend. It’s amazing how close of a relationship you can form with someone in the digital space. I’ve spent my day randomly bursting into tears, despite the fact that my actual, in-person interactions with Chris were few. That doesn’t matter, though, because I will always remember his ability to teach us all, while making us smile at the same time. He will be sorely missed.

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An early life crisis and the stress that ensues

To say something hasn’t been nagging at me for a while would be complete denial. The fact of the matter is, though, I have been really fearful to say anything for worry that people or — let’s face it — I would be disappointed in me. Well, I’ve said it out loud to a few people so I guess I’ve reached the point where I can say it online.

I’m not sure that I want to student teach.

Even considering not student teaching makes me feel guilty, like it’s somehow saying I don’t think being an ag teacher is a good job. That’s not the case at all. How could it be? My dad is an ag teacher; many of my mentors and friends are ag teachers. It’s an amazing job to have. Just maybe not the right job for me.

Now, none of this is to say that I won’t change my mind tomorrow or in a year or in five years. However, today and yesterday and for the last few months, I have felt as though life wants me to take another path.

For the past year (as many of you know), I’ve taken on several jobs/internships. Two of them have been very communications focused. I’ve also been doing some freelance writing work that I have really loved and, for the past three years, I’ve been involved in the National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA). All of these areas are things that, when I think about turning them into a career in communications, I get excited about. I wish that same thing were true of teaching.

So it sounds like I’ve got it together, right? Wrong. It’s two weeks from graduation and I’m hurtling myself into the great unknown of job-hunting. I’m still keeping student teaching as an option, but – finally – I’m going to start seriously considering some positions with different groups in and out of the state. I want to look at for-profits and non-profits, corporate businesses and marketing/PR agencies. I’m going to keep my options wide open and try to figure out what’s best for me in the long run.

Unfortunately during this same time period, I have a ton of work due for school and projects for my various jobs going on everywhere. Just last night I ended up in tears, mainly from the stress of everything culminating at once. I’m definitely going to be relying on friends and family to talk me through all of this and reassure me that it’s going to be alright. I’ve got a long few months ahead of me and right now the path through the woods looks pretty dark and twisty. Here’s to hoping, though, that there’s light on the other side.

The pride and tradition of being pure

There’s something about being involved with purebred livestock that just makes my heart swell with pride. Now, that’s not to say anything is wrong with raising commercial livestock – I’m grateful for every farmer that produces the vast majority of what I eat every day – but there’s something to be said for getting around people that have such a deep history in raising outstanding animals.

Like many others, the start of my livestock career focused mainly the county fair. Having only a market show, our goal has always been to develop the best market hog out there – usually the result of crossbreeding. Now, while I will say that I love the market hog aspect (my most favorite set of hogs – Grand Champion Pen! – were a set of crossbred “blue butts”), I developed a whole new appreciation and pride for breeding hogs when I got involved with the National Junior Swine Association, the junior leg of the National Swine Registry.

A Duroc boar from Shipley Genetics in Ohio. Animals like this can have a huge impact on the breed. (And don't you just love how you could drive a truck between his front legs!? Awesome!)

Breeding purebred animals, for me, is an entirely different mindset. Instead of breeding solely for type, you breed for characteristics that will improve the breed – and in turn, all hogs – in the long run. You want to breed Yorkshires and Landraces in a way that will add muscle and leanness to their great mothering ability. You want to add mothering ability and sound structure to the great carcass traits that tend to be associated with Durocs and Hampshires. If anyone can remember how far the pendulum swung towards market hogs that were too lean, too shallow bodied and horribly structured in the late 90s, you know how important the purebred industry can be in making our animals better – whether you’re in commercial production or seedstock production. Having that ability to make an impact is the thing that makes all the difference to me.

Yesterday I got to interview the faculty coordinator and farm manager from the purebred beef farm at MSU and they reminded me how it’s great to be a part of raising seedstock, not only for the pride in your animals, but also for the pride in your people. Throughout the history of the purebred livestock industry, there have been outstanding people that have made a difference – both for animals and for others. There are few things greater than getting to listen to older people – and it doesn’t matter if it’s in cattle, swine, sheep, horses, etc. – talk about those that made a difference in their lives when they were a livestock showman or make a difference in the lives of youth now. That’s huge for me.

As you or your children get involved with livestock – and I sincerely hope you do – I would encourage you to consider involvement in the purebred side of the industry. While both seedstock and commercial production are important for the entire industry, it’s definitely a unique experience to be a part of shaping a breed or multiple breeds. I, for one, am extremely honored to be a part of the great pride and tradition associated with being pure.

My life, as shaped by agricultural education

In honor of National Teach Ag Day, I wanted to share my vision of the power of agricultural educators. As the daughter of an ag teacher, I was practically born in a blue, corduroy FFA jacket and had Ag Sales CDE practicums memorized better than the high school kids when I was 10. To this day, it catches me off guard when someone has never heard of high school agricultural education, since I was raised with it from day 1 – my dad’s first year teaching was the year I was born.

Growing up in the classroom, it was really easy to see the impact a single teacher can make on so  many students. When I was 5, I was at the meeting where my dad announced to his chapter officers that he would be leaving the school to take a new position. There were lots of tears and sadness — he had made such a difference in a few short years that these students obviously had formed a connection and did not want him to leave. In the years after we moved, I got to watch as he mentored students who went on to become USDA meat inspectors, agronomy researchers, 4-H leaders, and – like him – ag teachers. I also got to see his former students go on to become more important things, like husbands and wives, moms and dads, and friends. I like to think that, even though not solely responsible, ag teachers do play a role in developing youth so they can be the most successful in the latter roles.

I’m now a senior at Michigan State University and, like my dad, I am majoring in Agriscience Education. Next year, I will student teach with another great ag teacher and work to learn as much as I can about youth, education and agriculture. I’ll admit, I have my moments when I don’t know if being an agriculture teacher is the right career choice for me. Who knows, life may throw a curve ball my way and take me down another path. For the meantime, however, whenever I have one those ‘moments’ I think about my life with agricultural education and the difference ag teachers – including my dad – have made for me. It would be my greatest hope to make that difference for others.