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January 11, 2010   Email to Friend 

Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
January 11, 2010

AFBF President Bob Stallman, right, congratulates Jennifer Cruise on being one of four finalists in the Young Farmers and Ranchers Discussion Meet during the closing session.
SEATTLE, Jan. 11 -- A Morgan County young farmer and mother of three made it to the finals of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmers and Ranchers Discussion Meet contest here Sunday by drawing on her own experience to find solutions to problems facing agriculture.

Jennifer Cruise, who operates a horse and cattle farm near Arab with husband Robert, competed in the Final Four Monday and was honored as one of the finalists during the closing session of the AFBF Annual Meeting later that day.

As a finalist, Cruise received a $6,000 savings bond and a Stihl Farm Boss chain saw, valued at $360. Stihl is a long-time sponsor of Farm Bureau contests for young farmers.

This Discussion Meet seeks to develop leadership, problem-solving and consensus-building skills among young farmers through competitive discussions structured more like committee meetings than formal debates. Cruise earned the opportunity to compete at the national level by winning the state competition in December.

In her opening comments at the first of three preliminary Discussion Meet rounds in Seattle, Cruise challenged young farmers to reach out to those not directly involved in agriculture.

"We need to step out of our comfort zones to make changes that are better for agriculture, our society and America as a whole," she said.

In the first round, competitors were asked to address the question: "How can agriculture producers reach out to the public to gain their support on important issues impacting agriculture?"

Cruise commented that she has had the opportunity to discuss her career and lifestyle with non-farmers as she teaches horse riding lessons and during weekly gatherings with other young mothers.

"It's all about relationships," she said. "If we don't have dialogue, that means we don't have relationships. The mothers I meet with have valid concerns about the safety and health of the food they are providing their children and, as farmers, we need to listen to those concerns."

The second round focused on the safety of the U.S. food supply and what farmers can do to improve public perception.

Cruise challenged her fellow young farmers to "think globally, but work locally." She emphasized that while it's important to use education and public relations activities to promote the safety of the food supply, farmers must be willing to "meet people at their own tables" to discuss these issues.

"There has to be a balance. We need to get personal, but make it global," Cruise said. "Only when they trust us will they truly believe that we have the safest food supply in the world."

Cruise went on to say that farmers can be responsive to consumer demand for local, organic food, but should also help educate their friends that farmers cannot feed the world's growing population without modern practices and technology.

In the Sweet 16 round of the competition, the contestants discussed how to get young people involved in agriculture and retain them.

Cruise again drew on her experience as a mother of three small girls in advocating that farmers talk about their careers with very young children. The Cruises already have seen some of their horsemanship students from nearby towns take an interest in agriculture-related careers because of the time they've spent at the horse farm.

"We also have to communicate with parents and say 'yes, agriculture is a positive field for your children to get involved in,'" Cruise said. "Sometimes, we only see production agriculture. People hear 'agriculture' and think you have to have acreage; you have to have a tractor. We need to tell them that we have to have people to build those tractors and to work in other careers in the agriculture field."

The Final Four round of the competition focused on what can be done to bridge the gap between various segments of agriculture to ensure farmers have an impact in governmental affairs.

"When I married my husband nine years ago and became a full-time farmer, I had no idea how important it is for farmers to be involved in the legislative process," Cruise said. "When I became a Farm Bureau (Alabama Farmers Federation) member, I began to understand that we need to bridge the gap between farmers and lawmakers."

Cruise noted that many elected officials are three generations removed from the farm and must be educated about the importance of agriculture. She advocated training farmers in how to talk to lawmakers, and said getting involved in political campaigns early will help farmers develop relationships with their representatives. All of the Final Four contestants agreed that farmers' involvement in government should be non-partisan and should focus on helping elected officials understand the opportunities and challenges in agriculture.

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