ESCALON -- Kristen Steves plans to go to Cornell University and study agricultural communications -- conveying the importance of farming to the public.
But the prestigious school in New York state will have to wait. Kristen will spend the next year serving as California president for Future Farmers of America, a post where communicating about farming matters as much as ever.
"We really are going to try this year to advocate for agriculture and educate the public and the members," said Kristen, a senior at Escalon High School.
She was elected president of the 65,000-member state organization during a leadership conference in Fresno last week.
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The delegates also elected two Modesto High School seniors to the six-member leadership team. Ryan McCoon is treasurer and Brad Mendes is reporter, responsible for chronicling FFA activities.
Starting in June, the officers will live at the state headquarters in Galt. FFA will cover their living expenses. They all will put off college for a year.
The officers will do plenty of traveling -- to train other leaders in California, to take part in national events, and to meet with people in government and business. Kristen and her vice president will go to Washington, D.C., in July for a conference that includes a meeting with another president, George W. Bush.
This kind of leadership experience is as much a part of FFA as learning to raise cows, grow fruit or fix a tractor.
Kristen, who lives on a small rural parcel near Escalon, has gravitated toward leadership roles. She has taken part in public speaking competitions and other tests of communication skills. She has served as president of the Escalon chapter of FFA and at the section and region levels.
"Kristen has a genuine passion and love for the FFA," said Stacy Ingalls, one of the Escalon advisers. "People don't look at her and see the cows-and-plows farmer, but they see her as a leader."
Jennifer Terpstra, another adviser, agreed.
"It's been her personal endeavor to educate people about agriculture," she said.
The Escalon chapter has about 350 members, about a third of the student body, one of the highest participation rates in the state.
The state officer election came near the end of a five-day gathering at Selland Arena in Fresno.
The 60 candidates were winnowed to 12 by a nominating committee after a series of interviews, speeches and other tests. The candidates did not know what offices the committee had designated them for until late in the process.
The final vote was by two delegates from each of the state's 300-plus chapters. The winners were announced amid the glare of spotlights and the cheers of the crowd.
"It was very exciting, the most exciting time in my life," Kristen said. "I've grown immensely just from the experience and having to deal with the stress."
The new president said she wants FFA members to know about the challenges for agriculture, such as climate change, water supplies and immigration.
She also noted the state's shortage of ag teachers but said FFA is thriving nonetheless.
"I do feel right now that we have a lot of strong and knowledgeable students who are going to pursue ag careers," she said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.