Tracing Laura Cunningham’s #RootsinBoots: Building on Tradition
If someone were to ask me which experiences in life have shaped me the most into the person I am today, I would without hesitation include “the FFA” near the top of the list. It’s influence on my life started long before high school. In fact, it’s part of a legacy in agriculture started over 65 years ago.
My grandfather Leslie Ausen had a strong desire to go back to the family farm and work in agriculture after returning from service in World War II. The farm economy at the time was risky business for a newlywed, so Grandpa decided that if he couldn’t farm, he would teach. He completed his Bachelor’s of Science degree in Agriculture Education at Iowa State University as part of the graduating class of 1949. He then moved to Rockford, Iowa, to serve as the new Vocational Agriculture instructor and chartered the Rockford FFA Chapter that same year.
The program was new to Rockford Senior High, but it didn’t take long for the chapter to grow and find success. Grandpa was proud of his students and enjoyed seeing them set and achieve goals in FFA and in their careers. Another favorite job duty was community education. He spent many evenings instructing ag continuing education courses for adults, helping with environmental projects around town and doing what he could to teach all in his community about agriculture. I asked him once what he thought his biggest career accomplishment was and he said helping two of his students (Nick Schmitt and Steve Weiner) achieve their Iowa Farmer Degrees. Now some 35 years later many of those same students are working farms alongside their children, or even passing their farming operations to the next generation. Grandpa remained with the program for 36 years retiring in 1985, but this is only where the legacy begins.
My father, Daryl, served as president of the Rockford FFA chapter in 1974. He later started farming and married the ag teacher’s daughter (insert Mom!). My brother, Eric, was president of the Rockford FFA in 2002. And, you guessed it! Building on tradition, I served as chapter president in 2006.
When I think about all I learned in the FFA, I think about a quote I read on The Pinkie Post: “FFA members win more in life because they learn how hard it is to lose and how to prepare to win.” FFA taught me how to prepare for success. Doing to Learn and Learning to Do (agriculture) so that someday I might be Earning to Live and Living to Serve (agriculture!)
I always admired my Grandpa’s dedication to teaching ag. While my calling wasn’t to teach high school agriculture, I did follow in his footsteps attending Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to pursue a degree in Ag Business. In 2008, I took a marketing position with family-owned Latham Seeds, helping teach farmers about the newest seed technologies in the industry.
I’m also proud to have married into a farm family and own a cattle operation together with my husband, Aaron. We market our beef direct to consumers. Some of my favorite days include opportunities to give tours of our farm and put someone in a tractor for their very first time. I enjoy volunteering with our county and state Farm Bureau, advocating for young farmers. This past spring I started a new project with my local elementary school called “Farmer Penpal.” Each week I Facetimed with a class to show “day in the life” on the farm- LIVE! Together we watched calves take their first steps, watched a semi load of soybeans get hauled into AGP and discussed how the oil may someday make their crayons. Such a rewarding project!
If I were to give advice to someone preparing for or currently working in a career in agriculture, I would say “find ways to share your story!” It’s great if you can use social media (follow me on Instagram! @LifeonSkyView). But it’s even better if you can join and be active in a commodity organization or with students in a classroom. Only 15% of America is lucky enough to help produce, process and sell our nation’s food, fuel and fiber. Help the other 85% learn about it, too!
My #RootsinBoots started early on the farm raising cattle together with my dad. It grew stronger through 4-H, FFA, college studies and back to a family farm. My #RootsinBoots represents a legacy. It’s a passion for sharing agriculture with farmers, neighbors and my community. It’s a life I wouldn’t trade for the world. And it’s a legacy I hope to pass on for many generations to come.