WAVERLY – Agriculture hasn’t always run in Emelia Rourke’s blood. The soon-to-be Waverly graduate didn’t grow up on a farm, and she had never driven a tractor until recently.
But at the Nebraska State FFA Convention in April, Rourke was selected to be the State FFA Secretary for the 2022-23 school year. The office is just the next step since a life-altering decision that has set Rourke on a course to grow in the ag industry for years to come.
Rourke sat in her animal science class in January of her sophomore year when the teacher and Waverly’s FFA chapter adviser Kris Spath told Rourke she would make a good fit on Waverly FFA’s competitive team.
“She said, ‘There's a career development event competition in March. I want you to compete. Even if you don’t want to stay in FFA, just do that,’” Rourke said.
Rourke agreed and joined as part of the chapter’s ag sales team, which was tested on its knowledge of specific agricultural products. That year, the product was Purina chicken feed.
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“It’s a really neat opportunity because it doesn’t feel like a test. It’s just like I’m talking to somebody,” Rourke said. “I liked the competition itself so much that I decided I wanted everything that FFA had in store for me.”
One month after the competition, Rourke was elected to be the chapter’s president. Spath said Rourke was an easy candidate for students to vote for because of her infectious enthusiasm.
“I think that speaks to her personality and her leadership ability,” Spath said. “People around her get excited just because of who she is.”
Rourke served in the role during her junior and senior years at Waverly. But she knew she didn’t want her FFA career to end after graduation.
“I wanted another year of FFA,” Rourke said in an interview after her selection to the state officer team. “I joined (FFA), and I was like, ‘Where can I get more of this?’”
Of the seven Nebraska high school seniors chosen to the state officer team, Rourke’s chapter is the farthest east – her fellow officers come from Albion, Ainsworth and as far away as Creek Valley High School in the Nebraska Panhandle. Rourke says she relishes the opportunity to work with and counsel FFA members from across the state, many of whom were at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln when she was chosen to be a state officer.
“When my name was called, it was just such a rush,” she said, “because I was excited for all the opportunities ahead of me to be able to advocate for agriculture, as well as serve so many students.”
Part of Rourke’s passion for FFA lies in a shared mission with many other future farmers – to communicate the importance of agriculture to Nebraska’s economy and to the welfare of its people.
“Being able to advocate for the industry that feeds, clothes and fuels our nation is so important, because there's a lot of people who don't necessarily realize or appreciate how important it is in their everyday lives,” she said.
Now, instead of leading several dozen students at Waverly High School, Rourke will counsel hundreds of FFA members from across the state. Her first big task is the 20-day gauntlet Chapter Officer Leadership Training sessions in Aurora, where she will prepare next year’s FFA officers for their new roles. Each of the four sessions includes some 250 FFA members. Rourke thinks she’s up to the task.
“I’m really excited to just dive right in,” she said. “My advisor and our state advisors have done a great job preparing us and making sure that we are able to serve FFA members to the best of our abilities.”
But her duties won’t stop there. When Rourke attends the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this fall, she’ll split her time between her classes and running workshops with FFA chapters in a yet-to-be-assigned region of the state. She said she hopes she is assigned the central region, so she can visit her family and grandparents in Cozad.
At school, she’ll major in animal science and hopes to one day become a beef cattle consultant. She cares deeply about the ag industry itself, but it’s the people within it who have affirmed it for her – she’s in it for life.
“Whether it be FFA members, teachers, producers; they’ve been just the kindest people that I’ve ever met,” Rourke said. “They just want to see what’s best for the future of agriculture.”
Sam Crisler is a reporter for The Waverly News. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.