MSU senior works to promote agriculture
Many people in the agricultural world complain that consumers do not understand what farmers do, but few of them are willing to dedicate their careers to a solution.
Jessica Smith, a senior at Mississippi State University, grew up on a farm in south Mississippi and is majoring in agricultural communications because she sees education as a key element in changing how her peers perceive something as basic as where their food comes from.
"I think the No. 1 issue the agriculture industry faces is uneducated consumers," Smith said. "It's a product of the lack of communication between producers and consumers, and my goal is to help bridge the gap."
A career in communications is a natural fit for someone who started competing in livestock shows at the young age of 4. Both of her parents grew up on dairy farms, and her father showed dairy cows as a youngster. In the 1980s, he transitioned from dairy to beef cattle production.
"One of my earliest memories is of showing cattle with my brother, Alan, at the Pearl River County Fair in Peewee Showmanship," Smith said. "I was decked out in my red cowgirl hat and boots, and my denim skirt had a red bandana print ruffle on it. The one thing Dad told me to do was to keep my eyes on the judge, no matter what. So, Alan led the heifer, and I held the end of the halter just like my dad trained me to.
"And if keeping eye contact with the judge meant looking at him from underneath the cow, that's what I was going to do, and that's what I did,” she said.
Smith and her brother, now a fourth-year veterinary student at the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, traveled every summer to regional and national classics with the American Junior Simmental Association, an experience Smith credits with developing her public speaking skills.
"I was in a novice category until I was 8 years old and eligible to compete," Smith said. "The classics involve cattle shows, showmanship, livestock judging, a mock sales competition, extemporaneous public speaking, a skill-a-thon and a written test called a cattleman's quiz. They offer leadership workshops, fun activities, sports and tournaments, too, so it’s not all work."
In addition to breed-specific activities, Smith participated in 4-H. She also joined FFA in high school.
"Being part of these organizations helped me in every way possible," she said. "Preparing for competitions, doing public speaking contests at 4 years old and continuing in that for years, all of those public speaking opportunities—both in practice and in competition—put me at ease when standing up in front of a crowd. It definitely influenced my career choice."
While at MSU, Smith has served as the public relations chair for the MSU chapter of Collegiate FFA. She also has been an ambassador for the MSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. She is a member of the Collegiate Cattlemen's Associate and Pi Beta Phi sorority.
"Being involved in different organizations is important at this stage in my life because whether I'm acting in an official or unofficial capacity, I have opportunities to teach my peers and other consumers about their food source," she said.
Looking back, Smith said she especially enjoyed opportunities to meet people and travel.
"I can say I know someone in every state in the union, plus Puerto Rico and Canada," she said. "Meeting people from all different walks of life and cultures, traveling and making connections helped me develop a love for people. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in something that involved constant interaction with others."
Smith's passion for talking to others naturally led to leadership opportunities.
Martha Jackson-Banks, an assistant Extension professor in 4-H Youth Development, worked with Smith as she served as a member of the state leadership team, Southeast District vice president and state 4-H Council vice president.
"Jessica is an amazing person with the ability to communicate with everyone she comes in contact with," Jackson-Banks said. "She understands the importance of agriculture and the need to continually educate the public."
Jackson-Banks said Smith possesses vital leadership skills, such as managing and working with groups, making decisions and learning to learn. But she excels in her ability to connect with others.
"If she sees a person who needs help, she automatically stops what she is doing to aid that person," Jackson-Banks said. "She makes people feel special. She has had a positive impact in the lives of thousands, and that includes me."