The average age of U.S. farmers is 58 and increasing, so preparing the next generation of agriculture for success is more important today than ever. No one knows that better than Josey Harris Miller. As an ag teacher, 4-H leader and first-generation rancher, she has dedicated her life to improving the future of farming and giving back to her community in Lenoir City, Tennessee.
For Josey, agriculture is her profession, passion and purpose, but she wasn’t born into the business. Her only exposure to farming when she was growing up was working in the garden and taking care of a few chickens and cattle at her house just outside of town. In fourth grade, Josey joined a local 4-H club in hopes of having fun and meeting new friends. She got much more than she bargained for.
“4-H became my whole life for the next nine years. I was hardly home in the summers because I went to three or four camps and volunteered as both a teen leader and an adult leader,” she says.
She describes herself as a “very shy kid,” but completing 4-H projects and presenting during meetings helped build her confidence. When Josey got to high school, she joined FFA to deepen her knowledge of agriculture and further develop her leadership and public speaking skills. According to Josey, “I really had to push myself to break the barrier of speaking in front of people. Now, I’m a teacher and I talk to 75 kids all day every day. I was able to do this because of 4-H and FFA.”
After graduating, Josey attended the University of Tennessee to earn a degree in Wildlife and Fishery Science. While there, she became involved in the Tennessee Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Program. This program provides an opportunity for Farm Bureau members between ages 18 and 35 to connect with peers, develop leadership skills and encourage the next generation of agriculture to become involved in advocacy and education groups. As a service-oriented cooperative, Farm Credit Mid-America invests in numerous organizations dedicated to developing future leaders in agriculture, including Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers Program, 4-H and FFA.
“I joke that the YF&R Program is like 4-H and FFA for adults because there are competitions you can enter,” she explains. “But what we’re truly doing at YF&R is advocating; we act as the voice for agriculture.” In 2015, Josey won the Tennessee Young Farmers & Ranchers Outstanding Young Woman award and was elected State YF&R Committee Chair last year.
Josey worked in rural extension for a few years before deciding to go back for a Master’s in Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication. “I loved my job but I only got to see the kids once a week, and I wanted to have more of an impact on them.”
Now, as an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Lenoir City High School, Josey says she sees all of her kids every day.
“I’m in my fourth year of teaching now and I can see some huge changes that kids have made, just like I did when I was in FFA.”
She works hard to demonstrate to her students that agriculture can be challenging and exciting. “I love being a teacher. The other day, I showed them how to turn on a pivot with a smartphone app and it was really neat to see their eyes light up.”
A few years ago, Josey and her husband, Matt, decided to become ranchers. They made this decision in part due to their involvement in Farm Bureau and in part at the request of their son, who wanted to show cattle and market hogs for his first year in 4-H. “We decided to just dive into the deep end and bought some show calves and market hogs,” Josey said.
Although it’s challenging to juggle work, family, volunteering and farming, Josey is doing what she loves. “Being a farmer isn’t easy, it’s a 365-days-a-year, seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day job, but it’s one of the best careers out there.”