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Whether it’s the blue corduroy of an FFA jacket or proud recitation of the 4-H pledge, it’s easy to recognize student members of youth agriculture organizations in Montana. Just as identifiable is the career and personal success of these participants long after their memberships have ended.

Cole Cook, a beef producer and alum of Montana FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America), speaks to this firsthand as a recipient of a Montana Junior Agriculture Loan.

Offered through the Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA), these loans assist and encourage members of youth organizations in financing ag projects when funding is unavailable from other sources.

“I was a sophomore in high school when my agriculture teacher told me all about the FFA programs,” Cook says. “I applied after learning about the loan program and bought five registered Black Angus cows.”

Walt Anseth, MDA rural development supervisor and farm and ranch loan manager, says the Montana Junior Agriculture Loan program was created to provide youth a chance to enter the ag workforce even if they did not come from a farming background.

“It started in 1973; there was a need to get youth involved in agriculture,” Anseth says.

Students ages 9 to 11 can apply for a loan of up to $3,500, while students ages 12 to 21 apply for $8,500. They have five years to repay the loan, with the money collected, including interest, returned to the pot for payout for future student projects.

“Once they pay it off, they own the livestock, land, crops or other items of their projects,” Anseth says. “It is a big learning tool that sets them up for their own operation in agriculture.”

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Cook is a testament to this. “I started with the five cows I purchased in 1998, and now, my wife, Lindsey, and I own 200 cows,” Cook says. “FFA made me realize what it took to make money, raise a herd and be successful.”

Looking Toward the Future

Montana State FFA Director Jim Rose oversees all FFA programs in the state. After the national organization was created in 1928, Montana assembled its own FFA Association in 1930 with 26 individual chapters. Today, Montana is home to 91 chapters and 4,750 members.

Rose says students involved in FFA and similar programs develop career readiness, leadership skills and a network to carry them into a professional career.

“Being able to develop skills within all of our activities is kind of a big thing,” Rose says. “When all these kids are at conferences and competitions, they are creating a network with other kids they are meeting. That network and interaction is huge; they’re developing friends for life, really.”

Anseth believes these organizations are the backbone to rural development.

“It’s a pride thing with students,” he says. “Sure, they are competing to get a loan or receive an award. But when you have competition, they are also learning and growing their self-esteem. These programs are keeping rural America going.”

According to Rose, programs within FFA and similar groups thrive thanks to the generous support of their partners.

“We have a couple other aspects of our organization,” Rose says. “The state’s FFA Alumni Association fosters local program support and the FFA Foundation acts as the fundraising arm for a lot of our programs.”

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Cook says participating in FFA and receiving Montana Junior Agriculture Loans formed the foundation of his career in beef.

“They help young people get started, teach them how to manage money and show how the real world works on a smaller level,” he adds. “I’m proud to say I started with five cows and now have 200 – 75 of which are home-raised. That is quite an achievement.”