Williamson’s small goal: Help feed world
In an agricultural community, it is no surprise that students who participate in FFA are able to receive some of the best ag-related learning experiences. But how far can that take you?
Just ask Sierra Williamson, a Martin County West FFA alumna and current student at the University of Minnesota.
Williamson recently completed an internship with the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge, a program centered on food security. Williamson and nine other college sophomores from around the United States worked together as a team on sustainable food solutions. The group traveled to Africa to meet with small-holder farmers to see firsthand the struggles of developing farmers and participate in service projects related to agriculture.
“When I first found out about the program, Africa was definitely a highlight,” Williamson said. “I was looking forward because I had not been out of the country before. So when I found out that I got the internship I was absolutely thrilled and I couldn’t have been more surprised that my first international destination was Malawi, which is the third-poorest country in the world.”
Williamson said the group stayed in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, and learned about subsistence agriculture.
“Subsistence agriculture is when you are just trying to produce enough for your family to live off of,” she said. “We saw how one dairy cow can make a world of difference in sending a family of eight through school and give them opportunities that others don’t normally get just because they had the one cow. So we looked specifically at that family situation because Land O’Lakes had an international development project that allowed that family to get that dairy cow and then get access to a market through a local cooperative that they put in that area.
“If every family has one dairy cow, that doesn’t really provide them enough bulk to send anything to market. So when you put in a cooperative where the milk can be collected and pooled together, you’re going to provide that bulk that you need to have leverage on your pricing and have access to markets that you wouldn’t normally get. That is something that is absolutely huge when you’re talking about a society that lives on $1.50 or less per day.”
After spending time in Malawi, the group traveled to South Africa, where participants were able to see some larger farms. These farms showed the natural progression away from subsistence agriculture toward more developed production systems.
“We were also able to see the business side of things in South Africa,” she said. “Land O’Lakes has invested in a cooperative or crop input company there called Villa, and Villa provides crop protection to farmers there. That is really cool to see because that is one of the first businesses that Land O’Lakes has bought outside of the country. So it’s cool to see how the cooperative system is starting to get into those sub-Saharan African countries where agriculture conditions aren’t necessarily the best.”
Though her time in Africa has concluded, Williamson’s adventures are from over. Later this fall, she will travel to Rome, where she will meet with the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization.
“Last April I was able to attend a Planet Forward Summit, which is basically a social platform for students to write about issues within the environment or agriculture or food production,” she said. “Then they publish them and give us a broader reach. So I was very inspired to tell the story of agriculture and how advanced it is.”
Thanks to that experience, Williamson started a blog focused on agriculture and traveling called “Sierra’s Agventures.”
“It’s about trying to see agriculture from a global perspective and how we can ultimately feed the world,” she said. “One of the key elements to feeding the world is to have consumers and farmers connected and have a good relationship. That way farmers can practice their production the way that’s most efficient and that’s best for the land.
“So I started my blog and stayed in contact with Planet Forward, and then I got an email that there was an opportunity to travel to Rome to meet with the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization. The story that I submitted was on ‘From the Ground Up,’ which is the Project 1590 event in Martin County. Once I submitted that story, the people that were interviewing me were absolutely captivated and thought that this would be a great starting point for me to incorporate when I speak to leaders in Rome.
“So I was lucky enough after the interview to be selected,” she continued. “I get to go with two other students where will be meeting with leaders and writing a story for Planet Forward to publish. I will be talking to them a lot about my community and the stuff we’re doing to promote community vitality through the work of the Project 1590 committee.”
Williamson encourages FFA students to be proud of their roots and background, and to use that to accomplish their dreams.
“I found out that my dream was to help with food security solutions to help feed the world,” she said. “Luckily, I can do that through all the stuff I learned here in Martin County when it comes to seeing firsthand how our food is produced. So it’s really important to be proud of your heritage and figure out how you’re going to incorporate that into your life mission. Don’t set any limits on that and push yourself to achieve your goals in the next exciting chapter in your life.
“I’m so thankful for my community for all that they did for me. I feel like this community prepared and supported me for all of the amazing adventures I’ve been able to go on this last year and am planning to go on. So I am so grateful for the community I’ve been raised in.”