Vilonia's Taylor McNeel elected national Future Farmers of America president

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Taylor McNeel of Vilonia is in rare company and in the midst of a rare opportunity.

McNeel, 20, a junior agricultural business major/Spanish minor at Southern Arkansas University, is the newly selected national president of the Future Farmers of America, one of the nation’s best known agriculture advocacy groups.

She is just the 15th national officer from Arkansas since the FFA was founded in 1928 and the second national president from the state — the last was in 1956-57. She is the first female national president from Arkansas — in fact, the state’s first female national officer served just last year — and the first female national president since 2004-05.

McNeel said that when the opportunity arose for her to run for national office, a good friend had some sage advice.

“She said, ‘You should find out who you are and what you want to accomplish, your personal philosophy. Then whatever the outcome of the election in October, it’s OK — you’ll find some place to help others,’” McNeel said.

After the election, her place was secure atop the organization that advocates for agriculture starting with the country’s youth.

SAU President Dr. Trey Berry is one of McNeel’s biggest supporters.

“When I first met Taylor, I was impressed with her integrity, intelligence, drive, but most with her humility and servant heart,” he said.

Indeed, McNeel is the poster woman for FFA, agriculture and the future.

“Agriculture is such a huge, important aspect of the world,” she said. “You can see all the products it produces — clothing, shelter, food. FFA partners with ag programs in schools and focuses on premier leadership, personal growth and career success. We grow our leaders and build our communities to support agriculture.”

At 10, McNeel moved to Vilonia from Michigan. She said her parents, Laura and John McNeel, both had an agricultural background and knew they wanted to move somewhere they could own land for a farm and the family could get involved in 4-H. Taylor also became an active participant in the Vilonia United Methodist Church youth group.

John McNeel found a job in Cabot. Taylor got involved with 4-H when they moved to Vilonia, and she started showing market goats and horses. As a freshman at Vilonia, she joined FFA.

“I’ve had a horse my whole life, but I just started showing at 10,” she said. “I told my dad I wanted to show market goats, and he told me I had to shadow one of our friends until I proved to him that I was serious. Through 4-H and FFA, I started breeding my own herd and built it up to 25 registered Boer goats and market goats.”

By the time she was a junior, she knew she wanted to pursue agriculture as a career.

“I spoke on behalf of 4-H and FFA members at a hearing talking about the closing of the farm service agency, and I saw a side of agri and ag policy I’d never seen,” she said, adding that with her agricultural business degree, she hopes to go into something with agri policy and government affairs.

Through Vilonia’s agriculture program, she was involved in public speaking and livestock judging. She remained active in 4-H through high school and served as a camp counselor and state fair ambassador.

At Vilonia, her ag mentors included Harold Dean McCain, James (Bubba) McKay, Jenna Guidry and Craig Dewey.

“When Taylor was in ninth grade, I knew she was special,” McCain said. “She was really a good girl, kind of quiet but real smart and caring. In 10th grade, she gave a speech in class, and after that, I knew then that this girl is something really, really special and that she was probably going to do a lot of great things.”

McNeel was Arkansas FFA’s prepared public speaking state champion the same year she served as state president (2013-14).

McCain said he never expected more. That was the highlight — he thought.

“For her to go on and be elected a national officer is something overwhelming,” he said.

Her high school agriculture teachers were agri alums from SAU, so she checked out the university in Magnolia.

“When I came down here, I realized it was a place I could fit in,” she said. “This campus really cares about its students. I’ve seen that. And ag is a huge part of the campus. I just fell in love with SAU.”

In January, she was chosen as Arkansas’s candidate for national office. The slate of officers includes president, secretary and four regional vice presidents.

Forty-one candidates were at the Future Farmers of America National Convention and Expo in Louisville (coincidentally, where her younger brother Matthew, 17, attended his first national convention) and the nine-member nominating committee, composed of FFA members, put them through a selection process that included interviews, speeches, tests, essays and workshops. The field was cut to 24 mid-week.

“Through all those rounds, they evaluate us, and then those nine select the national officers,” McNeel said. “They are usually past state officers. The nominating team places you where they think you’d work best.”

She said she had always known she wanted to give back to FFA.

“That day I woke up and knew that my life was going to change,” she said. “Either I was going to be elected or I wasn’t, and I was OK either way. I knew I could still find a way to serve FFA, and right before the announ
cement, I said, ‘God, I’m ready for whatever you have in place.’”

She was elected president Oct. 31.

Her philosophy for her term is inspired by the book “Love Does” by Bob Goff.

“If you have love in your heart, you should live your life palms-up,” she said. “Take what’s given to you and give to others. That’s something I’d always been doing, but that was the mentality I went through in getting ready for nationals. I really want to live it out.”

After the convention, McNeel returned to SAU, where she took her fall finals early. After Thanksgiving, she left for the National FFA Center in Indianapolis, where she joined her fellow officers.

“We’ll dive into training and decide our team platform,” she said in mid-November. “I really want to live this year palms-up. I’m just ready to take whatever’s given to me and give that to our members, dive into more opportunities as a team and see what we can do.”

She’ll spend her year away from SAU — she’ll return in the spring of 2017 — based for the first few months in Indianapolis and then traveling as many as 100,000 miles visiting FFA members (at state conventions, camps and chapter visits) and supporters as well as representatives of the agriculture industry and business. Included is a trip to Japan to observe the agriculture industry there.

Her scholarships will be awaiting her when she returns to SAU, where she is also a president’s ambassador.

“It’s been great to get support from SAU,” she said.

That support goes all the way to the top.

“Dreams do come true,” Berry said. “This is such a proud day for the state of Arkansas, for Southern Arkansas University and for Arkansas FFA. Taylor McNeel has been a tremendous leader on our campus and now she will be so for all of FFA.”