San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

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By Vicky Boyd

When Breanna Holbert – a Tokay High School graduate and California State University, Chico, sophomore – was elected FFA president at the National FFA Convention recently in Indianapolis, she continued to break new ground.

Holbert is the first female African American elected to any national FFA office, let alone president. She also served as California FFA secretary from 2015 to 2016, marking the first Tokay FFA member to hold state office.

In taking the national office, Holbert becomes the seventh FFA member from California to be elected president. In addition, she recently earned the American FFA degree, an accomplishment completed by fewer than 1 percent of FFA members.

The 20-year-old former Lodi resident is quick to credit hard work and determination for her achievements.

"I want people to know I'm just like everyone else, and people are just like everyone else," Holbert said. "The only thing that differentiates us is how hard we work. If we work hard, then we can go places. But if we limit ourselves, then we're not going to get there. I don't want my legacy to be defined by my ethnicity."

As president, she will undergo a month of training at FFA headquarters in Indianapolis. Then Holbert will spend nearly a year traveling throughout the country, meeting with state agriculture and FFA leaders as well as attending state and regional FFA conferences. During that time, she'll also travel internationally.

Holbert described her first few weeks of office as a whirlwind as she tried to finish her classes early, file for a one-year college deferral and pack to leave for Indianapolis shortly after Thanksgiving.

In between, she sandwiched in her first presidential duties – attending a town hall meeting with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Oct. 5, in Modesto. Since Perdue is a strong supporter of FFA, Holbert said she appreciated meeting him and called the meeting "really purposeful."

Holbert, who grew up a city girl in central Lodi, said she signed up for FFA before her freshman year thinking she would grow a few plants. At the time, she envisioned a basketball career in the WNBA.

The class turned out much more rigorous than Holbert anticipated, which challenged her and instilled a new-found appreciation for agriculture. She went on to raise chickens for eggs and showed turkeys at the former San Joaquin County Fair, now named the AgFest.

At the same time, the FFA program provided her the stability she needed in her life as well as building confidence to make speeches or go into a room and talk with people. It also prompted Holbert to decide she wanted to become an agricultural education teacher and share her passion with other urban students.

"I felt like I always wanted to be a teacher so I could provide the same type of stability for my students that my teachers did for me," she said. "I think when I got into ag, I always rooted for the underdogs. And agriculture doesn't always get appreciated every day. Not only was I passionate about the program, but also it's an industry that needs strong leaders to communicate with others."

Rebecca Freeman, an agriculture science teacher and FFA adviser at Tokay High School in Lodi, has known Holbert since she was a high school freshman six years ago. 

Even early on, Holbert had a special air about her that prompted Freeman to give her a helpful nudge.

"She was extremely genuine and driven and the most authentic person I've ever met – she never had a bad word to say about anyone," Freeman said. The Tokay High teacher was in Indianapolis for the convention with a group of current Tokay FFA students when Holbert was elected president. "I can't put it into words," Freeman said of her emotions for Holbert's feat.

To be elected president, Holbert had to undergo six days of grueling interviews, making presentations, giving extemporaneous speeches, facilitating a workshop, being interviewed by stakeholders and interacting with media in front of a judging panel. Midway through, the initial group of 42 was whittled down to 24 participants, who continued with more interviews.

To top it off, Freeman said, the four regional vice presidents were announced first, followed by the secretary. The naming of the new president was saved until last.

"So we really were on pins and needles, and I was a nervous wreck," she said.

Josiah Mayfield, assistant state FFA advisor in Galt, worked with Holbert when she was a state officer and again as she prepared for the national election. Her run for office actually began nearly six months ago when she was selected as California's candidate for national FFA office. Each state is allowed one nomination, he said. 

Holbert then immersed herself into researching general agricultural issues nationwide, agricultural education issues and FFA issues. Mayfield said Holbert had three traits that he believed aided her. "She had done her homework, and she has an immense amount of knowledge in those three areas," he said. "I think Bre is extremely relatable. She's the type of person who walks into a room and people just enjoy her and relate to her quickly. She's very genuine and very interested in learning about people and the industry. I think all of those things really, really helped her."