By Vicky Boyd

For San Joaquin Farm Bureau’s Katie Veenstra, the third time proved to be the charm in the California Farm Bureau Young Farmer & Rancher’s Open Discussion Meet.

The 27-year-old Escalon resident took top honors in the event, which was held during the recent CFBF Annual Meeting in Garden Grove.

“I was very surprised to have made it out of the elite eight and into the final four,” said Veenstra, who the past two years didn’t move on past the elite eight. “Having done it several years, you can kind of sense of where you will fall. And when it came to the final four round, I had a good sense I was in the top half.” But she didn’t think she had won the event until her name was called.

Daniel Bays of Stanislaus County was first runner up. The other two finalists were Johnnie White of Napa County and Brie Witt of Lodi.

In winning the CFBF Open Discussion Meet, Veenstra earned $5,000 courtesy of sponsors Farm Credit, Rabobank and Southern California Edison. First runner-up Bays received $1,000. The other two finalists each received $500.

Veenstra will now represent California at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Open Discussion Meet at the AFBF Annual Convention, Jan. 5-10, in Nashville, Tenn.

The YF&R Discussion Meet isn’t a debate with one individual winning over another. Instead, it is designed to foster discussion among the participants about an issue that eventually leads to developing solutions by consensus.

What occurs during the meet could be compared to a family or farm managers sitting down to discuss a particular problem and then coming up with possible answers.

Each summer, five questions are released for the upcoming Discussion Meet competitions at the CFBF annual meeting as well as the national Collegiate Discussion Meet and the open AFBF competition. This allows participants to study and prepare.

The actual Discussion Meet begins with 30 competitors. After the first two rounds, the field is narrowed to eight. Two groups of four each then compete, after which the final four are selected.

Witt, who has competed in Discussion Meet four times, admitted she was a bit disappointed about not placing higher than a finalist in the final four this year. She has finished as high as first runner up before. But Witt said the competition over the years also has provided untold benefits, such as promoting personal growth.

“It teaches you how to drive the discussion or move the discussion along and get your point across,” said Witt, 29, and YF&R chair. “So I think there are definitely some appropriate skills you gain. 

“It’s stressful, and Sunday is just a really long day. But it forces me to really delve into topics I might not otherwise. In my job (as a grower relations representative for Constellation Brands), I don’t necessarily get to speak before large groups. Discussion Meet is an opportunity to check myself – this is something I should try to do more often. This is something I should work on more often.”

Veenstra said she didn’t study much differently last summer than she had the previous two years. In preparation, she and Witt met with Jim and Nick Ferrari, SJFB staff members Bruce Blodgett and Rachael Fleming, and past winner Tyler Blagg to talk about topics and get suggestions about resources.

Veenstra and Witt also took advantage of carpooling together to the CFBF Annual Meeting.

“We used that five and one-half hour drive to bounce ideas off each other,” Veenstra said.

But she said sometimes Discussion Meet success boils down to the luck of the draw. This year, the final topic was, “With a growing demand for U.S. farm products abroad, how can agriculture overcome public skepticism of foreign trade to negotiate new trade agreements and open new world markets?”

Veenstra is marketing director for GloriAnn Farms of Tracy, a sweet corn grower and processor. Because of her knowledge of how trade agreements affect the produce industry, she said she was able to draw from her personal experiences to help in the final discussion.

“Trade agreements and opening new world markets are something the produce industry relies upon heavily, so it’s something I’m very familiar with,” she said. 

The AFBF Discussion Meet will use the same topics, but Veenstra said she plans to conduct additional research focused on more national impacts.

“At the state level, it was very specific to California, and a lot of us have similar views,” she said. “At the AFBF level, I feel a need to do more research to broaden my knowledge and learn beyond just what California does.

“I’m excited to see the national convention, which I’ve never been to before. I’m also excited to compete and to have discussions with people who have different opinions. I’m told there’s much more disagreement, so I’m preparing myself on how to handle it.”

Veenstra’s research didn’t just benefit her Discussion Meet performance, either. It also helped her when she visited Washington, D.C., as a participant in Leadership Farm Bureau.

“Where I saw it really pay off was in D.C.,” she said. “I had a lot of background knowledge due to that research, and I felt very comfortable with that topic. That was one way I very clearly saw the research and work I had done for Discussion Meet help.”