There were 15,000 jobs and counting in Oklahoma’s pork industry as of 2013, yet when students are asked about career paths within the industry the answers are always the same: vet or ag teacher.
Now, that’s all changing with okPORK Youth Leadership Camp, a hands-on, in-depth training program for rising juniors, seniors and precollege students that provides a 360 degree look at the pork industry and its multiple career opportunities.
“We felt like it was important to get students involved and knowing what the pork industry is like in Oklahoma,” says Kristin Alsup, communications specialist for Oklahoma Pork Council and an instrumental player in all aspects of the camp since its inception in summer 2012.
Each year, up to 12 students are accepted, and although the finalists are typically leaders at their schools’ 4-H/FFA programs, no prior experience in agriculture is required – just leadership skills, excitement and a strong interest to learn more about the industry. Outside of showing livestock, even most high school students haven’t had any hands-on experience, but by the end of the camp, students have gained a well-rounded knowledge base, including animal handling and processing.
“One of the biggest things I want kids to walk away with is that animal welfare and care is very important to us,” says Joe Poppelwell, operations manager at Seaboard Foods, board member of okPORK and camp instructor for genetics.
After sharing his 22 years of experience in the swine industry with students, he hopes they will return to pursue an internship. But even if they don’t, he finds that “the kids are often spokespeople for us,” and by sharing their experiences with others, the industry benefits as a whole.
Alsup concurs, “Above all, we want the best, smartest and brightest to come into agriculture and stay.”
A Life-Changing Experience
When camp is over, all students recap their experiences at a Capstone Dinner and Presentation.
“I remember when we had to process the pigs,” shares Rachel Shuey, 2012 camp participant. “It was a very emotional morning and none of us knew what to expect. The best part was getting to physically see how the process worked and to get hands-on experience.” After camp she joined FFA and presently she is a junior at the University of Missouri studying Animal Science/Pre-Vet, with plans to attend vet school.
“It was an extremely interesting experience to see how they harvest swine on a commercial level. I would have never imagined they could harvest so many hogs in such a small amount of time with so much accuracy and precision.”
After this experience, Johnson decided to stay in agriculture and will pursue a master’s in genetics. “I got the opportunity to learn about jobs from all sides of the industry from production to harvesting and even marketing of pork,” he recalls.
“No matter what your interests may be, there is something to be learned by anyone who attends this camp. The people, connections and memories you take away last a lifetime.”
Shuey agrees. “It is a once in a lifetime experience that allows you to dig deeper into an industry that seems pretty inclusive from the outside. I enjoyed learning about an industry of agriculture and having the opportunity to bring that knowledge back to my hometown.”
With the fourth annual okPORK Youth Leadership Camp in summer 2015 and 31 promising graduates to date, there is no doubt the success of this program will have a positive impact on both the industry and state for years to come.