By Vicky Boyd
Brie Witt finished in the final four in the recent Young Farmers & Ranchers Discussion Meet, empowering her to look forward to the 2017 competition.
"I'm excited and can't wait for the topics for next year to come out," she said. "I'm going to prepare earlier. I'm excited to learn about the topics because I always learn something new."
2016 marked the third year Witt, a grower relations representative for Constellation Brands in Lodi, competed in Discussion Meet. The first year, she didn't make it out of the early rounds. In 2015, she was first runner up. In 2016, she was a finalist, finishing behind Dan Dresselhaus of Weaverville and first runner up, Molly Fagundes of Tulare County.
For his efforts, Dresselhaus earned $5,000 courtesy of sponsors Farm Credit, Rabobank and Chevrolet. Fagundes received $1,000, and the other two finalists — Witt and Amber Simmons of San Luis Obispo County — each earned $500. Katie Veenstra, who had participated in Discussion Meet for two years and made it into the elite eight both times, also plans on competing in 2017.
"I think for me, one of the reasons I enjoy Discussion Meet is you have five topics you have to research and prepare for, and a lot of those topics are things I don't deal with on a daily basis," said Veenstra, director of marketing for GloriAnn Farms of Tracy. "So it gives me a better overview of the issues that we're facing in agriculture. I can bring that knowledge back to the workplace and Farm Bureau activities, like legislative visits." Although Donald Drake, a first-time meet participant, didn't make it past the first two rounds, he said he sees the benefits of continuing to compete.
"For me, it's getting more practice in public speaking and learning to have better conversations and discussions in meetings in general," he said. Drake noticed that the participants who advanced had those skills. "They were a little more comfortable with public speaking, which I'm working to do," said Drake, a food safety specialist/field services representative for Chinchiola Stemilt California in Stockton. "And they were a lot more knowledgeable about CFBF and AFBF, and I really plan to get more involved with YF&R to learn more."
Witt said she observed how meet winner Dresselhaus led the group, and she hopes to use some of those skills in future discussions, whether in her daily life or in competition.
Held in conjunction with the California Farm Bureau's Annual Meeting, the YF&R Discussion Meet is not a debate with one individual winning over another. Instead, Witt said, it is similar to a group of coworkers or family members sitting down to talk about an issue and formulating solutions. Gaining these types of discussion skills is priceless.
"This is how we, at the grassroots level, can solve this problem," she said of the goals behind Discussion Meet.
"It's not ‘I'm right and you're wrong.' It's how can we all have a discussion and solve this issue."
Unlike some entrants who study up on a topic only a few days before the actual meet, Witt said SJFB entrants take a different approach. This year, she, Drake and Veenstra together reviewed the issues for several weeks beforehand. SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett also made a few suggestions. Having the three participants at the table provided additional resources.
"We'd run through the topics and get information from each other and help each other because we all come from different backgrounds," Witt said. "We all kind of helped out. What kind of research can we do that's missing? What's our Farm Bureau doing?"
Veenstra said she also benefited from the group sessions.
"We utilized the people within our county," she said. "We met up with some outside help — Rachael Fleming, Natalie Collins, Tyler Blagg. We'd sit down and just discuss the topics but not in a Discussion Meet format. Before our practices, Rachael would meet with Bruce and get his input and different policies from CFBF that were related."
Although Witt admits the Discussion Meet rounds were stressful, she said she has used a similar game plan each year.
"The big focus for me is having a few points that I want to make and finding a way to fit them into the conversation," Witt said. "You can't do a whole lot beyond that."
Veenstra said she may have over-prepared for the 2016 meet, possibly suffering from information overload. To avoid that again, she said she plans to start collecting relevant information as soon as the topics are released in late February or early March.
"I'm going to start jotting notes earlier in the year so I'm keeping my brain going on the topics earlier on," Veenstra said.
The discussion meet is conducted in four rounds, with all of the entrants participating in the first two. They are broken up into several groups, each in a separate room.
One of five topics previewed earlier in the year is then thrown out for consideration. Each person gives a 30-second opening statement, after which the discussion begins.
"In those rounds, you have people who haven't prepared and you have those who have," Witt said. "And the cream seems to rise to the top."
After the first two rounds, the field is narrowed to the elite eight, which are split into two groups for another round of discussions. The top two entrants from each of those groups move onto the final four.
This year, the final topic was immigration and specifically, how would you draft a national immigration policy?
As part of the new policy, Witt said, a flexible guest worker program is needed since the current H-2A program isn't working. The program also would have to allow workers to move from employer to employer. Another component would be an earned route to citizenship for workers who have been in the country for a long period.
"The whole idea of us sending everybody home on inauguration day and deporting everybody is ridiculous," she said. "On the other hand, you can't just grant everybody citizenship in the country, either."