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Growing up a farm boy in rural La Crosse County, Brad Pfaff's world revolved around agriculture.

"Farming as a kid was all I knew. My relatives were farmers, the neighbors were farmers, the friends of my parents were farmers" the Wisconsin Ag Secretary designee told FFA members at the 90th annual Wisconsin FFA Convention in Madison. "Farming is what we did morning, noon, and night. It filled our days. I milked the cows before I went to school and after I got home from school."

While his experiences on the farm, in 4-H and as his FFA Chapter's president shaped his values and outlook on life, when it came time to choose his career path Pfaff changed course. After graduation, Pfaff was to join his father in the farming operation.

"We were going to rent the neighboring farm, dad and I were going to purchase an additional 40 head of cows and I was going to begin milking," he said. "But I couldn't do it. I needed to leave home. I needed to go somewhere and experience things that, quite frankly, weren’t agriculture."

Pfaff said he needed to expand his horizons beyond his rural community and work with people who were not farmers.

"I needed to meet and work with people that didn't know the difference between a cow and a steer," Pfaff said. "I needed to challenge myself in a different way. I didn't know where to go or what to do. But I know I needed to go somewhere."

That 'somewhere' was UW-Green Bay—205 miles away from the farm—where he studied business and public administration. As a freshman far from home, Pfaff said the new beginning pushed him out of his comfort zone and allowed him to learn how other people approached issues and led him to better understand what issues were important to him.

"I got to better understand and appreciate what agriculture and rural communities really meant to me. And I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life," he said. "How I can better connect the dots between agriculture, rural communities, rural people and those that live in cities and suburbs and have no idea what agriculture is all about?"

In time Pfaff became a better listener and communicator and was able to put himself in others' shoes.

"I didn't know at the time, but these lessons and skills prepared me for the opportunity that I have here today," he said.

Following college graduation, Pfaff had the opportunity to interview for a staff position with U.S. Senator Herb Kohl.

"(Kohl) knew that Wisconsin was home to thousands of family farmers; he knew the heartbeat of our rural communities and our family farmers. And he wanted to do more to connect farmers with consumers," Pfaff said. "He asked me two very simple questions: Can you talk to farmers? And when he asked me 'Can you talk to non farmers?' I'm proud that I answered both of those questions yes.”

Pfaff told FFA members in attendance that he attributes the opportunities he's had in life to the lessons and skills he's learned while in FFA. He also rallied them to use their leadership abilities for others.

"In today's very polarized environment we need leaders. We need leaders that can build connections and forge alliances, leaders that have a vision that will move people forward," he said.

More than ever, agriculture in Wisconsin provides countless opportunities for young leaders to step forward, said Pfaff, enumerating that state's leading role in dairy, genetics, vegetable growing, and food processing.

"But our state is going through a transition period, and that transition period is not easy. Very hard working people are leaving the farm and trying to figure out what comes next," he said. "They're looking for leaders that understand and can walk in different shoes and who are willing to step forward."

Pfaff challenged FFA members to remain curious, creative, open minded, passionate and to be good listeners.

"You're going to get your opportunity. This is a big state and there are countless opportunities for you to participate, be it in production, processing, science, engineering, finance or logistics," he said.

Pfaff warned his young audience to avoid falling into old habits or accepting the status quo.

"Stretch yourself. You will learn more about yourself in difficult situations than you will ever learn in comfortable situations, and by doing so you will become a better person," Pfaff said. "Now you need to reach inside. Take the time, invest in yourself and then come back and bring everything you’ve got and let’s together move Wisconsin agriculture forward."

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