July 8, 2024

‘We’re at the cutting edge of what’s next’

The smell of dust and wood chips brings back a swarm of memories for Laiken DeMorrett as she steps into NDSU’s Shepperd Arena. DeMorrett, a 2011 NDSU animal science major who recently was named the executive director of the North Dakota FFA Foundation, lets the moment wash over her as she remembers her days there as an undergrad.

When she attended NDSU, DeMorrett considered the arena a source of happiness, having spent much time there attending classes or Saddle and Sirloin Club meetings and participating in the annual Little International Livestock Show that highlights the importance of agriculture on campus and throughout North Dakota. 

“For me, Shepperd Arena  was the lifeblood of the agriculture program, or at least the animal science program,” DeMorrett said. “Alongside the others who gathered there, that place really became my second home.”

Agriculture again takes center stage during NDSU’s annual North Dakota Tour from July 8-18. NDSU President David Cook, university administrators, deans and others will meet alumni, local leaders, legislators, members of the State Board of Higher Education, Extension employees, agriculture producers and NDSU supporters during stops throughout North Dakota. The tour coincides with Research Extension Center annual field days, which highlights groundbreaking NDSU agriculture research at Extension centers across the state. 

An NDSU degree prepared DeMorrett to enter the agriculture workforce and made her more resourceful as a professional. Among DeMorrett’s mentors in the animal science program are Russ Danielson, NDSU emeritus professor in animal science, Paul Berg, NDSU emeritus associate professor of animal science, and Bert Moore, a former NDSU professor in animal science.

“The folks that I had an opportunity to work with, professors, advisors, etc., were all so deeply passionate not only about advancing agriculture, but also about making sure the students got what they needed to succeed on their chosen path,” said DeMorrett, who is from Williston, North Dakota. “What I appreciate about NDSU today is how it has expanded the programming and  been innovative in what is offered to students to make sure it’s still meeting the needs of the next generation of agriculture leaders. Given my current position with the FFA, I think that’s  where we align because both are operating in support of agriculture students and the industry at large.”

As North Dakota FFA Foundation executive director, DeMorrett is looking forward to working on expanding opportunities for North Dakota FFA students and learning more about how to attract students who aren’t directly connected to agriculture to ensure every student in North Dakota knows there’s a place for them in the organization and the agriculture industry.

“There are so many opportunities in agriculture. Regardless of where you live, your area of interest, expertise, or skill, there’s something for you in agriculture,” she said.

DeMorrett has a strong connection to the National FFA organization, having been an active member of the Montana FFA during her high school years. In the end, DeMorrett earned the American FFA degree, which is the highest degree an FFA member can achieve in the organization.

She recently experienced the North Dakota FFA State Convention in June, which helped her reconnect with how impactful being part of FFA is.

“Being back in that environment and seeing the excitement of the students as they competed in various contests or received certain awards and moreso, as they  took their  steps on their leadership journeys through FFA,  ignited my passion to make sure they have the best opportunities available and can take advantage of them when offered,” she said.

A deep love for agriculture

DeMorrett’s passion for agriculture started at an early age. She grew up in Williston and later moved to her family’s farm near the Montana border. 

DeMorrett first experienced the wonders of agriculture when her uncle introduced her to her first pony at  age seven. 

“From there I was exposed to western heritage through rodeos and horse shows,” she said. “I come from a long line of cowboys and agriculture. I grew up in town until we moved to the farm when I was a fifth grader. The pony was my first tangible experience with the ag industry, having to learn about the care of an animal, the nutritional aspects of what they need and where that food comes from.”

DeMorrett’s passion for agriculture and specifically for livestock deepened with age. She was active in 4-H and FFA throughout high school showing cattle, hogs and horses, and participated in contests including livestock judging, agriculture sales, floriculture and others. DeMorrett made lifelong connections and gained valuable skills, including communication, public speaking and leadership experience that she has utilized in her professional life thanks to her involvement in both organizations. 

The road to NDSU

DeMorrett wasn’t too familiar with NDSU, but after completing two years at Willison State College, DeMorrett decided to enroll because she had heard about the university’s Saddle and Sirloin Club, the largest student organization on campus.

“Saying yes to NDSU and the Saddle and Sirloin Club expanded my perspective and it’s where I found my people,” she said. “I didn’t know coming from a small town that there were so many others who shared the same values, enjoyed the same things, had the same passion for agriculture that I did.”

DeMorrett’s involvement in the Saddle and Sirloin Club continued to build on the leadership skills she gained in FFA as she chaired the horse show at Little I and served as the club’s assistant treasurer. Despite being nearly 400 miles away from home, DeMorrett said she didn’t feel like it. 

“The people that I interacted with became my friends and my second family while I was away at school. For those who may feel isolated or homesick for a variety of reasons, having that community is so important. That’s what the Saddle and Sirloin Club became for me,” she said. 

After graduation, DeMorrett conducted crop research at the Williston Research Extension Center in Williams County. The job painted a clearer picture of the important work NDSU is doing across the state at the various Research Extension Centers. 

NDSU Extension uplifts North Dakotans of all ages by improving lives and communities through science-based education. This work is highlighted annually through field days, which are open to the public and take place at the seven NDSU REC sites across the state and the NDSU Agronomy Seed Farm in Casselton, North Dakota. Field days feature speakers, presentations and tours covering a diverse array of topics. 

“It’s exciting not only for the folks who are doing the research to be able to talk about the work that they’re doing, but also to bring the community, the stakeholders into that environment to help them understand why it matters,” DeMorrett said. “Field days are so important because generations are becoming further and further removed from what you would consider the traditional agricultural experience being on the family farm and ranch. This helps educate the public about where their food comes from. It helps them see under the hood a little bit about the work being done at NDSU, how that work affects their communities and where they can participate and engage.”

A look at the future

Choosing to remain in North Dakota was an easy decision for DeMorrett. Not only are her roots here, but the number of opportunities in the state are unmatched. 

“I didn’t feel like I had to leave because I recognized there were opportunities here for me,” she said. “I didn’t have to go away to reach a certain goal or standard of living because North Dakota offered that for me.”

Being able to showcase those opportunities to students in FFA is a highlight for DeMorrett, who credits past and present agriculture leaders in the state for the innovation and achievements of North Dakota agriculture. 

“When I think about folks in ag, it’s inspiring and drives my passion because I’ve experienced their giving nature, their work ethic, their ingenuity. I think agriculturalists were some of the first entrepreneurs, having to solve their own challenges and build their own parts to make their lives better or be more efficient,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for the work that previous generations have done to set us up to launch programs and provide educational platforms to ensure a vibrant, sustainable future for the ag industry.”

As she looks to the future of agriculture, DeMorrett is filled with excitement about what’s to come for the state of North Dakota and for the next generation of agriculturalists.

“It’s exciting to see the work that agriculturists, entrepreneurs and other industry stakeholders are doing to innovate and move ag forward for the next generation,” she said. “In ways, it’s similar to the work that we’re doing at the FFA Foundation by providing opportunities for students to get curious and explore careers in agriculture, whether that’s in ag communications, ag tech, , livestock production, ag mechanics, etc. There are so many opportunities  for them here. 

“I think in a lot of ways we’re at the cutting edge of what’s next.

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