By Evelyn Pyburn
While most people know about the Northern International Livestock Exposition, and realize it has to do with the showing and selling of livestock, and promotion of agriculture, they may not know how much NILE is focused on young people and supporting them in their education as the future of agriculture.
On a Tuesday morning, there were 1700 kids – members of FFA and 4-H – at the NILE, to participate in horse judging and meat evaluation. They came from California, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and of course, Montana. The day before a similar number of youth participated in other judging contests including livestock evaluation, meat science, sales and service, etc.
They come because, not only is the program and competition good, explained Leah Clark, NILE General Manager, but it is the last event in which FFA members can hone their skills prior to the National FFA Convention, which will be held in Indiana in November. She noted that the ages of the participants begin at age 9, which is the age at which they can join 4-H.
In addition to those competitions, 1,800 fourth graders, from all over southeastern Montana, attended NILE for a 2.5 hour ag education program and hands-on experience, which is held in six sessions over three days. In the program they attend stations on livestock, grains, seeds and soil, honey and other special aspects of agriculture. The program is a collaborative effort of the NILE, the Montana Farm Bureau, Montana Extension Service, with volunteers from such organizations as the Beef Council, Montana Cattle Women, etc.
The youngsters arrive at the NILE by bus or in cars loaded with family members, trucks hauling livestock, etc. Not only do the teachers and chaperones of the youngsters attend, but so do trainers and judges and some of the top livestock growers in the nation, as well as the administrators and sponsors of the NILE. The event garners lots of headlines across the nation, and puts Billings on the map as an epicenter for agriculture for the entire region, which gains much support from local business people, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, the Yellowstone County Commissioners, many of whom were volunteers in serving the kids’ breakfast early on Monday and Tuesday mornings at MetraPark.
NILE raises money for its “Agriculture Youth Program” to award scholarships to deserving youth, to providing internship experiences for college students, to help young cattlemen and women start their own herd. One of the events through which funds are raised is the annual Stetsons & Stilettos. Over the past 20 years the NILE Foundation has contributed a million in scholarships.
“Supporting youth in agriculture is a key component of the NILE Foundation’s mission,” says Clark, explaining that NILE has fundraising events to fund scholarships for youth as they enter college. “It is critical that we continue to provide financial assistance to the next generation of agriculture leaders so that they may pursue higher education and reach their personal and professional goals.”
Starting them out early in life is what happens at the NILE. The opportunities get them involved and focused at a very young age, giving them a view of what is possible and a hand-up in getting them started.
Youngsters who are members of FFA or 4-H, between ages 12 to 16, may participate in the NILE Merit Heifer Program, which was developed to help them get a start in the beef cattle business. Selected recipients are awarded a heifer based on merit, future goals and ability to care for the animal. Each program participant will own their heifer jointly with NILE until the completion of the program, at which time NILE officials will sign off and the participant will take full ownership of the heifer. Participants are responsible for raising the heifer, arranging for her bred, and completing the record keeping procedure. They bring the animal back one year later as a bred replacement heifer for exhibit at the NILE Stock Show.
The purpose of the program is to help the participant start his or her own cattle herd.
The NILE partners with Bill Oliver Horsemanship for the NILE Colt Classic to teach training and horsemanship skills. It has a similar goal as the Merit Heifer Program of helping to launch youth into owning their first horse.
Among NILE programs is another that provides for internships through which 10 college students are selected to help in the production of the annual NILE Stock Show & Rodeo. Besides exposing them to the agriculture world it gives them hands-on experience in management, organization, media, marketing and communications.