Thank you! What a wonderful convention we have here today! As I look around Freedom Hall, I am so hopeful about our nation's future.
In this crowd of 15,000 strong are the future leaders of America. I see future farmers and ranchers--and so much more.
We have future physicians and professors here. We have biologists and biochemists, lawmakers and lawyers. We have technology experts and teachers, artists and athletes. Among you are future environmental engineers and energy entrepreneurs.
Look around you and you will see something else. You will feel a shared recognition of the power of education to lift the human spirit, to broaden horizons, to bridge differences.
My message to you today is simple. Our nation needs your skills, your passion, your compassion, and your talents to compete and prosper in a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy.
To thrive, our communities need your leadership and commitment to civic engagement. And our families need you to succeed in college and careers--so that one day you can support your own families and strengthen your own community.
Education is like a tree that bears fruit. It is not planted just so it can grow, be harvested, and left to wither. With hard work, education takes roots. It replenishes. It nurtures a lifelong love of learning. And it transforms the opportunities a family has for generations to come.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. And I've had to get schooled myself about agricultural education.
I've loved that opportunity, and I'll tell you what I've learned.
I've learned that agricultural education is vital to the future of American prosperity.
I've learned that agricultural educators face unique challenges--but that they also can tap into unique strengths within their tight-knit communities.
I've learned that agricultural education is very much about the jobs of the future--and not a backwards-looking curriculum to preserve the past.
I love hearing about FFA chapters--about their innovative experiential learning projects, their cutting-edge explorations of agricultural sciences, and their deep-seated commitment to service learning and developing leaders.
Not far from here, in Taylorsville, Kentucky, the Spencer County High School FFA won the FFA's first-ever National Model of Excellence award a year ago. Is the Spencer County High FFA here? Please stand! Give them a hand.
Even though Spencer County is located near Louisville, and has limited direct access to agriculture, its high school chapter is more than 250 members strong!
Spencer High has kept agricultural education vital by moving it beyond the simple study of traditional crops in the region, like tobacco.
Instead, FFA members take classes in aquaculture and study aquatic plant and animal morphology. They study greenhouse technology--including greenhouse structures and environmental regulations of greenhouses.
FFA leaders at the chapter find ways to make agricultural education fun, engaging, and relevant. Each year, eighth graders from the middle school come to the high school for an Ag-Arithmetic Day. To show the visiting eighth graders that agricultural education is really about high-level academic skills, FFA members ask the eighth-graders to determine the probability of getting a certain kind of Koi color in the school's aquaculture center.
And where is our chapter from Central Hardin, Kentucky?
Its FFA team members are performing service learning and spreading awareness of hunger. They educate Kentucky National Guardsmen about gardening, so the Guardsmen can take that knowledge with them to Afghanistan, where they are doing agricultural development work.
In Holcomb, Kansas, sophomore FFA member Maggie Roth has sent up a fantastic service learning project. Is Maggie Roth here?
Maggie is working with the Pink Pumpkin Patch Foundation to plant pink pumpkins. Her FFA chapter donates half of the proceeds from their sale to the fight against breast cancer.
But Maggie didn't just limit her project to Holcomb--or even to Kansas. She contacted as many FFA state officers as possible--and reports that at least 40 states now have both FFA and 4-H chapters involved in the pink pumpkin fund-raising effort.
I loved learning about some of the Agriscience finalists for this year's FFA's American Star Awards. Jacob Schindler, of the Lowndes County High School FFA chapter in Valdosta, Georgia, has had a long-time fascination with, of all things, kudzu--the famous noxious, invasive vine. Jacob, are you here today?
Let me take a minute and tell you a little bit about Jacob and how his mind works. As a sixth grader, he theorized that if he introduced kudzu to the surface of Mars, he would be able to convert the planet's high concentrations of carbon dioxide into oxygen to make Mars more habitable for humans. Jacob, if I ever go to Mars, I'm taking you with me!
His mom and his science teacher urged him to think a little more locally-- maybe think about kudzu here on Earth!
So he started testing the effect of gasses on kudzu and developed his research into his FFA-required supervised agricultural experiment. By his senior year, he had a patent pending on a drilling apparatus for kudzu control.
He is now working on a site in North Carolina that needs an environmentally-friendly method for eradicating kudzu. The aim is to eliminate 23 acres of kudzu to help develop an ecofriendly recreational park.
Other award finalists are exploring fascinating, innovative frontiers in the agricultural sciences. One is applying statistical analysis to identify the nitrogen inhibitors that produce the highest yields of corn, rice, and potatoes. Another finalist is examining the effect of Vitamin E on the stress levels of pigs.
Now, none of these budding stars in the agricultural sciences, and none of the FFA members or teachers here today have reached this point in their lives just by themselves--none of us do. On your journey, there was someone who helped--a parent, a teacher, a coach, or a friend. And often some program gave you a helping hand.
Please never forget to thank those people that are helping you fulfill your dreams. It will mean more to them than you know. And, as you pursue your education, we want to do everything we can to be a good partner.
We must continue to create educational access for rural students in ways that expand opportunities for the rest of your lives.
Let me tell you what we are doing.
We simplified the FAFSA financial aid form for college, and the number of students who successfully completed the FAFSA form jumped by about 50 percent in the past four years.
Simply by eliminating subsidies for banks, we were able to put about $40 billion into expanding Pell Grants. Pell Grant scholarships that help students go to college are one of the biggest economic development tools for rural areas. And we did that without going back to taxpayers for a nickel.
Community colleges are so important to rural America. And the number of students enrolled in rural community colleges is up by 267,000 students since 2008.
Over the past four years, that is 267,000 more people who are getting their shot at the American Dream--and the opportunity to thrive in a globally competitive world.
As a nation, we still have a long way to go before we reach President Obama's goal of connecting 99 percent of America's students to high-speed Internet.
But we are making national progress. The expansion and upgrading of broadband service in the last four years will reach more than 10,000 schools with 2.5 million children in 43 states.
This expansion of broadband access is beginning to transform educational opportunity in small-towns and rural areas all across America.
A high-speed Internet connection can enable students to take online courses and gain access to cutting-edge research at universities. It can bring AP classes and foreign language classes to small schools with limited resources. And it can help transform your career opportunities.
I loved learning about the FFA's Agricultural Career Network. AgCN is a great online database portal that enables FFA members to shape their academic and career pursuits by building an online portfolio, finding internships, and connecting directly with employers and career mentors.
So these are all areas where rural and small-town America is making real progress, and innovating in creative ways.
And I am hopeful that Washington can again start making progress on issues that affect your lives and rural communities. Congress must get past its current dysfunction--and start to work together to help the country.
One of President Obama's top three legislative priorities right now is for Congress to pass a comprehensive Food, Farm, and Jobs bill.
The President and my good friend, Secretary Vilsack, recognize that the Farm Bill debate is especially important for the future of today's young people, who will be the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
And just as FFA is about so much more than just farming and ranching, the Farm bill is as well. It's a food safety bill. It's a research bill. It's a nutrition bill. It's a conservation bill. It's a deficit reduction bill. And it's a job creation bill.
No political party has a monopoly on good ideas. And the good news is that we're starting to see some promising signs of a return to bipartisan consensus on the farm bill in Congress.
The truth is that as a nation we have so much need for improvement in virtually every sector of society, whether it is education, agriculture, the environment, or health care.
Visionary advocates and leaders, like those budding FFA agriscience stars, can help drive those big changes for the better.
Five years ago, many folks in Washington said it was impossible to reform our health insurance system.
Now, the rollout of the health care website has clearly been troubled, and that is unacceptable. But I also have no doubt that those website problems can be fixed--and that in the long view, the Affordable Care Act will be of real benefit to young people across our country. We can still do big things as a nation.
When young adults go to work or back to school, they will no longer be denied health coverage for a preexisting condition like diabetes. They will no longer get kicked off their parents' health care plan as soon as they graduate from college.
And you'll never again have to choose between, say, saving for a home or using your savings to pay for a health emergency.
Now, not everyone is going to be a leader who helps to transform agriculture or health care. But everyone has something to contribute--to their communities, to the country, and to the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.
For years, FFA members have distinguished themselves as leaders and achievers in their communities. Please continue to set that example. Continue to be the great role models that you already are!
We need your idealism, your service, your get-it-done attitude, and your commitment to your own education. Make sure to get your certificate, your associates' degrees or your bachelor's degree.
Our nation needs the students and teachers who are here today to influence the next generation to pursue college and career training.
We need you to lead by example. Please tell your aunts and uncles and reinforce with friends who didn't get their certificate or degree, the importance of returning to school. It is never too late to get an education.
Rural America needs you to become the next generation of industry leaders in agriculture--who not only perfect sustainable agriculture but grow sustainable rural communities.
We need your creativity to develop the next generation of economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, and consumers in the food, fiber, and natural resources system.
We need you to help lead the fight to eradicate hunger--and to be life-long food security advocates. On Monday, I travel to Haiti. The number of children who grow up hungry there is devastating.
We need you to play a leading role in reducing our nation's carbon footprint through the use of second-generation biofuels and energy-efficient tillage methods.
And I absolutely want to encourage FFA members to think about becoming teachers and coming back to your communities to transform children's lives through educational opportunity. In the next four to six years, as many as one million new teaching positions will become available as Baby Boomers retire.
If you want to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of children, if you want to increase social mobility and help people escape poverty, teaching is a unique call to service.
As the FFA's National Teach Ag Campaign has highlighted, more than 700 of the nation's 10,000 agriculture teachers are expected to retire in the next three years--and demand for agriculture teachers already exceeds supply.
We can never do enough to recognize and reward great teachers. We need to cheer for them, just as we cheer for athletes.
So, I wonder if we could just pause for a moment, and ask all the teachers and administrators here today to please stand to be recognized.
Please give them a huge round of applause. Thank you for everything you do!
I think we all know that the nation's interest in food nutrition and horticulture has exploded in recent years. Agricultural education has even reached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, back in D.C. America's most famous vegetable garden is now at the White House.
I'm talking of course about First Lady Michelle Obama's vegetable garden, planted with the help of many school children.
Her campaign to get children to eat healthy, exercise, and reduce obesity is now part of a national dialogue both in Congress and at dinner tables across the country.
The First Lady's efforts even inspired my family to plant some vegetables in our modest yard and on the back porch at our house in Virginia. We planted tomatoes, peppers, basil, strawberries, and eggplant.
Let me just say this: The First Lady's vegetable garden produced 1,000 pounds of produce. The harvest from our family vegetable garden will never be a threat to that record. We definitely could have used your knowledge--and green thumbs.
But I'd add that our little produce project was a huge hit with our daughter, Claire, who was eight at the time, and our then six-year old son, Ryan. They started acting like budding FFA members.
They were out measuring the height of the plants. They started eating more vegetables. For the first time, my wife started packing sweet peppers in their lunches.
I'll admit it did take us longer than it should have to figure out it was Ryan who was nibbling the peppers on the back porch. The good name of our local squirrels has been cleared.
Seriously, though, it has been amazing to see how much fun they had, and to watch them start to ask for snacks of carrots and tomatoes, rather than chips of cookies.
Now, when you leave here today, I hope you will take with you a message of the power and importance of education. In America, your zip code or your socioeconomic status should never, ever determine the quality of your education.
Our nation's founders, from Thomas Jefferson on, understood this truth.
It was Jefferson who favored a school system "which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest."
It was Jefferson who thought that an educated citizenry, civic knowledge, and public service were the essential cornerstones of democratic government.
Jefferson reminds us that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They can help bridge the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it should be.
I challenge you--be one of those leaders. Help make the world as it should be.