Odessa Oldham learned the importance of agriculture to Native Americans as a child raising and showing sheep on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. She learned the value of a quality FFA program when, at age 13, her family moved to Lander, Wyoming, and her new advisor helped put her and her siblings on the path to running their own ranch.
Now a senior at the University of Wyoming, Odessa is helping other Native American youth embrace their agricultural roots as a way to build a better future. Odessa spent the past several weeks learning various aspects of ag lending at FCSAmerica. She takes these and other experiences with her as she heads to the second annual Summer Leadership Summit for Native Youth in Food & Agriculture at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Odessa co-founded the program with Janie Hipp, formerly with the Tribal Relations Department at the USDA and now with the Arkansas School of Law.
An early start in ranching
In its first year, the leadership summit provided 44 students representing 23 tribes with an all-expense-paid week in Fayetteville, where they shared their cultures, learned about ag-related careers and developed business plans for small ag enterprises. Seventy-five students from 43 tribes have been chosen to participate in the 2015 summit, July 21 to 25.
Many of the students who attended last year had no ties to agriculture. Many more started the week uncertain about their future, saying they were unlikely to attend college and unsure if they wanted a career in ag.
By the end of the week, Odessa saw a shift. The number of students who said they were likely to continue their education had grown. Several left determined to implement their business plans. A community garden grows on a reservation in California, Odessa says, because summit participants returned home and convinced tribal leaders they had a workable business plan. Two young women from South Dakota have shifted their educational plans to include ag-related studies.
Changing lives through Summer Leadership Summit
Odessa shares her own story to help Native American youth find a place for themselves in agriculture. She tells them about the FFA advisor who urged her and her brother to buy their first heifers. Her FFA experience was so transformative that she works with reservation schools to start their own chapters.
She talks about her father, a veterinarian who grew up on a Wyoming farm. He walked Odessa and her brother through loan process so they could buy seven heifers each. He taught them good nutrition and husbandry practices. He encouraged them to become landowners, sometimes partnering in their purchases.
She talks about the management skills of her mother, whose Navajo lineage includes sheep ranchers, and her maternal grandmother’s push for education. And she talks about her older brother, who heads off to vet school at Washington University this fall. He is the reason their 14 heifers grew into a 600-head operation known as All-Natural Beef and Lamb.
While still in high school, Odessa and her brother expanded their herd to about 40 heifers and were running 400 head for a neighbor. Her brother, working with Dad, devised a business plan to run their own herd, one large enough to pay off their land. Odessa now has 200 head, her brother 200 and an older sister who works in Colorado has 200. Their younger brother, still in high school, also is involved in the ranch. The Oldham family soon will add a wild horse refuge to their many enterprises.
Over the years, Odessa says, her family has taught her a valuable lesson that she imparts to other: It doesn’t matter the job, big or small. In agriculture, everyone’s contribution is important.
Community Service Central to Oldham Family Ranch