June 16 2022 08:00 AM

I followed my dreams and goals even if it wasn’t the most popular route because it’s what I believed in.

While growing up, I felt like an outcast among most of my friends. My father owned a dairy farm, and we made our living milking cows. It was a life that I loved and was passionate about, but most of my friends turned their noses up to it, especially when we were hauling manure.

It never bothered me because I loved what my dad did and was overjoyed to know that one day, I’d do the same. I mean, who else can say that their father feeds the world? My true friends shared in the excitement and joy that I felt by encouraging me and being there for the good and bad. The feeling of being outcasted and looked down on was something I pushed to the back of my mind because I knew who I was and what I wanted to do. However, that feeling re-emerged as I got older and into the dairy industry.

In college, I was blessed to have some truly great professors, advisers, teachers, and mentors. They did their best to go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure we learned material, enjoyed it, and could apply it. However, there was a huge divide in our classes. You were either a show jock/dairy judge, a future vet, a researcher, or on the production agriculture track. I fell into the category of production. I wanted to learn all I could to bring back home and improve my herd through means of nutrition, reproduction, and management. I wanted to work alongside my family and become an intricate part of my operation. I was proud of my accomplishments and looked forward to applying the knowledge I gained, but I still felt like an outcast.

Again, the professors and teachers are not to blame for that feeling. It’s the nature of the beast. If you didn’t show or know any of the “big wigs,” typically, you were kind of ignored or not considered “in” with the group. I remember not having many friends because I didn’t know who this person was or who the judge was for that show or what cow placed first or . . . on and on. None of that mattered to me because none of it applied to my herd or my future plans. If you weren’t “in,” you sat alone just like in high school.

I didn’t let that stop me. I reached out and met folks with the same passion as myself. I surrounded myself with a group that supported, encouraged, and genuinely wanted me to be there. I didn’t change myself; I wanted to be me. I wanted to go home and be the next generation to thrive. Most importantly, I was passionate about my life, and I let that run wild. I didn’t have to go to shows or judge cattle. I didn’t have to like research or try to be a vet to prove I loved my animals. I chose to be me. And that’s all I ever needed to be.

I now give talks to middle school and high school classes locally. I always start off with my name, occupation, and then I ask them, “What are you passionate about?” Most say food or a sport, but once I tell them that my passion is dairy farming and show them pictures of my girls, they are all just as excited about their passion as I am. At the end of the day, that divide doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you are the one making your plan and doing what is right for you. You are the one that has a dream, a goal, and most importantly, a passion. Follow that passion and do what you love regardless of the rest.

Courtney Henderson

The author is a sixth-generation farmer and fifth-generation dairy producer in southwest Virginia, where she and her family own and operate a 145-head Holstein dairy. Courtney is involved in agriculture organizations throughout her community and is a graduate of Virginia Tech.