In the barn at Hardy Murphy Coliseum, just outside of the arena, Keith and Piper Dudley spent Friday afternoon much the same way Piper spent most of her summer, spring and winter.
Keith ran a pair of hair clippers across the head of the steers and heifers in preparation for  Saturday’s shows while Piper — a sophomore at Dickson — fed, watered, brushed and otherwise tended to her animals – much as she’s done every day and night since taking ownership of the animal at the start of the show season.
While most students may struggle to look past the current semester, Piper, and other youth that participate in FFA and 4H, have an opportunity to prepare for life after high school, using the skills learned pursuing a career in agriculture.
“It’s a game changer for a lot of people,” Keith Dudley said. “They are there everyday. It teaches them responsibility. Teaches them a trade, teaches them how to work.”
Piper — who first started showing goats in elementary school before moving on to cattle -- plans to pursue a career as a veterinarian when she graduates. But, in the meantime, she gets to learn first-hand the rewards that hard work and determination can bring.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but I love doing it,” Piper Dudley said.
Piper Dudley may very well follow in the footsteps of countless other women in agriculture, leveraging her love for animals and the skills she’s developed into a fulfilling, rewarding career.
Caitlin Hebbert got a similar start on a ranch in west Texas. Her father was the ranch manager, and while the area wasn’t populated enough for an FFA program, Hebbert, who was home schooled, did participate in 4H.
Hebbert originally pursued an education as a veterinarian, but later changed direction in grad school. Now she works as a livestock consultant through the Noble Research Institute where she helps ranchers and farmers implement best practices and problem solve,  among other functions.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know that the position existed,” Hebbert said. “I found Noble online and after looking at the description I said, ‘man, this is exactly what I want to do.’ The big thing for me was making connections.”  
Area youth have a leg up when it comes to those connections. Noble currently provides a junior beef program that allows student ranchers an avenue to market their livestock. Previously, animals not sold at sales would often be sold below market value or processed privately.
“It gives the kids an outlet for their animals,” Hebbert said. “We will take that animal to a processor, and the kid receives a check for the carcass merit of the animal, and the kids get rewarded for the quality of the animal. I tell these students that even though they are only showing 2-3 animals, that animal is going into the supply chain. You are feeding someone’s family. You may not be sending 200 head to market, but you are contributing. You are a part of the beef industry.”
The Noble Research Institute, like nearly every industry in the country today, has a number of open positions, 21 as of Friday, waiting for the right candidates.
“We are in a generational transition,” Hebbert said. “There is difficulty finding people that want to do the work. There are going to be jobs that are 9-5, but the heart of agriculture, if you talk to any ranch manager, their number one difficulty is finding people who will work. I can name five guys right now that are trying to hire. And not because they don’t have help, but because they don’t have good help.”
While most careers in agriculture require prolonged exposure to harsh, or challenging environments, not all do.
“When I was young, I didn’t think about all the jobs that are available in agriculture. There are research positions, salesmen, drug reps, all kinds of areas that apply to agriculture that most people don’t think about,” Brooks Braunagel said. “There is more than just raising cattle and being a vet. When I was growing up, I didn’t think I could get through vet school, but I still wanted to be around cattle. There are just so many opportunities in this field, with a lot of them filled by people on their way out. A lot of people in their 60s and 70s. If you go to a sale barn, the average age group is probably 65 and up.”
Braunagel, who participated in FFA while growing up on a ranch in Dickson, now works in farm operations for Noble, he also maintains a personal stock of cattle on his family’s ranch.
“You have to be passionate about it,” Hebbert said. “There is this romantic side of agriculture. But sometimes it’s hard and there is not always a lot of money in it. When there is, it’s few and far between. A lot of ranchers get one paycheck a year. There are a lot of things out of your control. That’s something that can be stressful, but the people involved in it are passionate about what they do.”
While career opportunities in agriculture continue to be expansive, they aren’t limited exclusively to farming, ranching or veterinarians.  
On the research side of the Noble Research Institute, scientists work on projects that can take up to 15 years to complete, with success not guaranteed. Something the long-game mentality of showing livestock in school can help to instill.
“It can be tedious, hard work with long hours,” Sarah Krogman, research associate at Noble Research Institute, said. “If you don’t see the end goal, it can be really hard to go out everyday. So you have to understand when you go into this kind of job that the work may be difficult. You have to be able to see that the end is coming. But it’s fun to do, it’s fulfilling. And the variety you get from it is great.”
From day to day, Krogman’s job functions may change. Some days she may be walking rows of legumes checking for various indicators or identifiers, harvesting the crop or collecting DNA, while other days she may be designing or conducting an experiment.
“It’s never boring. I am never bored at my job,” Krogman said. “You feel like you have a purpose. Like you are making a difference. I know the things I’m doing here are going to help other people.”
Krogman grew up in a city and discovered Noble by chance. While her late introduction into the agrarian culture isn’t uncommon, her experience may be indicative of the growing disconnect between rural and urban America.
“I grew up in a city, so I never thought about where my food came from, a lot of people don’t,” Krogman said.
While it may be hard for some to comprehend, others are well aware that their cheeseburger once mooed and their chicken nuggets once squawked. Feeding the estimated 7.53 billion people in the world is no small task, and the work behind it, while often hard and usually dirty, can be more than most are willing to do.
“You have to be passionate about what you are doing,” Braunagel  said. “There are a lot of days where there will be long hours and you don’t feel like you are getting anything out of it. But when it all comes together, that is when it’s worth it. When you get to see the end result. When you see that this isn’t just a 9-5 job, it’s your life.”