AMES, Iowa--Rita Cook likes training horses, showing cattle, marketing crops, speaking out for agriculture . . . and pizza.
She brought those likes to Iowa State University (ISU) where she triple majors in ag business, public service and administration (PSA) and economics. Quite a load for a freshman, but Cook is determined to make a positive difference in the perception Americans have of agriculture.
“There are so many negative connotations of the agricultural industry,” she said, “and most of them are held by people who are at least three generations removed from the farm and have little, if any, understanding of the industry.” She said one of her goals is to promote the ag industry to people who have lost close ties to the land.
Cook’s passion for agriculture began when she was a child. “Growing up I would do whatever I could to go outside and ‘help’ Dad on our farm.” She eagerly learned about both animal agriculture and crop production.
Cook said that Iowa State was the obvious choice for college because of her passion for agriculture and ISU’s many choices within her chosen field. It also was a good choice because of her 4-H ties.
With two former 4-H’ers as parents, Cook wanted to join 4-H from an early age, knowing that she could work with animals. But as a shy 9-year-old, she found her first 4-H meeting to be “terrifying.”
“I believe that the 4-H program is how I overcame the fear” of meeting new people and public speaking, she said. Eventually, Cook took on leadership roles in her club, school and county.
Then she went on a 4-H trip to Washington, D.C., with 50 strangers and “got over my fear in a hurry. I made many good friends that I still keep in contact with.”
4-H also became a support system for her as she gained horsemanship and showmanship skills and developed self-confidence and personal skills. Her family and 4-H leaders “believed in me before I even believed in myself.”
She even became an entrepreneur, starting a horse training business in which she bought, trained and resold horses as well as trained horses for customers.
Just as 4-H reaches out to children, Cook said she would start with children to create positive attitudes toward agriculture. That’s when her thoughts turn to pizza.
“I would help children understand agriculture by starting with the ingredients of a pizza, explaining each ingredient -- how it started with a seed, how the farmer grew it, how a trucker hauled it to the processing plant, how the processing plant turns a tomato into tomato sauce or wheat into flour, how business people market the products to stores, how the grocer displays the products in a store.
“Pizza helps kids understand agriculture and at the same time exposes them to the variety and possibility of careers in agriculture. And you can have 4-H projects in each sector of each ingredient of the pizza.”
When her triple major is completed, Cook plans to enter a career in ag finance or ag communications. No matter where her career takes her, she plans to “overcome those negative connotations people have of the agricultural industry and help with the 4-H program.” And make pizza.