Spend much time talking to Gayle Fortenberry, and her dual passions quickly rise to the surface: agriculture and her students. For Fortenberry, nothing matches the satisfaction of watching her former students thrive in college and careers¬—especially when those careers lead them back to the farm.
Fortenberry’s passion for agriculture dates back to her childhood. Growing up in rural Mississippi Fortenberry’s father owned farmland, and she spent many childhood days helping out on the family land. When she reached high school, Fortenberry joined FFA, rising up to the rank of state secretary during her freshman year of college at Mississippi State University.
“The time I spent in FFA really developed my passion for agriculture,” explained Fortenberry. “I raised beef cattle and showed them at livestock shows. When I became a state officer, I got the opportunity to plan workshops and mentor younger FFA students. I really loved the whole experience!”
After completing bachelor’s degrees in agriculture communications and agriculture education, Fortenberry started her career at Columbus High School, where she taught agriculture for 16 years.
“I loved working with students,” remembered Fortenberry. “It was so rewarding to watch them grow and achieve their goals.”
In her current role as a project manager on the RCU’s curriculum team, Fortenberry oversees the development of agriculture curricula for Mississippi’s career and technical education (CTE) programs. Fortenberry is particularly excited about the current revision of Mississippi’s Agriculture and Environmental Science and Technology (AEST) curriculum, which hasn’t seen a major update since 2010. The AEST curriculum will allow students to learn about the breadth of the agriculture industry while also focusing on one or two specific pathways, such as agribusiness and entrepreneurship, which can be customized by local industry needs and student interests.
“One of the things that gets me most excited about work is the AEST curriculum revision,” said Fortenberry. “When I was teaching, I was part of the pilot for Mississippi’s very first AEST program, so it’s great to see the progress that’s been made. This new AEST curriculum will be one of the most unique curriculum models in all of Mississippi CTE.”
Prior to joining the RCU, Fortenberry was the state FFA coordinator for Mississippi, and she remains passionate about FFA’s role in training young people to be leaders in their field, noting its focus not just on technical skills in agriculture but also on professional skills like public speaking, interviewing, and peer feedback.
“FFA has so many benefits for students,” explained Fortenberry. “It teaches leadership and gives students a sense of belonging. Even though participants come from a wide variety of backgrounds, they’re united around a shared passion for agriculture.”
As Fortenberry is quick to point out, agriculture remains a primary driver of Mississippi’s economy: 31% of Mississippi’s workforce works in an agriculture-related field. Therefore, equipping the future workforce with the knowledge and tools they need to keep driving the agriculture field forward is a must.
“Mississippi agriculture is so diverse,” explained Fortenberry. “There will always be jobs in that field, so it’s a great career path for students to enter. The [agriculture] industry in Mississippi is like a big family, with all the organizations working together, regardless of which crop they grow.”
At the end of the day, Fortenberry’s goal is to help new generations of agriculture students build the foundational skills they need to embark on their careers. And she believes teachers hold the key for helping their students set off down the right path.
“My advice to teachers is to enjoy what you do and make sure you’re connecting with your students,” said Fortenberry. “The most important thing is cultivating strong relationships. We can be our students’ cheerleaders, encouraging them to aim for what they want, not what others want for them.”
Fortenberry herself draws satisfaction from reflecting on the lives she’s reached.
“There can be tough days and sad stories, but they’re far outweighed by the successes,” said Fortenberry. “There are many students I feel like I made a big impact on, and not just academically. It makes me so happy to see what they’re up to now and help celebrate their successes and share their life milestones. It’s almost like I have extra children!”