Ray Cunningham: POWER of Youth

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Ray Cunningham lives on his family’s beef farm near Salem in Agri-Ready Designated Dent County. His FFA Supervised Agriculture Experience (SAE) is Beef Production Placement for Cunningham Livestock, the family operation. He helps manage 600 cattle, and also owns his own small herd of registered polled Herefords and Simmentals that he has developed from heifer calves he has shown at fairs through past summers. Ray is very active in his local 4-H club with the livestock judging team and beef, welding, and vet science projects and was recently elected to serve as the 2023-2024 president of the Salem FFA Chapter. There is no doubt that Ray’s involvement and commitment to youth agriculture activities made him an excellent candidate for the Missouri Agribusiness Academy.

Ray is one of only thirty Missouri sophomores chosen through a competitive application and interview process to become a part of the 2023 Missouri Agribusiness Academy (MAbA), sponsored and hosted by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Members of the elite class spend a week during the month of June touring a variety of agribusinesses, reunite during the Missouri State Fair, and graduate during the Missouri State FFA Convention the following April. The 2023 Academy Tour focused on the St. Louis area, with an extra trip to the bootheel region.

Ray became aware of MAbA after his dad saw a Facebook post highlighting the opportunity. After spending several evenings refining his application, and then qualifying for an interview round weeks later, Ray said he was “on the edge of his seat” with excitement. He earned a seat as one of only five youth to represent his district of the state.

Ray shared vivid details about what he learned on his summer MAbA tour; those details highlighted a broad-range of specialty industries including rice, potatoes, shrimp, plant science research, finance, and more. Ray’s favorite part of the tour was a day spent at Purina’s Research Farm facility. “My interest was sparked when they shared research they were doing with a herd of cattle on feed ration components, how cost effective they are, and how cost efficient they are with a goal of finding the very best ration for cattlemen to use. Since I live on a cattle farm, it opened my eyes to the importance and need of nutrition specialists in our agriculture industry. I had never considered that as a possibility,” Ray said. 

While the Academy aims to exhibit paths to career success, it also serves as an unforgettable experience that bonds thirty young, excited agriculturists from across Missouri. “I will always appreciate that I was offered the opportunity to understand more about what Missouri agriculture has to offer. In our class, we got to know the next leaders of Missouri agribusiness. I loved hearing their stories and their thoughts on bus rides and at dinner. I am proud to say that we are the next generation of agriculture. My experience was incredible,” Ray said.

Ray is the oldest child of Ted and Ashlee Cunningham. His mom is his 4-H Club Leader and his FFA Advisor is Mrs. Heather Johnson. Ray is a member of the Salem R-80 Football team and is active with his family at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The Cunninghams are members of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association and Missouri Farm Bureau, partners of Missouri Farmers Care.

There have been more than 1,000 youth participants in the Missouri Agribusiness Academy since 1988. To be eligible, students must have completed their sophomore year of high school. They should come from a farming family or be an active member of FFA or 4-H. More information about the Academy can be found here.