Like so many in Woodward, Oklahoma, Riley Pagett grew up on his family’s farm, not knowing the impact his small-town roots would have on his life or that his path would lead him to the nation’s capital.
“I can’t think of a memory from my childhood that doesn’t involve the farm or sitting around the kitchen talking agriculture with my grandparents,” Pagett said.
He got involved early with the National FFA Organization, a premier youth organization that helps members prepare for leadership roles and careers in the science, business and technology of agriculture. Pagett viewed joining the organization as a rite of passage for growing up in western Oklahoma.
“A lot of people in Woodward are members of FFA,” he said. “It’s like playing a sport in some areas of the country or joining the band. It was something that most people did, and it was an easy connection for me.”
During his senior year of high school, Pagett was elected as a state FFA officer. In Oklahoma, state officers serve during their freshman year in college. For Pagett and the other state officers, the college of choice was an easy decision.
“My whole team went to Oklahoma State and majored in agriculture,” he said. “It’s
kind of an unspoken rule that you attend OSU.”
Pagett also grew up in a family full of OSU Cowboys. His grandfather, dad and two older sisters all went to OSU. He was drawn to the strong tradition of the university.
“I would say the three things that really took me to OSU were family, Oklahoma State’s
legacy in agriculture, and FFA,” Pagett said.
He had his eye on serving the FFA at a national level. During his sophomore year, he ran for state FFA president but lost.
“I didn’t feel like it was time for me to be finished,” he said. “I just didn’t think that my time in the blue jacket was done.”
Pagett ran for national FFA office during his junior year. Typically, one person from each state is selected annually to be the national officer candidate, and Pagett was chosen as Oklahoma’s candidate for two years. His first campaign ended in defeat, but he won his second attempt.
Pagett served as national FFA president in 2010.
“Without a doubt, I know the reason that I was elected was because Oklahoma State
trained me and
developed my skills for success,” Pagett said. “I think back on my time at OSU and how lucky and truly blessed I was to be involved with a university that cared so much about my professional growth.”
Pagett graduated in December 2012 and wanted to go on to law school. The summer before his classwork began at American University Washington College of Law, Pagett served as a staff assistant for the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture in Washington, D.C., where he gained valuable experience through working on the 2014 Farm Bill.
“Being a part of the Farm Bill and knowing the kind of implications it would have on people like my dad and mom was a really cool and fulfilling experience,” he said.
Pagett went on to serve as a clerk and legislative assistant for the House Agriculture Committee and had a brief stint as a legislative staff member for Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma. Soon after taking that position, a familiar organization would return to Pagett’s life.
“The National FFA called about seven or eight months into my time with Sen. Lankford,” Pagett said. “They were looking for someone to help with their government relations portfolio.”
In September 2015, he became the director of advocacy and government relations for the National FFA. In this role, he helped establish and manage relationships with government agencies, legislators and nonprofit organizations — and came full circle with the organization that was so important to his upbringing.
“We did some really awesome things,” Pagett said. “We were able to reauthorize the Perkins legislation, which commits funding to career and technical education courses and programs for students.”
Pagett and his team also helped revise the National FFA’s federal charter, which had not been revised since the 1950s. He served in this role until April 2019.
Since then, Pagett has been with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the chief of staff for the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.
“Our mission is to develop and maintain partnerships focused on solutions to challenges facing rural and underserved communities in the United States,” Pagett said. “We want to connect those communities to the education tools and resources available to them through USDA programs and initiatives."
In this role, Pagett gets to benefit areas of the country that may not otherwise get attention. He also works with minority education institutions, faith-based organizations and disadvantaged farmers to help them access available resources.
“I think if we can foster a sense of hope and opportunity or create some kind of wealth or assistance for rural America, that is enough for me to wake up in the morning,” he said. “Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s motto for the USDA is ‘Do Right and Feed Everyone.’ If we make every decision knowing that we’re doing right by people, and at the end of the day we’re helping feed people, then that is a good mantra to live by.”
Pagett’s impact on the future of agriculture and his success in Washington can be traced back to his time at OSU.
“I think a big part of my time in the nation’s capital, and something that I have been really proud of, is that I have been able to talk about the confidence and skills I learned as an Oklahoma State student,” Pagett said. “I always knew OSU had an influence in the agricultural community, but I now know that we are not only good at research, we’re great at instilling confidence in young people.”