Soy Leadership Programs Foster Strong Ag Advocates

Feb 20, 2019

By Joe Scott • From Winter 2019 American Soybean Magazine

Whether it’s advocating for good farm policies or positive trade agreements, or correcting misperceptions about farming methods or products, agriculture has always needed strong leaders.

The American Soybean Association (ASA) and its corporate partners have committed to training leaders who can take up the challenges farming’s future has to offer. Past participants in ASA training programs have gone on to serve on state associations and national boards, been elected to local, state, and federal positions, and served in regulatory capacities.

Following are four opportunities for leadership training offered by ASA and its corporate co-sponsors.

Leadership At Its Best

Leadership At Its Best participants discuss how to address legislative issues, interact with the media, manage diverse communications styles, plan and strategize for the future, and improve productivity.

This program is for current directors or committee chairs of state soybean associations who have a strong desire to assume top leadership positions.

The training sessions cover advanced leadership, agricultural issues, communications and media training. Part of the training takes place in Washington, D.C., and includes Capitol Hill visits. Many states have a selection process to determine who will represent their state at the Leadership At Its Best program.

Syngenta partners with ASA to sponsor and lead the training sessions. Laura Peterson, head of federal government and industry relations for Syngenta, said there are many opportunities where growers may advocate for their farms, whether it’s speaking on government issues, talking to the media, or engaging with people who share different viewpoints.

“With a little training, they will be more equipped and confident to handle situations and changes we see across the ag food chain. They’ll do what they do best—provide impact on legislative, regulatory and societal issues by being a greater voice for agriculture,” Peterson said.

She added that farmers are some of the best advocates on these tough issues. “They’re running their businesses, they’re close to the ground, they’re involved in so many decisions and moving parts such as soil and water quality issues, agronomy, legal and tax questions, short and long-term planning, marketing, and using digital tools—they’re on the forefront of technological advancements. They’re truly handling many issues at once,” Peterson said. “Growers’ credibility is very high because they are so hands-on.”

Ag Voices of the Future

Ag Voices of the Future students learn more about the regulatory process during a presentation by Sheryl Kunickis, director, Office of Pest Management Policy at USDA in Washington, D.C., during their training.

This training program is targeted at young people who want to improve their understanding of major policy issues impacting soybean farmers.

“The idea is to bring young people to Washington, D.C., and talk about agricultural policy or regulatory policy, discuss the issues being faced in agriculture,” said Jeff Smith, industry affairs manager for Valent U.S.A. “The end goal is to get them to participate in political discussion and decision making at a federal level.”

Valent is the ASA’s corporate partner for Ag Voices of the Future.

While the program targets college students ages 18-20, older students also are considered for the Ag Voices program.

“There are only a few members of Congress who have any connection to agriculture,” Smith explained. “Most of them are two or three generations removed from the farm, but they’re telling farmers how to grow crops and they pass regulations farmers have to abide by. If we get more people with farming backgrounds who help make decisions about farming, the better off we’ll be.”

During the training, participants meet with their legislators and do some lobbying. Smith said the program helps prepare students to become legislative aides, U.S. Department of Agriculture or Food and Drug Administration employees, or legislators.

The students aren’t forgotten once they leave the program. Smith said they monitor those who complete the program for the next three to four years. “We’ll help them along in their careers, recommend them for internships, provide references, write them letters of recommendation,” Smith said.

Advocacy Communications Team (ACT)

Advocacy Communications Team participants like Amanda Heilman of Maryland are active on social media and receive training to hone their messages both online and in live interviews. Photo courtesy of Maryland Soybean Board

This training program seeks soybean farmers with a passion for interacting with consumers and the media to spread accurate messages about modern agriculture. ACT teammates are spread across 30 soybean-growing states and help the ASA respond to issues at national, regional and local levels.

Lee Hall, industry relations lead for Bayer Crop Science, said the ACT program is not only an important media tool, but also a way to help support the entire ag industry. Bayer is ASA’s co-sponsor for the training.

“We offer participants media training, going over some of the best practices on how to engage media or talk one-on-one, whether it’s with a neighbor or someone sitting side-by-side with them on an airplane, or speaking with a representative from their state or a larger audience on social media,” Hall said. “We help them make sure their message is on point, clear, concise, and delivered in a way they can be proud of. That takes practice.”

During the program, the training team interviews participants on camera and demonstrates on video how the participants improve as they progress through the training. Hall said the training helps participants shore up any weaknesses they may have and helps them get their message across during an interview, focusing on their talking points.

Participants represent a wide range of age and experience.

“We see technically-savvy participants help mentor the less experienced participants on social media,” he said. “It’s nice to see a millennial showing someone how to put a tweet together or how Instagram works. The more mature, experienced participants may have more in terms of content they can share with younger participants.”

Young Leader Program

Young Leaders attend Phase II of their training in conjunction with Commodity Classic, which provides another opportunity for networking with other leaders in the soybean industry. Photo by Joe Murphy

This training, co-sponsored by Corteva Agriscience, is a two-part educational program for individuals and couples who are active farmers. The Young Leader Program is ASA’s longest running leadership program, founded in 1984 to find and train new leaders. Participants commit to attend two training sessions.

The program is leadership focused with components on communications and issues information. Networking is also a strong aspect of the program.

The participants are in an environment where they are with other growers and can talk about their farming operations and learn from each other. The program often results in many new friendships developing.

In addition to individual farmer participants, the program also is open to couples who farm together.

One of the key advantages of recognizing and training both partners at the same time is that there is not an information gap. They are each experiencing the training firsthand. Which means they are then able to take those skills and what they have learned and working together find ways to apply it to their operation.

The 35-year-old program has evolved over time and continues to provide strong agricultural leaders.

There have been people who have gone through the Young Leader training and later run for political office or serve in state government. As is the case with the current director of the Nebraska Department of agriculture and the governor of South Dakota, who both have gone through the Young Leader program.