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Growing new voices in farming

Farmer leadership programs pay off

Some people may be born to lead. But most of us need a little help.

Jarrod Bowser got his start through a young farmer leadership program in 2011-2013, and if he follows the usual path, you’ll see more of him in the future. Richard Fordyce attended similar programs 25 years ago and today serves as Missouri’s director of agriculture. Other graduates have moved on to key positions ranging from farm and commodity group presidencies to seats in the state house and Congress.

Bowser, who raises cattle, corn, wheat, sorghum and soybeans with his brother Nick near Holton, Kansas, took part in Kansas Agriculture and Rural Leadership (KARL) and Kansas Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers (YF&R).

Fordyce, who raises cattle, corn and soybeans at Bethany, Missouri, is an alumnus of the Missouri Farm Bureau YF&R and Missouri Agricultural Leadership of Tomorrow (ALOT).

“It’s all about your network and the ability to lead,” Fordyce said. “The relationships I developed over the last 25 years serve me well every single day. I grew up with many of the leaders in our industry today.”
Bowser already sees benefits. “The number one thing I got out of KARL was the connections I made with my classmates and others I met through the program,” Bowser said. “I keep in touch, and I keep running into them.”

While YF&R can take you to the state and national level, KARL and ALOT transport you across the globe. During his two-year stint in KARL, Bowser attended 10 three-day classroom sessions across Kansas, a one-week policy study tour of Washington, D.C., and a two-week farm tour in Peru. Fordyce made a similar commitment to ALOT sessions in Missouri, Washington and the United Kingdom.

“Producers should have the opportunity to see who they’re competing with globally and who your customers are,” Bowser said. “As you step from the class to becoming a leader, you are better informed to make better decisions.”

Build a network
YF&R welcomes couples, and Fordyce enjoyed the program with his wife Renee in 1991 when he was 25. “We were searching for something to be involved in,” Fordyce said. “We made lifelong friends with common interests and goals.”

Over the years, Fordyce moved on to significant posts in the Farm Bureau, the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, the United Soybean Board and the state Soil and Water Districts Commission. He’s served on advisory groups to three members of Congress.

Fordyce gives back to programs that got him started. Kristin Perry, executive director of Missouri ALOT, reports that the current ALOT class met with Fordyce in March. “He continues to plug ALOT in speeches, and you couldn’t ask for a better advertisement,” she said.

Earn your way in
If you want to participate in programs like KARL, ALOT and state and national levels of YF&R, you may face stiff competition.

Thirty people participate in each two-year KARL session, and more than 200 were nominated for the current class. So far, 360 people ages 25 to 55 have taken part since KARL’s inception in 1990.

Each Missouri ALOT class selects 26 young farmers from a field of up to 60 nominees. ALOT connects the current class to 400 alumni.

“The first thing we look for is passion for agriculture,” Perry said. “We look for the best and the brightest. Our mission is to improve our industry and rural communities, and we want people to use their training to do that. We want to build leaders, not resumes.”

YF&R programs are more inclusive, and focus on young people who are active in their county Farm Bureau. Missouri and Kansas YF&R conferences are the largest in the country, with about 600 attendees each year in each state.

No matter which leader development path you take, these are not popularity contests. You earn your way in by being involved. Bowser competed in a Farm Bureau tractor pull as a kid, went through FFA and moved into the Farm Bureau collegiate program at Kansas State. He and his wife Sarah competed for national YF&R achievement awards, winning a trip to the American Farm Bureau convention in Nashville along with a tractor, a chainsaw and cash. The Kansas Farm Bureau recently designated the Bowsers as a Farm Family of the Year, earning them an agricultural tour of California.

Today, Bowser is president of the Jackson County Conservation District. “We no-till everything, our cover crops are working, and we’re finding new ways to maintain and improve soil health,” Bowser said.
As Fordyce points out, the industry relies on young leadership programs to identify and develop skills in up-and-coming farmers who can tell the story of agriculture—including a commitment to conservation.

Stick your toe in the water
You can nominate yourself or others can nominate you for most leader development programs. With KARL and ALOT, and with higher levels in YF&R, an alumni committee interviews and selects candidates based on leadership potential, and strives for geographic balance among the candidates. While YF&R focuses on producers, ALOT and KARL also include people involved in ag-related industries such as sales, journalism, farm supply and services, equipment and co-ops. The number of women involved is on the rise.

The programs don’t come cheap. KARL costs $600,000 per class, or $20,000 per participant, with most coming from corporate and individual contributions. Each participant pays $2,000 in tuition. ALOT raises more than $200,000 each year, and participants kick in up to $5,000.

Leader development programs require a big commitment in terms of time and money, but Fordyce and Bowser recommend taking the plunge.

“I encourage young people to raise their hands to volunteer for opportunities like this,” Fordyce said. “You may not succeed, but you definitely won’t be successful if you don’t step up.”
Bowser and his wife Sarah had a baby in August. Considering this lifestyle change, Bowser is approaching his leadership opportunities one day at a time. But he hints at the future: “We’re committed to sustaining our farm, investing in our community and building our industry.”

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