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- TO EXPLAIN HOW THEY LIVE: It’s no secret that every single year, more and more kids leave the farm and the rural areas where they’ve grown up for the bigger cities. Flat out, there is just more opportunity in ST. Louis or Chicago for those young Americans. Even if they want to stay in the ag industry, they have multiple opportunities to work for the Chicago Board of Trade or for Monsanto in the bigger cities than they do in the rural areas. The result is that many of our legislators just don’t know what it is to live on the farm or even in a rural area. Who better to explain farm family life to them, but farmers?
- FARMERS ARE LESS THAN 2 PERCENT OF THE POPULATION: And even among those 2 percent, a majority will never travel to Washington, DC and will never make an appointment to see their elected official. It means so much to those elected officials to see real farmers in their Washington, DC offices – to have someone to ask questions of and to reflect on problems with. Farmers really ought to visit our nation’s capital more often!
- TO EXPLAIN HOW POLICIES MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT WORK: Because legislators aren’t always super aware of rural life or of how to farm, they need farmers in their office to talk them through potential policy ideas. While a farm bill is being debated, for example, farmers need to be available to point out successes or pitfalls of potential policy. How will legislators who have never farmed understand how a policy might really work on an actual farm?
- TO SEE HOW THEY CAN HELP: Sometimes, legislators that really do try hard to represent their district and enact policies that make a difference need help too. An elected official might be trying to do the right thing, but media or other non-supporters in his or her district are swinging the other way, which makes the right thing difficult. Farmers often ask how they can help their Congressman on any potential issues in the district. If a Congressman is genuinely trying to do the right thing for his district, farmers definitely want to help that Congressman so that he or she can remain in office.
- TO DONATE MONEY: It takes money to get elected into Congress and to remain in Congress. Whether that’s right or wrong, farmers will often visit Washington, DC to donate funds to the elected officials who help them on pro-farm and pro-rural life policy initiatives. Farmer leaders want to enable the best Congressman who try to understand agriculture and rural life to remain in office.
- TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE DYNAMICS OF VARIOUS POLICY INITIATIVES: Often when farmers visit Washington, DC, they are able to meet with other national associations, companies, and think tanks to gather information and get a better picture of the dynamics influencing policy decisions. For example, if farmers really want to pass tax reform, they need to meet with other impacted parties to determine how certain tax reforms might work for them. Perhaps there’s a negative impact that the farmers haven’t considered and the policy idea can be changed. Perhaps many associations are in favor of the same tax fix and they can all work together to show Congress why one idea is better than another.
When IL Corn farmer leaders travel to Washington, DC, there is almost no free time! By the time we schedule in meetings with other interested associations and companies, by the time we background ourselves on what’s going on in Washington, DC and meet with our elected officials (all 20 of them!), and by the time we participate in fundraisers for the Congressmen who have helped us, we’re running from 6 am til 9 pm and that’s no exaggeration.
But the work farmers do in D.C. is so important to protecting farm families and rural life.
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Director
If you live in Illinois and are even remotely involved in agriculture, you have most likely heard the Illinois Association FFA convention took place this week. In the agriculture world, that’s a big deal. It’s more than just tons of high school kids walking around in blue corduroy jackets and dress slacks, it is high school students picking the future leaders of American agriculture.
This time of year, nostalgia hits as I begin to reflect on my own FFA days and what those experiences meant to me. Too often people explain FFA as the former title of “Future Farmers of America”, but that is no longer an accurate description of the organization. FFA provides leadership and growth opportunities for high school youth, even those who don’t want to farm.
Throughout my time in FFA, I learned more about myself than I ever could have in a classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing a classroom education, I wouldn’t be pursuing a Master’s degree right now if I didn’t see the value in it, but I think there is much more to be learned about oneself that can’t be figured out until you enter the real world.
I knew what I wanted to do as a career when I was a sophomore in high school, but I wouldn’t have been able to narrow that down without the experiences that FFA allowed me. I had always enjoyed talking, ask anyone who knows me, but I loved presenting to groups. In FFA I could speak to groups about agriculture and opportunities within it. At this point, I knew I had found my life calling, something I had been born to do.
Not everyone has college aspirations, and that is something else I was able to learn through FFA. There is a shortage of skilled workers in the country and FFA is a place where students can try their hand at these skills. In my own family 3 out of 4 kids were headed straight to a four-year university, but the youngest had a different plan, he wanted to weld. Never for a moment were my parents in the least disappointed in his choice. They knew that his skills as a welder were needed the same as mine as a communicator and my sisters’ as teachers.
We aren’t the only family like this, the only ones whose lives had been shaped by opportunities given to us by FFA. Competitions in FFA range from livestock judging to public speaking, business management to forestry, mechanics to parliamentary procedure, and much more. Students can easily find their niche in at least one Career Development Event (CDE) or become a veteran at competitions like myself. In FFA, you learn it isn’t about winning, but getting to experience a taste of the real world in a way that would otherwise not be possible.
At the 89th Annual Illinois Association State FFA Convention that took place this week, officers were many state level CDE competitions were held. In addition, the new major state officers elected will tour the state over the next year on behalf of both Illinois FFA and agriculture. FFA turns students into leaders and gives those leaders avenues to represent the agriculture industry that they hold near and dear.
IL Corn Intern
In a recent News Watch, the Food Production Industry was called to increase their transparency. It pointed out that while the population wants to know more about what is going into their food, there is no one group that helps wholly responsible for this effort.
It’s no secret that consumers are becoming more and more interest in the makeup of their food. A trip to the grocery store once involved choosing between the name and generic brand now involves sifting through a collection of letters and symbols placed on the food all in an attempt to learn a bit more about what is going into their body. This transparency is a right consumer have, but who is ultimately responsible? And who should be making sure the consumers understand the labels in front of them?
One must remember that the average consumer has very little knowledge of how their food is produced. It is easy to blame their lack of knowledge on an absence of effort in finding answers. They don’t spend their days in a field and their nights and weekends discussing yields with their neighbors. Their chosen profession is just as foreign a concept to a farmer.
When an average consumer hears the phrase “all natural” they honestly believe it is better for them, and why wouldn’t they? Farmers use chemicals with names that are hard to pronounce for reasons that a consumer can’t understand. If there is a safer way to get the job done, why isn’t it being done the way? This is where transparency is the job of the agriculture industry.
Increasing industry transparency should be a top priority for producers globally. Agriculture has nothing to cover up. Safe food is produced that feeds a growing population. With the evolution of technology, questions can be answered and experiences can be shared at a much larger speed than ever before.
Americans and the global population want to trust farmers. These men and women represent the heart of the values that are held near to the hearts of the people. They are the foundation and how the country became what it is today. Each and every farmer is responsible for the life of 155 people.
IL Corn Intern
Sam Deal is a local farmer in the Danvers area and serves on the Board of the Danvers Farmers Elevator (DFE) cooperative. A cooperative is a business where a group of farmers comes together to buy and sell crop inputs and commodities in bulk to obtain the best prices. Farmers make the decisions for each cooperative by electing members to their local board. Sam is one of the many farmers who serves on cooperative boards to help run the business.
DFE Cooperative is full-service cooperative with a retail business of agronomic products such as seed, fertilizer, and crop protection products. The business provides grain marketing services and grain storage for members of its business.
Cameron: What is your role as a member of the DFE Cooperative Board?
Sam: I serve on the board of the cooperative and help run the business. I help hire the general manager for the cooperative, who oversees the business. I also examine quarterly financial statements to ensure the business is profitable. From those statements, I help make decisions to spend less money or grow the business. I also have a unique role on the board where I am the Secretary. With that job, I oversee keeping the minutes of the monthly meetings of the board.
Cameron: Why did you choose to be in this role on the DFE Cooperative Board?
Sam: Serving on the board of a local cooperative allows me to help make decisions that are better for my operation, as I am a member of the cooperative itself. Additionally, it allows me to help out my neighbors by listening to their problems and fighting for changes on the local level to help their farming operation out.
Cameron: Can you tell us how the DFE Cooperative impacts the farmers it serves?
Sam: Farmers across Central Illinois utilize DFE Cooperative’s services for agronomic and grain resources. For over 100 years, the business has helped farmers get the best prices, service, and knowledge of their farming operations. Additionally, the cooperative’s grain advantage allows the business to offer higher prices for corn and soybeans due to larger amounts of commodities being sold.
Cameron: What role do you see cooperatives playing in the future of agriculture?
Sam: Cooperatives provide an outlet for farmers for their grain to get a higher price, something that will be needed as the price to a produce a bushel of corn and soybeans rises. I see the cooperative, not only DFE, but all others grow and get bigger to stay competitive.
Iowa State University Graduate
[Originally published: May 26, 2016]
Doug Anderson has been an agriculture teacher for more than 30 years and has spent the majority of those years at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School (PBL) in Paxton, Illinois. He has played an instrumental role in building the Ag Program at PBL and has played an even bigger role in the lives of countless students.
AMANDA: What made you choose to pursue a career in Agricultural Education?
DOUG: I chose teaching agriculture because I love agriculture and I love young people. Teaching agriculture allowed me to make the most of 2 interests I have. Also, I enjoy the variety of what I do each day. I enjoyed the practical skills that can be taught to students and being able to relate those to everyday life. I have enjoyed the competitive aspect of Career Development Events, which I learned to appreciate well after I started my career.
AMANDA: What are some things that stand out that helped you get to where you are at today?
DOUG: I had 2 really good parents that supported me in everything I ever did. My father farmed for the first 10 years of my life which developed my interest in agriculture. When he quit farming, he went to work for a seed corn company and so I spent most of my older growing up years closely connected to the agronomy industry. FFA had a huge impact on my life in helping me develop leadership skills and opportunities to compete outside of athletics. My ag teacher really pushed me and helped me see opportunities that I would not have discovered had it not been for ag education. Lastly, I have had the privilege of working with some great teachers, students, parents, alumni, and community members which all had a part in getting me to this point in my career.
AMANDA: Describe a typical day on the job.
DOUG: I’m not sure there is a typical day, which is a big reason why I have enjoyed my career so much. I’m usually up by 4:30 or 5:00am and at school by 6:45am. We often have an FFA practice for an upcoming contest or event. I teach my classes throughout the day and 1 to 2 and sometimes 3 nights a week, we have some kind of FFA activity whether it be a contest, practice, meeting or leadership workshop, etc.
AMANDA: What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
DOUG: The most rewarding part of my career is seeing students succeed. Success is different for nearly every student. For some, it’s choosing a career that they really like and do well in. For some, it is accomplishing goals in FFA. For others, it’s finding a place to fit in and develop friendships. It is very rewarding to watch kids mature into young adults with a purpose and goals for their future.
Anderson will be retiring at the end of this school year. He has loved the career that he has had and, if given the chance, he would not change a single thing. He is thankful for all that his career has given him and is excited to see what this next phase of life has in store.
Are you considering a career in Agricultural Education?
Illinois State University
Ag in the Classroom Intern
Michael Alston grew up in Michigan and played football at Michigan State University, but never considered that his career would lead him to agriculture. Alston is currently the Associate Administrator of the Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Deputy Manager of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In this role, he is the senior career employee within the RMA.
The RMA is the agency that administers and oversees the federal crop insurance program. This program helps farmers insure their crops against weather losses like tornadoes, droughts, or hail, as well as against total losses from other pests and pressures. The program covers more than $100 billion in liabilities nationwide every year.
Alston oversees the daily operations of the agency, advises the Office of the Secretary on RMA issues and positions, and also ensures the safety and workplace environment of the Washington, DC and field office employees.
Lindsay: What path led you to this position at this time?
Michael: Working here, in this position, has been a 30-year journey. After I graduated from Michigan State University, I took a job with the Justice Department, which led me to live and work overseas. From the Justice Department, I worked for the State Department for a few years, and at that point in my life, some personal factors led me to switch careers and work for the USDA.
At that time, USDA was looking for leaders, and by that time I had developed some good leadership skills so it was a good fit for me. I worked in Springfield, IL as the Deputy Director of that RMA office and then became the Director there. After about 10 years in Springfield, I took a position in Washington, DC working as the Associate Deputy Administrator for Compliance and l later moved to the Deputy Administrator for Insurance Services. At this point in my career, I was overseeing the ten regional offices of the RMA, and working with the 16 private insurance companies and the binding document between the government and those insurance companies. I oversaw that process.
All of those positions in the USDA were essentially leadership positions – making decisions, providing the right information to the right people, ensuring the appropriate work was getting done, and often being strategic about what positions and what work was most important to accomplish a goal.
Lindsay: What do you love most about your job?
Michael: I know at the end of every day that I have helped and worked with someone in rural America.
I have always understood that rural America is the backbone of our country and that a lot of folks don’t understand where food comes from. When you have the opportunity to travel overseas to countries where food isn’t available as I have, you understand how important food security and food to sustain a country really is. Go to places where they don’t have food and then you are ready to invest in fresh, safe, cheap, available food.
So I love knowing that I’ve helped a farmer or rancher stay in business. I love knowing that I’ve expanded opportunities for them. I enjoy promoting rural America.
Lindsay: What skills/education do you believe have helped you to be successful?
Michael: For me in my career, the most important skill set is flexibility and adaptability. I think often times people hold onto some theory of the past, and it has long ago become obsolete. You constantly must look at yourselves and what you are doing and try to improve.
Also, the foundation of any leader is accountability and integrity. If you aren’t accountable or you don’t have personal integrity, no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter. You have nothing.
Lindsay: Describe a “day in the life” at your office.
Michael: I start at 8 am and I have meetings from 8 am to 4 pm.
I meet with folks from IT, I meet with folks from civil rights, I meet with the budget office, the chief financial officer, and folks from the FCIC Board. I spend my day talking to others, making decisions, and channeling information up or down.
Lindsay: Based on your experiences, do you think young people today should consider a career in agriculture?
Michael: Yes, definitely.
Agriculture makes up about 17 percent of all the jobs in the U.S. If you look strictly at rural America, that number goes up to about 35-40 percent. Most of those jobs are not about having your hands in the dirt – although that’s important – but there are so many other skill sets involved in the industry
In the USDA, I can go to any college campus in any discipline and hire someone. We need folks good at math, geography, finance, computers … there’s so much more to this industry than farming and ranching.
So yes, not only is it a vibrant industry, but it’s just very important and it sustains our country. I would definitely encourage young folks to think about agriculture.
My junior year of college at Illinois State University, I shared an apartment with four other girls. One of the girls, Cailyn, was an agriculture major from a small town just like myself. The other three girls were non-agriculture majors and were from the Chicago suburbs. Kayla was a history education major, Sarah was a communications major, and Genny was a broadcast journalism major. After living with three girls that didn’t understand how their food is grown, couldn’t unscrew a door hinge or change a car tire, and thought that GMOs would kill them, I wholeheartedly believe that an Introduction to Agriculture class should be a required general education class in college.
We live in an uninformed society today. Because of this, there are all kinds of misconceptions about agriculture that get made. Some of these misconceptions include ideas that farmers inject steroids into their animals, that there are antibiotics in their food, and that all farms are big corporate farms. By having college students take an Introduction to Agriculture class we could help eliminate these misconceptions about agriculture.
Do you know what the average age of the US farmer is today? No? That’s okay, you’re not alone! Today in the United States the average farmer is 58 years old. Yes, that’s right, 58 years old! The average retirement age of US citizens is 63. Think about that! Why is this average so high? Because more and more people aren’t returning home to take over the family farm. It’s easier to get a job within the agriculture industry where the stress is much lower and the pay is much higher.
According to the USDA, there are expected to be 60,000 jobs opening annually in the agriculture industry with only 35,000 graduates to fill these jobs. By requiring college level students to take an Introduction to Agriculture class, students would understand all that the agriculture industry has to offer. Jobs such as agriculture accountants, agriculture loan officers, agriculture education teachers, insurance agents, and the list goes on and on. By exposing students to this industry and the job options it offers, this could encourage students to possibly change their major from business to agricultural business or finance to agricultural finance.
One of the biggest problems we face in America is the skepticism that our food is unsafe and that GMOS (genetically modified organisms) are harmful to us. By taking agriculture classes in college, students will see that in America we actually have the safest food supply in the world. They would also learn that it has been proven time and time again that GMOs are safe for human use and consumption. In fact, GMOs have been used for thousands and thousands of years. For example, corn is not a naturally occurring plant and instead was bred from a wild grain called teosinte. This is exactly what we do when we genetically modify plants today. We breed plants for whatever traits we want in plants. These traits include higher yielding plants, drought resistant plants, etc.
The most important reason that I believe college students should take agriculture classes is because they will learn life skills that they may not have been taught at home. Things like being able to change the oil in their car, use a drill to put in a screw, or wire an electric outlet in their home.
Agriculture classes would benefit college students and would help make these students more rounded individuals who would then be able to contribute to making our world a better place.
Farmers are known as stewards of the land and many take that title seriously. Farmers like Roger Sy make it their mission to promote sustainability on their farms for the benefit of not only their land but also of their neighboring communities. Farmers with this mindset follow the directive of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy in order to reduce waste while maintaining profitability and productivity. Here’s a more specific explanation from the Illinois NLRS page on the EPA website:
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy guides state efforts to improve water quality at home and downstream by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels in our lakes, streams, and rivers. The strategy lays out a comprehensive suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient loads from wastewater treatment plants and urban and agricultural runoff. Recommended activities target the state’s most critical watersheds and are based on the latest science and best-available technology. It also calls for more collaboration between state and federal agencies, cities, non-profits, and technical experts on issues such as water quality monitoring, funding, and outreach.
Farmers who abide by the NLRS strive to implement best management practices (BMPs) on their farm. However, there is a wide array of BMPs to choose from, because conservation needs may differ from farm to farm. So how can non-farmers get familiar with what farmers are doing?
The Conservation Story Map is a place where anyone, whether a farmer or not, a person can explore what BMPs are being practiced across the state of Illinois while introducing real farmers who use them. The website gives farmers a chance to tell their stories and show off their farms while identifying what practices are important to their farm. The map even offers the chance to see how conservation practices differ in neighboring farms.
Whether you are a seasoned veteran or new to ag, the Conservation Story Map offers a wealth of rich data and resources to understand how modern farmers are stewarding agriculture into the future.
Soil is a vital part of the natural environment; it influences the distribution of crops and plant species, and it provides habitats for many animals. When forests are cleared for farming and timber, the chance of soil erosion increases. Erosion is when the topsoil that contains the most nutrients is destroyed or carried away by wind, water, or ice. Luckily here in Illinois, we started as a prairie; our soils were always covered by something, and the deeply rooted grasses that cover Illinois prevents soil erosion from occurring. Agriculture became very popular and necessary as populations rose; farming practices became more intense to accommodate the population needs, and tilling the land – preparing the soil for crops by disturbing the soil, often inducing erosion – became a popular practice. When Illinois farmers began to see the negative impacts of tillage on not only their land but also on the surrounding ecosystems, they found new, more sustainable ways to protect their soil and the environment.
Historically, the uses of no-till and reduced-till practices were widely unaccepted around the nation because farmers didn’t believe that these practices would make a difference in their soil. No-till is a way to grow crops without disturbing the soil – when soil is preserved, it remains healthier and better supports crop growth. The benefits of no-till include an increase in water infiltration into the soil and better nutrient retention. George Elvert McKibben, an Illinois native and agronomist at the University of Illinois, made no-till practices acceptable to farmers by experimenting with no-till systems in 1966. The main concern of farmers was to save their soil; to show farmers the advantages of no-till, McKibben and his team planted corn into grassy plots around Illinois. The results vastly changed the way farmers thought about soil management practices; the corn thrived and reduced soil erosion on the plots. Once John Deere manufactured a no-till planter, no-till and reduced-till practices became even more widely supported and implemented by farmers.
Long-term sustainability has always been a goal of agriculturists. Farmers know that the key to healthy ecosystems and agricultural lands start with healthy soils. A healthy soil is one that sustains a diverse ecosystem that supports animals, plants, and humans. Other practices are being implemented by farmers in addition to no-till and reduced till to protect soil and the environment. Collecting runoff from soil nutrients is an important way that farmers are limiting the amount of pollutants that enter nearby waterways. Planting cover crops in fields that don’t have anything planted in them is another way farmers are reducing nutrient pollution runoff into nearby waterways.
The Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association Initiative, is a project created to make agriculture more sustainable by focusing on soil health. The Partnership measures the benefits of best soil management practices and relays results to farmers. Farmers in Illinois and around the Midwest can join the Partnership to learn more about how to protect soil and the environment. Farmers in the Partnership either have been practicing no-till or reduced-till management on their land or have recently switched over. Farmers are stewards of the environment; from continuous education about soil and the environment to the adoption of best soil management practices, farmers are doing everything they can to sustain the environment and their land.