Meet the Future of Agriculture

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Erin Woody — Making Bold Moves

From college intern to assistant manager to business owner—that’s the accelerated career path Erin Woody has taken since she was part of the inaugural MFA Ag Experience internship program in 2013.

She interned with MFA the summer before her senior year at Missouri State University. Before she graduated, she was working for MFA full time. In 2014, she was named retail services manager and then assistant manager in 2016 at MFA Agri Services in Ozark, Mo. At the time, the 25-year-old was the youngest female assistant manager in any MFA location.

Now, her experiences with MFA have given Woody the confidence and skills to make a bold move. She’s in training to take over the operation of her family’s farm store. Woody left Ozark MFA at the end of June and began her new career July 5.

The store has been owned and operated by her grandparents, Dale and Donna Wickstrom, for the past 33 years, and Woody developed a passion for the business long before she looked at it with an entrepreneurial eye.

“I feel like I’m coming home,” said Woody, whose family also raised cattle and sheep. “I pretty much grew up in the store and fell in love with it from the get-go. You’d have customers who would come in and sit down and tell you stories—whether they were true or not. They still do.”

Initially studying ag education in college, Woody said she switched her major specifically to ag business with intentions of running the farm supply store someday. First, however, her family encouraged her to get some experience elsewhere. The MFA Ag Experience program fit the bill.

During her internship, Woody moved around to various locations learning about retail sales, grain production and crop protection. Her final internship project, however, was what earned her the attention and respect of cooperative leaders such as MFA Regional Manager Ed Long. His challenge to her? The Ozark location was underperforming. Figure out why and fix it.

“I scoured data. Took every single ticket in an entire fiscal year and categorized the totals,” she explained. “I looked at how many sales we were doing in each category. Figured out what days of the week they were selling the most things. Looked at everybody’s salary. Evaluated different departments. Had them reduce 20 percent of their inventory.”

At the end of the summer, Woody presented her findings to Ozark Manager Keith McDaniel and then to executives at MFA Incorporated’s Columbia home office.

“Numbers don’t lie, and I was as confident as I could be—maybe a little too confident,” Woody recalled. “I made my presentation, explained what I thought the issue was and how they could fix it. I left there having no idea what the future held. As far as I knew, I had one week left with MFA.”

In fact, the future held a part-time job with MFA while Woody finished college and then a full-time position as second-in-command at the Ozark location.

“Erin shows how interns can develop into dedicated employees who are passionate about agriculture,” McDaniel said. “She has an outgoing personality, and when you give her something to do, she gets it done.”

Erin Teeple, who manages MFA’s Ag Experience program, said that of the 11 interns in the first year when Woody participated, eight were asked to stay on as full-time employees. Of the 50 students in the first four years of the internship program, 40 percent have been hired or remain on staff. Internship numbers are growing steadily and hit 16 in the summer of 2017.

The Ozark location was struggling when Woody started there in 2014, but two years ago, its profitability began improving. She pinpoints that accomplishment as a milestone in her young career.

“My goal was to keep the store in the black,” she said. “As soon as we saw we’d made money that first year, it was truly tears of joy from Keith and I. It wasn’t done individually. It was a complete group effort. It was one of those proud feelings I’ll never forget.”

While she relished her role at Ozark, Woody still had ambitions of eventually running her family’s business. That dream is now a reality.

“Every time I’d go home, I would ask, ‘Are you ready to turn the store over to me?’ and Grandpa would just smile and say, ‘Not yet,’ or ‘You need more training,’” Woody said. “I’d almost given up on the idea. Last year, my grandparents came to me and wanted to know if I was still serious about wanting the store, and we started working on the logistics.”

The youngest of six grandchildren—and the only female—Woody also felt it was important to gain her extended family’s blessing before she bought into the business. There were no objections, she said, and she’s now fully immersed in what she describes as a “slow transition process” to take over the store.

“My main thing is to keep their legacy going,” Woody said. “They’ve done an incredibly successful job with the store, and my intention is to grow it in a positive manner.”

In the bigger picture, Woody said she wants to use her leadership skills to help advance agriculture in the community.

“The stigma of agriculture isn’t what it used to be,” she said. “Growing up, people thought of farming as sows, plows and cows. I think we are truly changing that mindset. It’s important to teach people that it doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, everyone can be involved in agriculture.”

Jeremy Dold — K-State Bound

Each summer through high school, Jeremy Dold of Emporia, Kan., worked full time on the farm operated by his grandparents, Tony and Virginia Dold. The young man learned to cut, rake and bale hay and combine wheat. Now 18, Dold recently received an MFA Foundation scholarship that will help him pursue a career in agriculture.

“I applied for many scholarships, but this is a big one,” he said. “It’s important to me.”

Dold was among more than 340 students who received $2,000 scholarships from the MFA Foundation in the spring of 2017. AgChoice of Emporia, which is owned by MFA Incorporated, sponsored his scholarship. Dold, a 2017 graduate of Emporia High School, will use the funds to attend Kansas State University this fall.

The experience on his grandparents’ farm inspired Dold to major in mechanical engineering. He plans to use the degree to build a career designing and improving farm equipment.

“We spent so much time fixing equipment on the farm,” he said. “If we make equipment more durable, we can focus on making the land as productive as possible.”

Dold is the second-oldest of five children—two boys and three girls. His mother, Joan, works as youth director at their church and his father, Dan, is a mechanical engineer at Camso, a plant that manufactures tracks for agricultural equipment. His father’s career also inspired Dold’s interest in machinery, and he landed a job working at the factory this summer, too.

“Jobs in my field are available around Emporia,” Dold said. “My dream for the future is a peaceful life near family in a big house in the countryside, with a wife and kids.”

While in high school, Jeremy took part in FFA, the National Honors Society, Key Club and the Robotics Club. He led the marching band drum line and captained the wrestling team.

MFA Foundation Scholarships are offered at high schools and sponsored by participating MFA AgChoice locations, MFA Agri Services Centers, MFA Oil Company propane plants and MFA Oil Company bulk plant local affiliates. 
“MFA supports youth in agriculture because we know that today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders,” said Pam Hiller, secretary-treasurer of the MFA Foundation. “We’ve done this for more than 50 years to the tune of more than 14,000 scholarships and $15 million.”

Interested students should contact their school counselor to see if an MFA Foundation scholarship is available in their area. Counselors can obtain applications from participating MFA locations. For more information, visit
www.mfafoundation.com.

John Hyder — Prepped  for success

John Hyder has held several jobs in his 47 years—on the farm, in the Navy, and as an electronics expert. But he said he’s never been in a position that felt as natural as managing the MFA Feed Mill in Aurora, Mo.

Hyder’s confidence got a boost in the past year when he was one of 58 MFA Incorporated supervisors selected for a new Management Series training program designed to prepare promising leaders.

“MFA’s success in providing quality products and services to our customers is critical to the future of agriculture,” Hyder said. “I appreciated the opportunity to attend the series. We learned a lot about how to help MFA continue as an industry leader.”

The Aurora plant is one of seven MFA feed mills in Missouri and Kansas. In Aurora, Hyder manages 23 employees who manufacture about 90,000 tons of feed a year for dairy, beef, poultry, swine, goats, sheep, horses, deer and rabbits.

Amanda Cooper, vice president of corporate services for MFA Incorporated, oversees the Management Series and led several sessions.

“We created the series to provide continued high-level development for up-and-coming MFA leaders, and John is a leader,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re providing growth opportunities to keep employees like John engaged. He has a great head for business and a big heart for employees.”

The series ran from November 2016 to February 2017 with three separate day-and-a-half classes featuring topics such as leadership, communications, human resources and financial management. Also covered were basic supervisory practices, teamwork, and how to direct and coach employees. The series will be repeated for other supervisors in the future.

Hyder’s supervisor recommended him for the series, and in other cases, employees asked to participate. Hyder said his favorite part of the course involved learning about how to communicate with different personality types.

“I also learned how to have difficult conversations with people so we can be more effective,” he added.

Raised on a farm near Marshfield, Mo., Hyder earned an animal sciences degree from the University of Missouri, and then moved to Massachusetts to work in electronics for Lockheed Martin. In 2007, Hyder and his wife, Leanne, returned to Marshfield to raise their children—now 16, 20 and 22—in the country. He went to work at MFA, rose through the ranks and took the reins of the Aurora plant as general manager in 2015.

“I enjoy my job and appreciate everyone I work with,” said Hyder, who raises beef and swine in his spare time. “My dream is to continue to raise my family in a farming community and to make sure MFA continues to be vital to agriculture’s success.”

The future of agriculture looks bright, Hyder said, but he sees a few challenges ahead, particularly from regulations designed to ensure a safe food chain.

“I’m confident MFA is working diligently to be proactive and meet these challenges,” he said.

Jacob Hoellering — Ag Experience Intern, Round Two

Jacob Hoellering thought he knew a lot about crops when he took his first internship with MFA’s Ag Experience program in 2016, but a summer of walking fields with crop consultants proved just how much he had to learn.

“I really fell in love with the agronomy side of things and being out on the farm talking to people, so that is why I went into seed sales this summer,” said Hoellering, who was raised on a row-crop and livestock farm in California, Mo. “It’s one of the most important things about being a salesman—to build a relationship with your growers and get to know them.”

The Ag Experience is a partnership between educational institutions and MFA Incorporated. Students are hired by MFA into a professional or technical position that correlates with their area of study. During the 12-week internship, students receive the kind of hands-on experience that prepares them for the workforce. The MFA Ag Experience provides students with a chance to learn about agriculture as professional employees. MFA customizes each internship, catering as much as possible to a student’s interest.

Students who perform well during the program may receive an offer to return to MFA the following summer or work part-time throughout the school year. That is what happened to Hoellering, who was asked to come back for a second-year internship this summer. He started as a regional intern his first summer and interned in seed sales in 2017.

Hoellering said that when he had a chance to come back to MFA for a second internship, it was an offer he “couldn’t refuse.” He went from walking fields and finding his career interests in his first summer to talking with growers and building relationships with them in his second summer. He has learned to load orders, treat soybeans, scout fields and make feed deliveries.

Hoellering, a junior at the University of Missouri studying plant sciences, said he hopes to get a job immediately after college. He said he believes seed sales would be the best career fit, and he loves being able to put what he has learned in the classroom to the test during his work experience.

Every Ag Experience intern has a summer project. Hoellering’s project included interviewing seed sales people in his region about their definition of success and what is important for customers. He is also talking to customers about what they look for in seed and in a brand and why they buy seed from MFA. 

“The overall goal is to not only help the seed sales staff to perform their job better, but also to make the customer happy,” Hoellering said. “That way we can do what is best for them.”

 When asked what his advice would be for other Ag Experience interns, Hoellering said to take every given opportunity.

“The experience that I have gotten in the past couple summers is just amazing,” he said. “I never thought on the first day that I would go into the home office and sit down with the CEO and vice president and talk with them one on one.”

Hopeful about his future in the agriculture industry, Hoellering said he believes growing up on his family’s farm and being active in FFA has helped him in his success. He even spent his freshman year of college as a Missouri State FFA Officer. 

“It is something that is really important to me. This is one industry that is never going away,” said Hoellering. “Everything in your daily life connects to agriculture in one way or another. I feel very confident going into an agriculture-related field.” 

The MFA Ag Experience is available to college students who have completed either their sophomore or junior year in a bachelor’s program in agriculture, business or a related field. For more information, download a brochure and application form at www.mfa-inc.com/about/youth

—This portion of the story is by MFA Communications Intern Madison Byrd, also a 2017 Ag Experience participant.

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