Mentors matter

Written by Steve Fairchild on .

I’ve often mentioned on this page that agriculture is a business that needs mentors.

Our business isn’t quite like accountancy or law, where rules are clearly defined and licenses to practice are handed out once the requisite amount of schooling is endured. On the farm we need mentors because a degree in animal science isn’t quite the same as understanding animals in a way that leads to good husbandry. Agronomy is a sound science, but there is an art to knowing when the ground is in the right condition to plant.

But for all the traditional nuances of farming, today’s agriculture trends toward technological, regulatory and scientific heights that require college degrees and advanced technical training. For a company like MFA Incorporated that offers advice and service to farmers, there is a unique need for well-trained employees. And while degrees and technical training are fine, necessary things, we know that it takes more. That’s why MFA has invested in The Ag Experience, the internship program that matches promising college youth with real- world agribusiness. It is why we have a dedicated corporate trainer. It is why we invest in an annual training camp that delivers the latest in agronomics to staff across the MFA territory.

There is another kind of mentoring at MFA, though, and it is hard to define. In the halls of MFA’s headquarters, in spray rigs, feed trucks and behind the counters of MFA retail stores, there is a dedication to the cooperative that manifests itself in devotion and a desire to make the place better. That is a rare commodity in today’s workplace.

Along with my co-workers in MFA’s Communications department, I have been lucky to have witnessed and learned from that kind of devotion personified by Chuck Lay, MFA’s director of communications. Chuck retired in January after 28 years of service.

I was a fan of Chuck’s writing even before I joined MFA, mostly for his editorial swashbuckling right here in Country Corner. In his years as front-line editor of Today’s Farmer, Chuck directed his considerable editorial talent at the things that matter to farmers: property rights, the freedom to operate, curbing animal rights activist and regulatory overreach. He delivered jolts of common sense when the headlines of the day proved there was little to be easily found.
Chuck’s time at the helm of Today’s Farmer make him part of a long and short list.

The list is long in historical terms, but short in the number of editors who have held the position. Today’s Farmer began as the Missouri Farmer and Breeder in 1908 when its founder, William Hirth, used the magazine to call for the organization of farm clubs.

In 1914, those farm clubs coalesced into MFA, the cooperative, when seven farmers near Brunswick, Mo., decided that together they could garner more power in the market place. Between then and Chuck’s arrival, there were just eight editors. Like Hirth, Chuck employed Today’s Farmer to keep MFA members informed about the cooperative and deliver news and practical advice to help farmers farm better.

When Chuck was promoted to MFA’s director of communications, he carried the Today’s Farmer mission forward, always looking for ways to deliver MFA’s expertise in products and services to the member-owner. He mentored his staff (sometimes incessantly) on the importance of that task.

For those of us who worked for him, though, I believe that one of Chuck’s mentoring coups was showing by example that smart dedication at work affords you the ability to balance a job with family life. It was probably about 16 years ago that I first noticed that trait. I had yet to begin a family. Chuck’s children, Emily and Charlie, were just hitting that age when parents double their pace at work to strike out early for their children’s sports and other activities. I didn’t understand it then, but now, with children in multiple activities, I do. That’s the thing about mentors: they lead by example, and even if we don’t yet understand the reasons we’d ought to emulate them, the reasons become clear in the fullness of time. Mentoring isn’t science. It’s art.

There is an old tradition for editors to sail into that sunset of retirement but reserve the right to sally ashore and offer those of us still on the masthead some criticism and advice. We hope Chuck does. A mentor’s work is never done.

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