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Like-minded leaders

In a follow-up to what was considered a successful inaugu­ral year, the second edition of the MFA Emerging Leaders in Agriculture conference brought together professional producers between the ages of 21 and 45 for education and networking Jan. 11-13 in Lake Ozark, Mo.

Jointly hosted by MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil, the pro­gram was designed to help young farmers better manage and grow their agricultural businesses while connecting them with like-minded peers. Attendees from Missouri, Arkansas and Kan­sas heard from agribusiness experts and discussed issues and challenges facing agriculture, cooperatives and rural America.

First-generation farmers Thomas and Jaci Salario were among those selected for this year’s event. The young couple, who recently established a cattle ranch in northeast Arkansas, said they had pledged to attend a conference like this every year.

“We want to find continuing education opportunities to help our farm prosper,” Jaci said. “The sessions are great, and meet­ing new people and talking to farmers in different situations is also a good way to learn. If we take away one or two things and implement them on the farm, we’re going to improve and grow.”

The conference kicked off with an opening reception and dinner followed by a high-energy presentation from Damian Mason, who used both humor and realism in his remarks about current issues affecting U.S. agriculture. Mike Way, whose California-based company is the largest year-round grower and shipper of premium bell peppers in the U.S., opened the next morning’s agenda by outlining some ways farmers must adapt to meet consumer demands. He was followed by David Parker, an agribusiness consultant who moderated the entire confer­ence. Parker discussed management techniques that farmers need to know to gain a competitive advantage in the future. 

Adam Jones, MFA district sales manager, shared ways the young producers can success­fully balance sustainability with their farms’ goals. His interac­tive presentation summarized opportunities in carbon seques­tration programs, cover crops, nutrient management and other conservation practices that can benefit farmers and the environment.

For 24-year-old Caleb Miller, who started his own cow/calf and custom hay operation right out of high school, Jones’ session struck home. Miller lives in Sparta, Mo., just outside Springfield, where urban sprawl is creeping closer to his farm.

“In our area, development is really a big problem, so I’ve got to grow as much grass as possible because of the limited amount of acres I can get,” he said. “I’m always looking for ways I can take better care of the land and produce more with less.”

Attorney Connie Haden, a partner at the law firm of Haden & Colbert in Columbia, Mo., discussed the importance of proac­tive farm succession planning. She introduced different scenar­ios involving farm business transference issues and discussed how agricultural operations could be structured for simplicity, liability protection and tax advantages.

“What we’re trying to do here is preserve relationships, and there are lots of tools we can use,” Haden told the group. “I’ve seen farm successions tear families apart, and it’s unfortunate. Often, it’s simply because of lack of communication. These are hard discussions, and it takes time, but it’s time well invested.”

To start the second day of the conference, Parker led a stra­tegic planning exercise for attendees, guiding them through ways to develop a personalized business plan for their farm’s future. The meeting wrapped up with a panel discussion by the conference hosts, featuring MFA Incorporated President Ernie Verslues and Board Chairman Wayne Nichols along with MFA Oil President and CEO Jon Ihler and Board Chairman Glen Cope. The presidents each gave an overview of their respective cooperatives, while the chairmen shared their experiences of serving on the board of directors.

Also on the panel was Dr. Keri Jacobs, MFA Chair in Agri­business at the University of Missouri, who works with a wide range of cooperative entities. In answer to an audience question about why farmers should do business with a co-op, she point­ed to the grassroots leadership that guides business decisions for the benefit of members versus corporate stockholders.

“I’m not pro co-op for co-ops’ sake. I’m pro co-op for farmers’ sake,” Jacobs said. “I think co-ops are the farmer’s snowball’s chance of being competitive in the marketplace. Without co-ops, you end up with privately owned companies who only care about quarterly earnings. If I’m a farmer, I’m hitching my wagon to an organization that is led by farmers and that returns the profitability back to me.”

Each panelist thanked the young farmers and ranchers for attending the event and encour­aged them to have more engagement with their co-ops, whether simply providing feedback or participating in governance.

“One of the reasons our boards are very sup­portive of this conference is to try to motivate you as young people to get involved with your co-op,” Cope said. “That’s the biggest takeaway that I want you all to have from this. If you have an opportunity to step up and be a leader, don’t say no.”

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