Learn, laugh, lead
Emerging Leaders conference brings together young producers to build knowledge and connections
Taking time away from their business to work on their business. That’s what a group of some 70 young farmers and ranchers were doing in mid-January at the annual Emerging Leaders in Agriculture Conference, jointly hosted by MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil.
Now in its third year, the conference brings together a select group of professional producers between the ages of 21 and 45 for education and networking. The 2024 edition was held Jan. 10-12 in Lake Ozark, Mo.
“One of the more challenging things in the world today is just having the time to do everything you want to do or need to do. If you’re always working in your business, you’re never working on it,” said MFA Oil CEO John Ihler as he thanked the attendees for their participation. “Work on yourself. Work on getting better. This conference isn’t here to sell you anything or pressure you in any way. This is about making agriculture and the cooperative system better in the future.”
Producers from Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Iowa heard from agribusiness experts and discussed issues and challenges facing agriculture, cooperatives and rural America.
“There’s something here for everybody, and it’s all good information,” said Adam Oswald, a corn and soybean producer in Atchison County, Mo., who attended the event with his wife, Tessa. “It’s been a great opportunity to grow and be better than I was yesterday, while meeting new people and gaining contacts around the state. I enjoy hearing other people’s stories, their trials and tribulations and the successes they’ve had. I’ve learned a lot just from that.”
The conference kicked off with a reception and dinner followed by a fun and thought-provoking presentation from Wayne Humphreys about how attitude, communication, enthusiasm and sincerity can change the world around you.
Also on this year’s slate of speakers was Ben Brown, senior research associate with the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, who shared his expert perspective on the agricultural economic outlook and provided some business strategies to help navigate markets in 2024 and beyond.
In a separate presentation, Brown outlined risk management strategies for row-crop and livestock operations, from understanding grain market fluctuations to using insurance protection for livestock, pasture, rangeland and forage. He even gave attendees samples of his own farm’s pre-harvest marketing plans to emphasize the importance of making deliberate decisions when it comes to protecting and selling their crops.
Drexel Atkisson, area soil specialist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, led a discussion of soil health principles and how they can improve farmland productivity and profitability. He called his presentation, “The System is Greater than the Sum of its Parts,” a nod to philosopher Aristotle’s quote that defines the concept of synergy.
“You want to maximize what’s right. You want to eliminate what’s wrong. You want to add what’s missing,
and you want to clarify what’s confused.”
— Richard Fagerlin
“Think about that concept and how about applies to agriculture and your operation,” Atkisson said. “You can’t just look at one thing. You have to look at the opportunity or opportunities that one thing brings to the entire system.”
Practices such as no-till, cover crops, rotations and biodiversity can help producers manage their farms for resiliency, he said, which will, in turn, help them avoid risks and be more sustainable.
“When we don’t consider managing for resilience, we will have to mitigate an imbalance,” Atkisson said. “That may mean marketing less crop, selling off cows when we don’t want to or buying more feedstuffs. But if you’re applying practices on your cropland and grazing land that are moving your organic matter in a positive direction, you are building resilience on your farm and lowering the chance you’ll need to mitigate.”
Another presentation addressed mental health, which continues to be a top concern among the agricultural community. Karen Eddington, researcher and author of “The Under Pressure Project,” gave attendees tips on how to navigate the ebbs and flows of life by learning to rest and repair their bodies and minds, combat stress and find more peace.
“Pressure doesn’t have to be negative,” she told the audience. “It can be a catalyst for growth. The key to navigating pressure is staying open to that growth and learning to ride the wave.”
Among Eddington’s strategies were engaging in creativity, rewarding efforts instead of just outcomes, setting boundaries and accepting that there will be disappointments. Above all, she said, having a support network is the most powerful solution.
“Community matters,” Eddington said. “Know who you can go to for support, someone who truly understands and connects with you. I hope you find someone to add to your community here in this room.”
Connie Haden, who has participated in all three Emerging Leaders conferences, returned to address the important but touchy topic of farm business transference. As a partner in the law firm of Haden & Colbert, she specializes in helping farm families prepare for the next generation through succession planning. Haden walked the attendees through different types of farm transitions, key issues in succession planning and how agricultural operations can be structured for simplicity, liability protection and tax advantages.
“What we’re really trying to do here is preserve relationships,” Haden told the group. “Farm succession is a hard topic to discuss. It’s real, and the emotions can be raw, but it’s better to address the situation now rather than let it tear a family apart down the road.”
Also on the agenda was Richard Fagerlin, a consultant and speaker whose work focuses on creating healthy leaders, teams and organizations. He gave a dynamic presentation about identifying and adjusting thinking patterns that can damage chances of success.
Looking at the year ahead, he challenged the young farmers to strategically reflect on their operations in 2023, asking four questions: What was right? What was wrong? What was missing? What was confused?
“Asking the question isn’t all that important, but coming back to those questions and analyzing the answers is important,” Fagerlin said. “If the list still looks the same in 2025, you’re doing something wrong. You want to maximize what’s right. You want to eliminate what’s wrong. You want to add what’s missing, and you want to clarify what’s confused. You must constantly be working toward that.”
A panel of leaders from both cooperatives—MFA Incorporated CEO Ernie Verslues and Chairman Don Schlesselman and MFA Oil CEO Jon Ihler and Chairman Glen Cope—closed out the conference, sharing the history and mission of each cooperative and discussing the most recent advancements and plans for the future. The panelists also addressed questions from the audience and discussed some of the industry’s most concerning issues and challenges.
“The fact that you’ve taken the time to come here shows you have a real passion for agriculture,” Verslues said. “You know there are going to be peaks and valleys, and the challenge is pretty tough sometimes, but there will be some good times, too. My message for this group is when you’re having those tough times, look in the mirror and say, ‘Who’s got it better than me right now?’ And if you’re involved in agriculture, nobody does.”
In closing, Cope encouraged the attendees to get more involved with their co-ops, pointing out that cultivating engagement among young farmers, including more women, is one of the main reasons for creating the conference.
“We see a desperate need for young folks to be involved in governance of their cooperatives,” he said. “That’s something I challenge you with as you go home: take what you’ve learned and step up and be part of the process.”
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