Making the Case for Agriculture

Published online: Sep 18, 2019 Articles
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Source: Syngenta Thrive

As a longtime corn producer and the president of the Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Dan Nerud pursues every professional development opportunity that comes his way. “Whenever I can advance my skills and interact with others in the industry, I jump at the chance,” he says.

And that’s exactly what he did when given the opportunity to participate in Leadership At Its Best (LAIB), a longstanding Syngenta-organized program that helps current and future U.S. ag leaders improve their skills to advocate for American agriculture.

During the weeklong program, held earlier this year in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., Nerud absorbed briefings from industry leaders, enthusiastically participated in training sessions and activities, exchanged insights with fellow participants representing nine industry groups, and met with elected officials on Capitol Hill.

Among the program offerings Nerud found most beneficial was the media training workshop. Just weeks after participating in that training, he put his learnings to good use when the nation’s attention turned to Nebraska and the state’s farmers who were affected by devastating floods. Local, regional and national reporters looked to Nerud to share situation updates and important information resources—a role he embraced and approached with confidence, thanks, in part, to his LAIB experience.

Revitalized Program

In an industry rife with complexity and change, advocating for farmers and their freedom to operate has never been more crucial. Recognizing the reality that grower associations and industry groups often shoulder much-needed advocacy efforts, Syngenta established LAIB, which has trained approximately 4,500 leaders—many of whom are growers like Nerud—since 1986.

Now at the helm of LAIB is Mary Kay Thatcher, senior lead of federal government relations at Syngenta in the U.S. and one of the country’s foremost farm policy experts. “Agriculture faces complex challenges, and LAIB helps farmers learn skills to answer the call and stand up for our industry,” she says.

“Agriculture faces complex challenges, and LAIB helps farmers learn skills to answer the call and stand up for our industry.”

Mary Kay Thatcher

In 2019, Thatcher and her colleagues revitalized the program’s structure and curriculum, introducing refreshed modules based on current leading thoughts, ideas and techniques. “The revamped program focused on key aspects of leadership training and priority issues facing agriculture,” Thatcher says.

Instead of holding separate smaller training programs for individual industry groups, as had been done in previous years, the 2019 program brought together representatives from multiple organizations. In 2020, the following 12 groups plan to participate:

  • Agricultural Retailers Association
  • American Agri-Women
  • American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Women
  • American Soybean Association
  • Independent Professional Seed Association (IPSA)
  • National Agricultural Aviation Association
  • National Association of Conservation Districts
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Corn Growers Association
  • National Cotton Council of America
  • National Potato Council
  • National Sorghum Producers

Lifelong Relationships

The opportunity to engage with advocates representing multiple facets of agriculture fostered cross-organizational exchange and helped cultivate what may well become lifelong relationships—a highlight for participants like Chris Cornelius and Laura Vaught.

While Nerud, Vaught and Cornelius represent different industry interests, the challenges they seek to overcome are often the same, particularly public perception regarding large farming operations, biotechnology and product safety.

Cornelius, who serves on the IPSA board and is the executive assistant for Cornelius Seed, has worn a lot of hats since joining the family-owned independent seed company in 1983. For her, education and community outreach are inextricably linked to the business functions of her role.

“It’s not like I wake up and say, ‘Today I’m going to focus on advocacy,’” she says. “It’s just part of what I do.”

During her time in the industry, Cornelius has seen firsthand the dawn of the biotechnology age, the benefits that biotech traits have brought to growers and the challenges of gaining public acceptance for biotechnology. “As an industry, we have to do a better job of communicating the benefits and safety of biotech traits,” she says.

That’s why Cornelius was eager to hear from Hope Hart, foresight and advocacy lead for product safety at Syngenta. During Hart’s presentation to the group, she shared practical tips for discussing the science and safety of genetically modified organisms with non-ag audiences.

Vaught, a Tennessee-based attorney whose practice focuses on representing farmers and who is active in AFBF Women, also appreciated the guidance Hart imparted. “She helped us think about analogies to use when speaking with consumers,” Vaught says. “When talking about agriculture, we tend to use terms that we understand and know, so it was helpful to have a scientist like her explain how to better tell the story.”

From attending skills-based workshops and having access to company executives and Washington insiders to forging connections with others in similar roles, Vaught’s LAIB experience far exceeded her expectations. "Because I chose a transactional path in law school, I wasn’t trained to be an oral advocate,” she says. “Participating in LAIB has helped me communicate better, which will ultimately help me better serve farmers.”