Workshop Trains Leaders How to Speak Up for Agriculture

During a time when agriculture needs as many voices as possible, the Leadership At Its Best program is helping develop the leaders of today and tomorrow.
Workshop Trains Leaders How to Speak Up for Agriculture
Mauricio Garcia of the American Soybean Association expresses his appreciation for an activity at the 2020 Syngenta Leadership At Its Best workshop in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
When farmer Dave Walton testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business in May 2019, he shared a sobering reality: The crop some farmers were planting at that time might be their last. As Walton outlined challenges facing agriculture, he shared what farming meant to his family, his community and his fellow U.S. farmers.
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The prospect of sharing his story before Congress was unnerving; but Walton, an American Soybean Association director, embraced the opportunity with confidence and humility, thanks in part to his participation in the 2019 Syngenta Leadership At Its Best (LAIB) program, where he received an education in ag policy, as well as training on message delivery. “I learned that if we, as growers, don’t tell our stories, someone else will — and we may not like how they tell them,” he says.

Empowering growers to be public advocates for agriculture is the central premise of LAIB, an initiative Syngenta launched in 1986. Over the past 34 years, more than 4,600 participants have attended the weeklong workshop, which is designed to help leaders from key agricultural groups improve their ag advocacy skills. Many LAIB alumni are now in leadership roles in their organizations — and some serve as elected or appointed officials in national, state and local government.

“I learned that if we, as growers, don’t tell our stories, someone else will — and we may not like how they tell them.”

Dave Walton
American Soybean Association Director and Leadership At Its Best Participant
The Value of Firsthand Storytelling

In January 2020, nearly 50 ag leaders convened in Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., for the 2020 LAIB workshop, which came on the heels of one of the most difficult farming years in recent history. From challenging market conditions to calamitous weather events, the 2019 season is one that this class of LAIB participants will not soon forget.

“Growers throughout the country faced a lot of headwinds in 2019, and there wasn’t a region in the country that didn’t face adversity,” says Andrew Lauver, manager of industry relations at Syngenta. Add to that the negative public perception attached to modern agriculture, and it’s easy to see why growers might shy away from leadership roles.

Lauver, however, has a different — more positive — philosophy. He encourages growers to view the spotlight and the public’s increased interest in farming as opportunities to bring more visibility to the challenges farmers face. “It’s true that agriculture is increasingly under the microscope,” says Lauver, who helped organize the 2020 LAIB program. “But it’s also true that this scrutiny has created a platform for growers to tell their stories.”

And there are no better people to deliver those stories than farmers — like Walton — who can speak firsthand to the benefits of modern agriculture and the challenges facing the industry.

A Shared Passion for Ag

For Michael Crowder and many of his fellow 2020 LAIB participants, there is little distinction between their professions and their advocacy efforts. “My professional activities and volunteer roles almost completely overlap in many forms,” says Crowder, who serves as president-elect of the National Association of Conservation Districts and also manages farming operations in multiple geographic locations, including Illinois, Washington state and Indiana, where he is the third generation on the family farm.

“While traveling around the nation talking to producers and conservation district folks, I can talk about experiences I’ve had and conservation projects I’ve implemented on my own ranch in Washington state and on the Midwestern farms that I manage.”

While the 2020 LAIB participants represented a wide range of crops, geographies and professions that help farmers, they found unity in the challenges that members of their respective organizations face — challenges like trade, immigration, crop technology acceptance and the urban-rural divide.

The urban-rural divide is intensely palpable for Shannon Higginbotham, a New Jersey-based grower who was selected by the American Farm Bureau Federation Women’s Leadership program to participate in LAIB. Higginbotham and her family produce more than 50 different types of crops, giving credence to her state’s famous “Garden State” moniker. The roadside produce stand that she and her family operate, located in a sprawling suburb outside Philadelphia, helps bring a face to agriculture to those most removed from it.

For Higginbotham, LAIB helped augment her ag policy knowledge base, and she delighted in having access to experts who discussed some of the most pressing matters of the day. The Syngenta leaders she met at the RTP Innovation Center and Advanced Crop Lab equally impressed her. “Seeing how much energy and passion Syngenta employees have for their jobs was incredible,” she says. “I was able to see how much Syngenta cares about the world, the people in it and the environment. And their views on the future of agriculture are all tethered to that.”

The following organizations participated in the 2020 Leadership At Its Best program:
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