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Land O’Lakes program nurtures young leaders in its membership

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When farming is your foundation, it’s wise to invest in the future. Using a multi-tier development program, Land O’Lakes is giving its young members the tools to lead discussions, welcome the public to their farms, and advocate in policymaking.

Land O’Lakes is a Minnesota-based agricultural cooperative with a nearly 100-year-long history. The business is known as one of the most prominent advocates of today’s farmers — its efforts include supporting the adoption of modern technology, celebrating the spirit of the industry through national TV advertisements, and hosting the athlete/farmer Farm Bowl, which helped raise awareness about agriculture in conjunction with the Super Bowl.

The move toward a leadership development program grew from the need to help farmers, particularly younger ones, get a message about today’s agricultural industry in front of the public and politicians. As people become further removed from farm life, the need to reconnect them to what happens in rural America becomes ever more vital.

“We’re such a small voice in the grand scheme of things,” said Brad Oelmann, Chief Operating Officer of Land O’Lakes Services. “There are a lot of misconceptions about ag — you hear all these things about GMOs, and animal care, and there are some bad actors out there, but most farmers treat their animals very well and most are concerned about the land 50 years from now from a sustainability standpoint.”

The three components of Land O’Lakes’ leadership program are:

  • Cornerstone for Engagement: Co-op 101: This introductory program helps get members started on a path to developing the skills needed to lead their business and cooperative.
  • Growth for Advocacy: Co-op 201: In agriculture, now more than ever, it’s important for farmers to share their story with those outside of the industry — be it consumers, legislators, or important influencers.
  • Stepping into Governance: Co-op 301: Launched this year, Stepping into Governance helps prepare members for elected leadership in Land O’Lakes’ cooperative system.

“We’ve started doing a lot more farm tours with the public, and working with elected officials and the government, and just getting farmers comfortable telling their story and being leaders in the ag industry,” Oelmann said. “These trainings provide them some of the confidence to do that.”

Thanks to social media, it’s clear that many farmers are finding new and innovative ways to engage with the public — and, ultimately, with those people who buy food and fiber from our nation’s farmers. There is not only a national need for more agricultural voices but also better voices, ones that are representative of how so many of today’s farmers operate. Land O’Lakes alone has nearly 2,000 dairy-producing members, nearly 1,000 other ag producers, and an additional 1,100 retailers or other folks involved in ag. Those are a lot of people to nurture, but small in the larger national effort to best convey agriculture to the public.

Participants in Land O’Lakes’ leadership development program. (Image courtesy of Land O’Lakes)

Many of the leaders Land O’Lakes is working to develop are second- or third-generation farmers eager to raise awareness of how modern farming techniques improve the lives of farmers and the animals they care for. Over the five years since the entry-level session, Cornerstone for Engagement, has been running, classes averaged about 40 participants, and it has been begun to be rolled out in locations outside of Minnesota.

“It’s so exciting to see the passion that some of these younger producers have and how they grow and develop and are able to tell their story,” Oelmann said.

The development program isn’t in any way stagnant — every year it’s being improved as the needs of its farmers change and as Land O’Lakes evolves its understanding of how to approach the ag landscape. The networking aspect is valuable for the program’s participants, and through mentoring and other measures, Land O’Lakes encourages an education that continues even after the formal program ends. It’s the opportunity to take a farming message far and wide and for years to come.

Highlighting the external advocacy that the program undertakes, Land O’Lakes recently sent three younger leaders to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers.

“This isn’t so much about Land O’Lakes the cooperative, it’s about how do we educate the public, how do we get understanding of the policy issues we’re facing,” Oelmann said. “So, it is much bigger and broader than the cooperative.”

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