Much has been written and said regarding the challenges agriculture must meet in the next 50 years. The global population is rising. Our climate is warming. Productive farmland is being lost. Food production is changing at a rapid pace, and too many people don’t understand it and are fearful.
One issue of concern that doesn’t get as much attention is where the next generation of agricultural leaders will come from. They’ll need to be better educated, more articulate, accustomed to dialogue with people far from the farm, and more adaptable to change when circumstances require it. That’s a tall order.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to invest in the human capital needed to meet our challenges. One example is an agricultural policy and leadership program at the University of Illinois’ Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics. This program is unique in several ways. For one, it seeks to better connect the knowledge and critical thinking skills students learn in the regular classroom to practical, marketable skills they will need after they graduate. Students learn the issues, how to effectively articulate those issues and how to appropriately make contact with the people that drive policy change.
Another unique feature is that I teach the class. I don’t have a PhD. What I bring to the classroom is 35 years of experience in the policy field and a passion for agriculture. I get plenty of help. We bring in government leaders, agricultural communicators and Illini alums to speak with the students about issues and policy processes.
The program is considered “experiential learning.” The students choose a current policy topic and prepare and present mock testimony in class. The class also features a study tour to Washington, D.C. during spring break. Experiences gained through this course and the trip positions these young adults to become tomorrow's business and policy leaders.
In addition to the class focused on federal policy issues, I lead another class that examines issues affecting agribusiness and the food chain. It is taught in a similar practical, hands-on method, and includes meetings with agribusiness leaders in the Chicago area. Yet another class looks at U.S. policy issues from a non-Midwestern perspective. These students meet with a diverse set of leaders involved in California agriculture.
I am often asked how students respond to me as a teacher. That’s a question that may be better asked of a student. But I’m proud of the fact that the students keep coming back to class, their participation grows as the semester progresses, and we have no problem filling the classes despite a fairly significant additional charge to pay for travel.
Leaders of the past have taken us to a marvelous place in agriculture. But the world continues to grow more complex and challenging. Knowledge, discovery of new ideas and the ability to critically analyze situations won’t alone assure future progress. All of that will need to be coupled with the development of leaders who can successfully navigate a more complex, diverse and interdependent world.
Investing in our future leaders will hopefully let them look back at us 50 years from now with the same positive regard we have for those who have gone before us.