Chandler Bruns, Social Media Manager, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Each year the National FFA Organization selects an elite group of FFA alumni between the ages of 18 to 24 to attend the New Century Farmer Conference. Designed to support the needs of tomorrow’s leaders in production agriculture, the conference draws the cream of the crop, so to speak – former FFA state officers, alumni, and budding entrepreneurs who rub shoulders with industry and business experts, discussing the issues that affect us today, as well as what we might see tomorrow.

Here are a few takeaways from my five days with tomorrow’s ag leaders.

Tomorrow’s ag leaders will look different. According to USAFacts, farmers in the last census were 64 percent male, 62 percent 55-years-old or older, and 95 percent white/Hispanic. NCFC attendees were obviously younger and considerably more diverse, and the number of women in the audience and serving as presenters was significant. Moreover, tomorrow’s ag leaders didn’t necessarily grow up on the farm; only 26 percent of attendees were first-generation producers. This is a group that has chosen agricultural as a profession as opposed to a continuation of farm life.

Tomorrow’s Ag Leaders will have to be more flexible. Coming out of a pandemic, adaptability is more than a buzzword, it’s a necessity. The NCFC program was shaped around taking what you know, recognizing volatility, and thriving in a world that’s filled with unknowns.

Fortunately, the panel was filled with expert advice. For instance, Karlanea Brown, co-owner of RDM Aquaculture LLC, a shrimp producer based in Fowler, Indiana, more than 850 miles from the nearest ocean. Brown grows her shrimp in small swimming pools that mimic the ocean and sells them live to businesses in a 400-mile radius. Or Brian Mahern, owner of Garfield Honey Company. He admitted that he learned the business from YouTube videos. These and other presenters stressed the importance of finding niches in the agricultural arena and developing their passions into businesses.

Tomorrow’s leaders will be more collaborative and socially aware. Farmers, my family included, tend to be an independent bunch. We mind our own business and deal with our own problems. But according to several of the speakers, this isn’t a realistic blueprint for future leaders who will have to learn to deal with stress – and their neighbors – in a more focused and intentional manner.

For example, Rick Clark, who grows organic crops in Williamsport, Indiana. He spoke on how he goes the extra mile to build relationships with his neighbors to ensure that the crops around him are sprayed correctly. Or DeMario Vitalis, who brought two acres of worth of hydroponic leafy greens to the urban areas of Indianapolis by using shipping containers. Why? To support local markets in areas where fresh produce was previously unattainable.

Another speaker from a local extension office addressed behavioral health, telling the group that stress is real but manageable, with tips that ranged from talk therapy to meditation.

If you want to reach tomorrow’s ag leaders, you better learn to speak their language. This isn’t so much a takeaway as it is a warning to ag marketers. The next group of ag leaders is more skeptical and less loyal than the generations that preceded them. If you want to do business with them, you better do your homework.

Paige Pratt, a professional speaker on succession planning, took what might otherwise have been a boring topic and made it come to life with jokes, stories, and enthusiasm. The audience was riveted. On the other hand, two speakers from a national farm publication didn’t seem prepared, fumbled with questions, and for some reason, kept talking about Tik Tok to a group that relies considerably more on Twitter and Instagram. The audience spent most of this session looking at their phones. (Probably checking Instagram and Twitter!).

These are just a few of the many pages of notes I took away from an outstanding conference. It’s a tremendous week of on-site tours, small group discussions, live panel presentations and networking for tomorrow’s ag leaders. And based on what I saw and the men and women I spoke to, tomorrow’s ag leaders are ready and willing to take the mantle.