Monday, January 08, 2007

Farm Bureau experience is more than just a meeting

By Elaine Shein

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — While the American Farm Bureau Federation is a serious, powerful farm lobbying group, those who come back year after year know it’s more than just the grassroots’ representatives deciding policy.

The annual meeting is a display of passion and humor, show business flair, and a chance to learn, vent and network.

President Bob Stallman as usual stirred members to be proud of the work they do back on their farms, feeding the world and protecting their way of life. This year he threw out tough messages for American politicians to do what is needed to help agricultural interests, warned that animal rights groups need to be stopped, and rallied his troops to play hardball against other parts of the world who present challenges to American agriculture such as South Korea.

Stallman and the power of the Farm Bureau cannot be ignored. There were policy heavy hitters attending the meeting in the last couple of days, talking to farmers on issues such as farm policy, animal ID and biofuels. The House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson, U.S. Ag Secretary Mike Johanns and USDA Under Secretary Bruce Knight were among those who met with farmers.

Several countries in the European Union had representatives from their Washington embassies on hand to also listen carefully to whatever the politicians said, including being present at press conferences.

But the Farm Bureau meeting also helped show the passion and support that people have for their organization, their communities, and their neighbors.

As they met in the hallways and sat next to each other in the meeting rooms, farmers and ranchers from different states shared stories of blizzards and droughts and how they impacted their operations. They offered sympathy to each other, and talked about being united to seek disaster support.

There was a moment of silence during the general session after Bob Stallman told people of a recent tragedy involving a promising young farmer. In November, Jeffrey Michel won the North Dakota Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement Award. In December, he was killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling with friends.

As for the other Young Farmer and Rancher competitors, they received a lot of support from the more than 5,000 people who are attending this year’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City. When one of the young couples accepted a prestigious award, the guy became rather choked up and shared how much the award meant to him and how devoted he’d be to Farm Bureau for the rest of his life. The thousands in the audience watched the stage and giant screens spellbound, right up to the back of the giant room and warmly applauded this next generation.

There is also the entertainment component of the meeting, from a well-known cowboy poet like Baxter Black to country music stars performing.

Well-known television journalist Sam Donaldson shared stories of interviews he had done with various presidents, but also shared messages on what makes a great leader.

He said a leader should have a complete plan. “Great leaders make great plans.”

A leader needs to build trust, earn it and talk straight.

A leader is with the people and not apart from the people. A leader gets out there, wants to know more about the people he meets, and wants to know more about what people want and need … even though a good leader also knows there are times to be tough and not give what people want.

A leader takes responsibility, and takes the blame.

A leader has persistence.

And, Donaldson said, sometimes it’s even more important to take a plan and modify it.

Donaldson made some blunt comments about Iraq and the problems Bush faces there. He stressed that Bush rewarded people who didn’t do a good job, and warned that it isn’t good leadership.

“A good leader rewards those that do a good job.” Giving awards to those that don’t deserve it doesn’t breed the trust a leader needs from people, he concluded.

Donaldson’s speech was timely. American Farm Bureau Federation, as well as state Farm Bureaus, has enjoyed strong leadership.

What helps make a good leader in this organization is that the leaders recognize the importance of the grass roots and follow their wishes when it comes to policies.

The organization also does a good job of rewarding those who serve it well, from the promising new farmers and ranchers to those who have served their Farm Bureau for decades.

And Stallman, as well as other former presidents of the Farm Bureau such as Dean Kleckner from Iowa, were often greeting, shaking hands and seen mingling with the farmers who have gathered here from all around the country.

Why has this organization continued to grow and become so powerful?

Yes, good policies and leaders have a lot to do with it.

But a lot of it also has to do with the winning formulas that the organization has developed, from involving grassroots members at meetings at counties across the nation, to educating and entertaining farmers and ranchers at this impressive meeting each year at the national level.

Read more of the Capital Press' coverage of the American Farm Bureau Federation conference here including audio coverage of Stallman's speech. Listen to the latest podcast on Stallman's remarks here.

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