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Building the Leadership Pipeline in Agriculture

For more than two decades, the Minnesota Agriculture & Rural Leadership (MARL) program has built a talent pipeline for the state’s rural communities and driven innovation and adaptation in Minnesota’s agriculture economy.

The mission of MARL is to develop the skills of Minnesota’s agricultural and rural leaders to maximize their impact and effectiveness in local, state, national and international arenas. This is accomplished through a series of educational sessions held throughout the state, an international trip and networking and knowledge sharing among participants. To date, more than 350 people have graduated from the two-year program. Many current and former staff and board members of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) are among the alumni (see sidebar on page 9).

Individuals from all walks of life and from all corners of the state are encouraged to apply for the MARL program. The only qualification to be considered is that applicants work in the agriculture ecosystem.

There are countless benefits to the MARL program, both for individuals and the state’s agriculture industry, said Brad Schloesser, MARL’s executive director.

“The program is grounded in learning. Whether that be at one of the formal sessions hosted across the state, through exposure to a different culture on the international trip or through casual conversations between cohorts, MARL provides many different opportunities for individuals to engage and learn more about the entire ecosystem,” Schloesser said. “They [MARL participants] then take that knowledge back to their home communities and put it into action. They have an increased awareness of the challenges, resources and people across Minnesota and are better equipped to drive change and growth.”

Schloesser said the program benefits from the broad network of participants that come from different sectors of agriculture and from across the state. The diversity of thought and background makes for a stronger learning experience for all, he said. The program is designed to highlight a variety of ways that materials produced on a farm can add value along the agriculture chain.

Carolyn Olson is an organic farmer from Lyon County (Minn.) and a graduate of MARL. She is also the vice president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau and a board director for AURI. What drew her to the program was a chance to take the next step in her professional development.

“I was experiencing some imposter syndrome and I didn’t feel like I was qualified for some of the leadership positions I was interested in pursuing,” Olson said.

The lessons from MARL proved invaluable and still bear fruit today, she said. The section of the curriculum on emotional intelligence was a highlight for Olson. The “deep dives” on different sectors of the state’s agriculture economy that she was unfamiliar with— like forestry and grass growing— were also beneficial.

“I was nervous about the emotional intelligence assessment, but it helped me realize the experiences in my life have helped me be the person I am today,” said Olson. “I also knew going in that I was an extrovert but learning more about my personality style helped me to understand why I do some of the things I do. I learned how I can be a better listener when talking with introverts so when the conversation is over, everyone feels like they were heard.”

The lessons learned in the MARL program helped her become a better version of herself.

“Sometimes in order to grow you need to face your flaws and not be embarrassed,” she said.

Lisa Gjersvik is the senior director of strategy at AURI and a MARL graduate. She said the programming exposes participants to many different parts of Minnesota and segments of agriculture. Gjersvik’s class visited northeast Minnesota to learn more about timber and logging and iron ore mining. They also toured the Hormel facility in Austin, Minn.

“There were unique aspects of those industries and those regions that were new to me and very interesting. It was illuminating,” she said. “You get a sense of the challenges and issues that different areas of the state are facing that you may not otherwise understand without visiting with those who work and live there.”

Labor shortages were a common theme that emerged from every site visit, Gjersvik said. Ag producers in all corners of the state were struggling to recruit enough workers with the right skills. As a result, many farms and businesses turned to innovation to find solutions to fill the gaps. She cited a piece of equipment at the Forsbergs facility in Thief River Falls, Minn. The company makes separators for ag producers.

“We saw a demonstration of a shaker table that separates peanuts from rocks and soil. It was a very impressive piece of equipment designed to solve a specific problem. I was impressed by the outside-the-box thinking that created it,” she said.

Nan Larson manages the AURI Connects program and is a MARL graduate. She said the strength of the program is that it brings facilitators, advocates and decision-makers across the value chain together to have meaningful discussions about important topics. She said she grew both her confidence and her leadership skills during the two-year program.

Her time in MARL helped her realize “that everyone has their strengths, and that you don’t need to change yours to meet the norm of what a leader should look like. Just because I bring different skills to the table, doesn’t make my approach wrong.”

The program helped Larson better relate to people by tailoring her interactions to match her audience. Recognizing that everyone has a different communication style is an important trait for leaders.

Each MARL class visits Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators and policy makers from Minnesota. The group talks with Minnesota’s delegation in the U.S. Congress about issues specific to their region and Minnesota. One issue that emerged recently is mental health in rural Minnesota. Many people who work in agriculture struggle with mental health issues and there is often a lack of mental health providers and resources in rural areas. Bringing awareness and reducing the stigma around seeking care and addressing the gap in treatment options in rural Minnesota remain priorities, Schloesser said.

“We are a grassroots organization. By visiting the people that represent us in Congress we make those connections and share what is happening at home and discuss the issues we see in agriculture in Minnesota,” Schloesser said.

The touchstone of each MARL class is a two-week trip abroad. Previous classes visited Europe, South America, Central America, Asia and other parts of the globe to learn about the business of agriculture outside of Minnesota. These trips are an invaluable part of the learning experience.

“When you travel to a different part of the world you experience a different language, a different time zone, different foods and different traditions and culture. All of these factors can make a person feel uncomfortable. But what I found is that when we are uncomfortable, we listen more, we see more and we relate more to the people around us. It is a transformation,” Schloesser said.

MARL classes have toured avocado farms, olive farms, dairy farms, rose farms, pineapple farms and coffee plantations.

“We were at a 500-acre pineapple farm in Ecuador and spoke to the operators about growing and harvesting. On one hand it was like nothing we have here in Minnesota, but the agronomics necessary were not all that dissimilar from what is needed to grow soybeans,” Schloesser said. “The people we meet on these international trips are very similar to Minnesota’s ag producers. They want to make a living that can provide for their families and leave the earth a little better place than when they arrived.”

Gjersvik said her confidence increased significantly throughout the course of the program and continued after graduation. “What the MARL program did for me was provide a broad context for the issues facing our industry and our communities and then provide connections with people working on the same issues and questions,” she said. “In our industry we need to refresh the talent pipeline of leaders to remain viable and to help our communities thrive.”

Olson enthusiastically recommends the program to anyone considering applying. She said the experience sparked her curiosity in the broader ecosystem.

“We are all connected through agriculture, but we all have our own unique stories. I think that is fascinating,” Olson said. “What I tell people is that MARL will make you the best version of yourself. You can be a leader in your community and share your knowledge with others. MARL will help you see where your gifts lie and where you can make the largest difference.”