By Julie Davis, AEM Director of Workforce Development

Commodity ClassicIf you attended Commodity Classic this year, you may have noticed the 70 or so students wearing gray polo shirts, walking the show floor, and spending their time learning about the future of agriculture.

The students were guests of the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) Technology Institute, an initiative that brings talented college students together for a three-day program held in conjunction with Commodity Classic. The program’s itinerary provides interaction between students and technology sector leaders, exposes students to area businesses, and includes discussion and training to enhance student career preparation.

Students attending the AFA Technology Institute were selected through an application process based on industry and leadership development, career goals, and articulation of the benefits of the program to their career development. AEM recognized the value of this effort, and the Association approached it as an opportunity to engage agriculture industry leaders.

Partnering with AFA, several AEM member companies were invited to lead a discussion on a specific, complex industry topic and invite ag’s next generation to participate and sharpen their problem-solving skills. What transpired was a uniquely valuable conversation regarding the complexities that revolve around precision ag, data collection, data storage, data use and end-user engagement.

Panelists included:

  •  Charlene Finck, Division President, Farm Journal
  •  Peter Van der Vlugt, Kverneland Group
  •  Bill Hurley, VP Aftersales, Customer Support & Distribution Development, AGCO Corp.
  •  Michael Gomes, VP Business Development, Topcon Positioning Systems, Inc.
  •  Anita Sennett, Sr Director Ag Product Services, AEM

Listening to group discussions on certain industry topics was an incredibly exciting and interesting experience. Hurley’s group focused on the importance of data security and building customer trust in order to have equipment end users participate in data sharing. The summary from many in the group was that as generations transition, the challenge of data security will lessen due to the younger generation’s comfort in doing so. Furthermore, one individual commented that the issue should not be looked at from the point of view of “Can a company keep our data safe?” but rather one of “How will you treat me when my data is compromised?”

In addition, the person commented that the expectation of total data security – in certain generations – is very low, and pointed to the number of large data breaches that have taken place. The individual felt the most important point a company could communicate to customers was letting them know they would be taken care of if a breach took place, so as to retain their trust. In other words, customers want transparency.  

Van der Vlugt’s group discussed who should hold the vast amounts of data being collected. The table had a robust conversation that had a great evolution of thought as the students suggested ideas, thought through them and then progressed to another idea. They began with suggesting that non-profits hold the data, then discussed the regulations that would need to be in place to ensure the data managed effectively.

The group progressed to suggesting government involvement, and they landed on the idea of universities. The idea of universities resonated with group members, as it discussed the amount of raw data this would give the university’s access to as they conducted research. Further suggestions were made that data be segmented regionally as crops grown in one region may differ from another region. Regional collection centers could have a better focus on the data they would analyze. It was interesting idea as agriculture looks to better connect industry and education so educational institutions can adapt their knowledge and training to keep pace with industry.

Gomes’s group discussed building trust with customers. Many of the students shared experiences they had in internships where they were viewed as young and in experienced yet they were able to give up-to-date information and were proven to be valuable as relationships were established.

Meanwhile, Finck’s group discussed how we could possibly use this data to ultimately feed larger numbers of people and support the world’s growing population. As one might expect with these kinds of big issues, there were good conversations.

Following their first day, the AFA Technology Institute participants held a dinner where sponsors and industry guests were invited to engage with the students. If you have not had an opportunity to sit with some of the best and brightest of the next generation of leaders, I would encourage you to volunteer and participate. I enjoyed asking some questions that I hear circulating in the industry to get these up-and comers’ perspectives. One of the best conversations we had revolved around diversity and inclusion in agriculture. As we all know, it’s a growing topic. Research continues to show that expanding diversity at top leadership levels increased a company’s bottom line, brings in different perspectives, and often leads to better solutions.

As industry struggles to meet employment shortfalls and retirement spurs succession planning, companies are not willing to put any segment of the population off to the side. Asked what they were seeing in the agriculture pipeline, the students felt that more and more women were getting involved in agriculture with the exception of a few areas of study that were still dominated by males.

In the male-dominated majors, I was inspired to hear students discussing how they would encourage their fellow female classmates to consider their areas and classes, and were wholeheartedly supportive of women joining them. Students also commented on the significant number of women agriculture teachers at their colleges. When asked about how minorities were received in the field, they felt that each of them, not just the minorities, had the opportunity to prove their knowledge and value. Once having done that, the customers in the field accepted them. This included a LGBT student who shared a summer internship experience. It was refreshing and hopeful to hear this generation talk about the issue of diversity, while industry continues to find ways to open the door in top leadership roles.

If your company is not acquainted with AFA, I would highly encourage you to reach out and familiarize yourself. The association is comprised of more than 800 of the best and brightest students studying in universities across the nation and looking to be the next agriculture leaders in their fields of study. These are students who you can connect with via internship opportunities.

I spoke with one VP of HR who only attends the AFA Leadership Conference as he looks to fill his internship pipeline. When I asked him why, he gave a great answer:

 “Why bother going anywhere when here, they bring the best and brightest to me.” 

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