By Julie Davis, AEM Director of Workforce Development

Ag ConnectionDid you ever meet someone for the first time and instantly make a connection? Remember that feeling of excitement and discovery? Maybe even a realization that some part of you that was missing, that you didn’t even know was missing, was somehow now filled. It was great, right?

Now imagine feeling that way about an organization that, until recently, you didn’t even know existed. Attending a conference, meeting leaders and participants, and just… sigh... knowing that there has been a paradigm shift and your perspective has forever been changed.

This was my experience when attending the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) Leaders Conference in November. The vision of AFA is to be a catalyst in the preparation of a new generation of agriculture leaders. That didn’t really resonate with me at first. I wasn’t that excited to attend, as I found myself more curious and confused about what AFA did than anything else. Luckily for me, this is definitely a group that clarifies its vision through experience.

I know that what I share in writing about attending the AFA Leaders Conference will not convey my experience and newfound admiration for the organization to you. However, I hope that I can generate enough curiosity about the organization that you will consider making a connection yourself. The conference had a competitive attendance process, which means that all 850 college students attending were screened and found to be exceptional. The program draws from 43 states, has grown to over 50% female participation and is actively seeking ways to expand diversity. There are more than 200 colleges and universities that are represented. The AFA Leaders Conference offers four tracks designed to offer development matched to a student’s year in college. These include personal assessment and career preparation, communication and relationship building, managing change and working in a global marketing place and lifelong learning and industry awareness. It’s what these tracks look like in reality that makes this organization so compelling.

I was able to sit in on a resume review program for a short time. Over 150 students, in groups of seven or eight, sat at tables with industry HR professionals to get feedback on their resumes. The students had sent their resumes to the HR professional in advance and what took place at the conference was an hours-long coaching session that touched on each resume. This was followed by a presentation on interviewing do’s and don’ts presented by an active HR professional. The student attendees dressed in professional attire for the conference and were interview-ready.

Next in my conference experience was an Opportunity Fair filled with booths representing the food and agriculture industry. Everyone from CLAAS to Merck Animal Health to Institute of Food Technologists was there representing their brand. For the students, the benefits were obvious: industry awareness, handing out resumes, interview booths, and summer internships. I stopped to talk to the vendors and asked what was in it for them. It was not uncommon to find vice presidents in the booth with their HR staff. One of them told me this was the only event he attended because all the screening was already done for him. He liked to meet the students, speak with them and get a feel for them instead of just having his team hand him the pile of excellent resumes. He said the amount of time and effort this event saved him and his team as they scouted for there next great employees was absolutely worth it.

Then there was the mocktails event. A non-alcoholic networking event where students learned to balance a drink, strike up a conversation with an industry professional and know how to move on to the next conversation. I had amazing conversations with agribusiness majors who already had their first internships with John Deere and eagerly sounded excited about their future prospects with the company. In addition, I spoke with ag education majors who wanted to work to educate end users on technology, and one conversation with a veterinary science major who planned to return to her community to replace the 70-plus-year-old veterinarian in her hometown. These were all students who were clearly passionate about agriculture careers, looking to step forward and willing to take what advice that I, as an industry professional, had to give. My advice for networking and their future career? Learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable, because that’s were growth and new opportunity is found.

The time that I spent during the conference included a leaders lunch with seniors going through the leadership track and practicing having a business lunch. I found myself talking to the young man next to me about what my favorite leadership book was and what I had gotten out of it. I also enjoyed a dinner sitting with one of AFA’s student Advisory Team who had been a part of organizing the conference and was on and off stage in front of at least 1,000 dinner participants leading the program. There were conversations with board members, past board members, industry participants and students. At the end of the event, I was tired, impressed and thoroughly won over.

As with any new relationship, you want to introduce a new discovery to your friends and family. May I please introduce Agriculture Future of America to each of you and encourage you to make a connection. If you are worried about the future leadership in your company, this organization provides a reassuring breath of fresh air.

To begin your own discovery process, please explore www.agfuture.org. You will find it worth your time.

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