What is there to learn about leadership in America?

Date: August 26, 2022

Author: Mari Veliz, AALP Class 19

The Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program Class 19 is just back from the North America Study Tour.  We spent two days in Washington D.C. and four in Louisiana.  A visit with our closest neighbours gives us some insights into how America is dealing with the challenges of our times: labour shortages, difficult weather, and changing consumer expectations.  

In both locations, we heard about challenging times from the past and how the truly influential leaders made decisions that did not benefit themselves personally but paved the way for improved conditions in the future.  Monuments to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. dominate hallowed ground in Washington’s National Mall. "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” monument for Martin Luther King Jr. reminds visitors that America's strength lies in its diversity. In a tour of the Capitol, we heard how George Washington declined “to be King” and turned all future decisions for the fledgling nation to Congress. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States.  He is regarded as one of America's greatest communicators.

From ideas etched in granite to the workings of modern day Washington, AALP Class 19 heard from the Canadian Embassy and American Farm Bureau about the important work of reminding politicians and our more and more urban world about agriculture.  We heard from the National Milk Producers Federation, American Soybean Association, American Farm Bureau, and National Corn Growers Association (and even producers in Louisiana) about the importance of the American Farm Bill.  Every five or six years, the farm bill expires and is updated.  It goes through a process where it is proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and is then signed into law by the President.  Its main policies include risk management (i.e., commodity programs and crop insurance), conservation and nutrition assistance.  With fewer in the House of Representatives with an agricultural background this bill is getting harder to pass. From Paul Bleiberg’s experience with dairy co-ops in the northeast, no two producers have the same management and it is hard to get industry rowing in the same direction.  In past versions of the bill, dairy producer/processor issues have stalled the multi-million dollar program.  The Milk Producers Federation has learned to start earlier to build consensus for their industry for this 2023 round.   

The original farm bill(s) were enacted as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation to address economic and environmental challenges of the 1930s. It had three goals:  fair food prices for farmers and consumers, ensuring an adequate food supply, and sustaining the country’s natural resources. In the intervening nearly 100 years, the main goals of the Farm Bill remain the same.  

Even in the far-off region of Southern Louisiana, access to programs under the Farm Bill means fair prices for sugar cane growers, and lack of access means less stability in rice and urban farm programs in downtown New Orleans.  The Farm Bill is no panacea and there will always be challenges.  AALP Class 19 participant, Matt Aarts, aptly reminded us on our road trip, that there are always two ditches on either side of the road.   

Agriculture is the foundation of America, as evidenced by the sheaves of corn and wheat built into the architecture and the art of the rotunda at the Capitol.  With tenacious farmers such as Julie and Chrisian Richards, farming on the edge of a disappearing Louisiana Gulf coastline with rice, crayfish, and soybeans(!) in fields where I was not sure what was field and what was bayou, the importance of agriculture in America remains evident. Finally, Ricky Gonsoulin’s shift from “farming cane for 40 years” to running for Mayor of the Parish of New Iberia, told us that leadership is about “trying to make decisions with more of us in mind.”  As I think about this trip and all that I have seen, I wonder who is considered ”us” , it is a fair question…