LEADERS Program Cultivating Tomorrow’s Ag Leadership
Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Leaders aren’t born; they’re made.”For 27 recent graduates of the Alabama Agriculture and Forestry Leadership Development Program (LEADERS), their transformation into leaders began two years ago in a cotton field near Eufaula, Ala., continued on a wooded mountainside in the Pacific Northwest and concluded this summer on the drought-parched plains of Australia.”I know how small the world really is,” said LEADERS graduate Brad Brooks of Lauderdale County as he traveled back from a 16-day study tour to New Zealand and Australia. “I see how imports, exports and trade in general can impact the cattle industry. The more I work with people outside my realm of influence, the easier it is to speak my mind on important issues.”That reaction is just what the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and agribusiness leaders had in mind when they started the LEADERS program more than 20 years ago. Since then, almost 200 up-and-coming agriculture and forestry professionals have completed the course, and most have gone on to become spokespeople for the industry. “LEADERS opens their eyes about the breadth of their industry beyond the farm gate or wood lot gate,” said Dr. Dennis Evans, who directs the program for the Extension System. “It allows participants to be able to talk intelligently about the industry in which they work. (After completing the program,) the participants realize they sometimes have to leave the farm to help agriculture.”Founded in 1984 with a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, LEADERS is sustained through private contributions from individuals, companies and farm organizations like the Alabama Farmers Federation. The two-year leadership development program consists 50 days of intense training, including seven three-day workshops in Alabama, a national study tour and an international tour.Amy Belcher, who works with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, said her LEADERS experience was comparable to earning a master’s degree in agriculture.”This has been the best investment of my time. Nothing against my college experience, but I learned more and enjoyed my education these last two years more than my college experience,” she said. “My confidence in public speaking has greatly improved. I also feel much more informed about general agricultural practices, which is critical to my job.”Belcher’s evaluation of the program is one reason the agriculture and forestry industry has been willing to support the LEADERS program. Their investment in young people pays dividends in the form of more knowledgeable employees and more active organization members, Evans said.”The established leadership in the agriculture industry is extremely supportive of helping young leaders in the industry develop their leadership skills,” he said. “They realize that there are not many of us in agriculture and forestry, so it is more critical than ever that we have leaders who are skilled in the public arena.”Alabama Farmers Federation has been a perennial sponsor of the program. In addition, 22 county Farmers Federations helped underwrite regional institutes or the tuition expenses for individuals in Class VIII. Those county organizations were: Autauga, Baldwin, Cherokee, Coffee, Dallas, Elmore, Escambia, Greene, Hale, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Lee, Limestone, Madison, Marengo, Mobile, Montgomery, Pickens, Russell, Shelby, St. Clair and Tuscaloosa.Dawn Lazenby of Lee County was so grateful for the LEADERS experience that, like many graduates, she pledged to support its continuation.”When it comes to the importance of investing leadership into young people I can sum it up by saying this, ‘We can’t afford not to.’ It would be devastating to our industry not to value the training of those who come behind us. I would do anything I could to help support this program,” she said. “This has been one of the most challenging and one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am really blessed to have been part of this program. It has changed my life and my future.”During the LEADERS program, participants visited farms, agribusinesses, research facilities and government offices in Auburn, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Eufaula, Birmingham, Decatur and Montgomery. They also received training on public speaking, journaling, listening and other leadership skills.Federation State Young Farmers Chairman Townsend Kyser of Hale County said the training has made him a better spokesperson for agriculture.”I can speak more knowledgably about agricultural problems around the world and how we share many of them,” he said. “I think I have grown even though I did not think it was possible. I have learned more about our world as well as our nation and state, but most importantly about myself.”Burk Williams of Cherokee County echoed Kyser’s remarks.
“I feel I speak up more and take charge of events instead of letting others do it,” he said. “I have more self confidence which goes a long way. The LEADERS program is the best program I could ever go through. By understanding global problems, I can relate to them and help our U.S. industry.”Graduates of LEADERS Class VIII were: Randy Akridge, Brewton; Amy Belcher, Hope Hull; Brad Brooks, Killen; Chris Carter, Athens; Gary Cole, Excel; Jerry Dwyer, Auburn; Scott Hamilton, Phil Campbell; Brian Hardin, Millbrook; Patrick Harrigan, Monroeville; Townsend Kyser, Greensboro; Andy Lavendar, Roeton; Dawn Lazenby, Society Hill; Joe Lovvorn, Graham; James Miles, Mobile; Richy Naisbett, Demopolis; James Owens, Aliceville; Mary Ray, Prattville; Rodney Rhodes, Brewton; Jeff Sibley, Auburn; Scott Skelton, Chunchula; Kent Stanford, Ashville; J.J. Watson, Pine Apple; Jennifer Wells, Dothan; Larry Wells, Headland; Burk Williams, Centre; Davy Wright, Plantersville; and Jamie Yeager, Orrville. Naisbett of Marengo County summarized the feeling of many of his classmates when asked to comment on the importance of the program to his industry.”Programs like this are imperative to the success of agriculture,” he said. “We must continue to develop leadership skills in individuals so those may go on to another level and strengthen our industry. This program helps create engineers, people in agriculture who can commingle ideas and experiences to build a strong and sustainable industry not just at home but globally. I will always actively work to see that this program survives.”Evans is currently seeking nominations for LEADERS Class IX, which he hopes to kickoff next year. Participants will be selected based on a written application and interview. For more information, contact Evans at (334) 844-5552 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. Nomination forms may be downloaded at