Alabama farm leadership program making impact

Dennis Evans could never be accused of soft-pedaling his rhetoric. Within farming and forestry circles, he's the rhetorical version of the cold shower or pot of steaming black coffee on Sunday morning following a raucous Saturday night fraternity party.

It's his job. As coordinator of the Alabama and Forestry Leadership Development Program, Evans says a good part of his time is spent making young farmers and foresters squirm in their seats with discomfort.

It's a tough undertaking at times, Evans says, but someone's got to do it for the sake of this embattled minority and its long-term survival.

"Part of my job is taking them out of their comfort zone," Evans says with characteristic straightforwardness. "They really want to be assured everything's okay. But things aren't okay."

LEADERS, as the program is commonly called, is a 50-day educational experience taken over two years. Administered by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System in conjunction with the Auburn University's College of Agriculture and the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, it is aimed at promising young adults working in the agriculture and natural resources industries.

A critical part of this effort, Evans says, is taking farmers beyond the homey security of the farm gate to a world of public policy that is often unfriendly and even downright hostile to farming interests.

Evans is old enough to remember when things weren't so bad. The product of a large Louisiana farm family, he grew up in an era when the lingering effects of pre-World War II isolationism were still palpable as a freshly plowed field and the U.S. manufacturing and farming sectors still wielded the biggest stick on the international stage.

All that has changed. In many instances, U.S. farming increasingly is being out-competed by up-and-coming agricultural powers like Australia, China and Brazil. If that isn't challenging enough, farmers are beset with mounting public concerns about product safety, farm chemical use and livestock waste disposal.

Overcoming these challenges will involve farmers divesting themselves of a longstanding but destructive mindset with roots stretching back to the days when American society was still overwhelmingly agrarian — one that has always assumed everybody else will yield to the demands of agriculture, he says.

Evans recalls one incident recently at a LEADERS study institute in Huntsville where this mindset was in full view. LEADERS students were discussing land-use planning — an increasingly thorny issue as more cities and suburbs spill into once pristine forestland and farming communities.

"As it turned out, a Harvard University student intern happened to be working in the building where we held the discussion and asked to sit in and listen to the discussion," Evans recalls. "However, in an evaluation of the discussion later in the day, some LEADERS participants expressed a deep resentment over an 'outsider' being let into the meeting."

In an age of increasing globalization, Evans says, it is a type of narrow thinking that will have to change.

Evans nonetheless remains hopeful. Now in its 20th year, LEADERS already has turned out almost 200 graduates who are active in their professions throughout the state. He's been especially impressed recently by the sense of realism reflected in the 27 students who signed on to the program this year, including Amy Belcher, a young mother, part-time farmer and public relations professional employed by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

Like so many other people involved in farming for the quality of life it provides, Belcher spends a lot of her free time on her front porch relishing the sights on the farm that she and her husband operate in their free time. Her biggest concern is preserving farming for her two-year-old daughter and future generations --- a legacy, she believes, is threatened by unrelenting urban sprawl.

"The whole way of life teaches core values," Belcher says.

"That's why I wanted to participate in LEADERS — to help more people understand how important it is to preserve this way of life."

One other agricultural professional who has heeded Evans' lessons to heart is Chilton County farmer and cattle producer Jimmy Parnell.

Before Parnell joined the program, he, like many other agribusiness professionals had the sense that he was "alone on an island." In time, though, he began to understand the need for networking and making inroads into policymaking circles, even mounting an unsuccessful bid for public office at one point.

"I think the concept (behind LEADERS) is exactly right," Parnell says. "We're all so engrossed in our lives and problems and all those everyday problems that we often get stuck in a rut. But there's an old saying, 'The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth of the hole.'"

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