By Doug Rich

Where will future agricultural leaders be found? Recently, 320 of these future leaders could be found in Kansas City, MO attending the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) leadership conference.

AFA was founded in 1996 by R. Crosby Kemper, Jr. to encourage and support college students who are preparing for a career in agriculture. Russ Weathers, president and CEO of AFA, said AFA does three things to help these students: Establish college and leader development scholarships, host an annual leadership conference, and provide students with intern opportunities.

"Our purpose is to identify, support, and encourage young people who can make a contribution to agriculture," said Russ Weathers. When AFA was founded in 1996 the board of directors set goals that they hoped to reach by their fifth year. Weather said they wanted to have awarded 250 scholarships, placed students in 100 internships, and have 500 students attending their annual conference. AFA is very close to those goals in their fourth year of existence. To date they have awarded 135 scholarships, placed students in 87 internships, and had 320 registered for their recent leadership conference. Weathers said attendance at this year's conference is up 28% from last year and they have a retention rate of 48%.

Ag students attending the conference will participate in one of three programs or tracks. Track one is designed for college freshmen. Delegates on this track received training on time management, goal setting, personal development and resume' building. "This is an assessment track," says Mark Buell, vice-president of program development. Joaquin Crego, a delegate from Fort Collins, CO and a freshman at the College of Technical Agriculture at Curtis, NE, participated in track one.

Crego first learned about the AFA leadership conference just four weeks before it started when he was in Kansas City to participate in the 4-H livestock judging contest at the American Royal. His team won first place in the national livestock judging contest. "One of my lifelong goals was to win a national judging contest," said Joaquin Crego. His career goal is to become a veterinarian specializing in embryo transfer.

Track two is for college sophomores or juniors that attended a previous AFA leadership conference. Sessions focused on communication skills, employment preparation, ethics, and team building skills. Craig Fix from Cortland, NE was on track two this year. Fix, an ag business major at the University of Nebraska, attended his first AFA conference two years ago, skipped a year, and came back this year. "It has been amazing to me to come back this year and see how much it has grown," said Fix. "It is tremendous. There are at least twice as many people here as then."

Fix plans to pursue a job in sales, marketing or public relations after graduation in 2002. At the leadership conference he was interested in meeting with companies at the career fair who might be able to offer him an internship. "Someday I would like to return to the family farm," said Fix. "One thing I have learned in college is to appreciate how much the farm really means to me."

Track three prepares juniors and seniors in college for living and working in a global marketplace. Participants in track three attend workshops on managing personal change, conflict resolution, and preparing for a full-time job. Nancy Yates, a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in horticulture and agricultural education, took part in track three.

Ms. Yates has had two internships through AFA. The summer after her freshman year she was an intern with Earl Mary Garden Center in Lee's Summit, MO and last summer she was an intern with the Missouri Department of Agriculture. At the Missouri Department of Agriculture she worked for the state horticulture specialist where she researched state farmers markets association around the country. "I talked with people from all over the U.S. to see how they organize their associations," said Yates.

Her plans for the future are a little vague at this time except for one thing. "I know I want to be involved in agriculture," she said.

That was the common goal of all the delegates at the AFA Leadership Conference. They want to be involved in agriculture and they are optimistic about the future of agriculture. These future leaders know about the cyclical nature of agriculture and that hard times can often follow good times, but they are willing to accept the challenges that go along with a career in agriculture.

"Today is no different than any other time," said John Chartier who will graduate from Kansas State University in December. "There are always going to be challenges."

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