MFA Oil and MFA Incorporated Hold Conference for Emerging Leaders in Ag
February 19, 2022
Written By Adam Buckallew
Young farmers from Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas gathered in Osage Beach, Mo., on Jan. 11-13, 2022, for the inaugural Emerging Leaders in Agriculture Conference cohosted by MFA Oil and MFA Incorporated. The two-day, all-expenses-paid event brought together farmers who will lead the next generation of agricultural production with industry experts to discuss important farm issues and offer peer networking opportunities.
“There’s a lot of value in bringing together up-and-coming producers so that they can bounce ideas off one another, share successes from their operations and build their network of contacts with farmers and ranchers who are in similar situations,” MFA Oil President and CEO Jon Ihler said.
The conference kicked off with a session led by Donnell Brown, a fifth-generation rancher from Throckmorton, Texas, who owns and manages the R.A. Brown Ranch. Brown discussed how participants could better run their farms like businesses. He encouraged diversification to manage risk and future challenges.
“We don’t know how markets will shift, but we do know it will happen,” Brown said. “There are many ways to diversify—through new crops, breeds, production practices, etc. The key is to find ways to become a price maker rather than a price taker. I’ve found it’s easier to sell what customers want to buy rather than what I may want to sell them.”
Natasha Cox, regional vice president of ag lending for Farm Credit Mid-America, spoke about what lenders expect from farmers and what farmers should expect of their lenders. She asked the audience to consider their banker as a strategic partner and trusted adviser.
“The more your lender knows about your operation, the better a partner they can be to you,” Cox said. “All farmers need a detailed plan with a well-thought-out goal. Once you’ve put together your plan, you should share that information with your lender—it’s not a secret to keep.”
What should farmers expect of their lenders? Cox listed flexibility, explanations on loan decisions, good communication, financial analysis based on shared information and open dialogue about options when times get tough.
Dr. Keri Jacobs, an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri, spoke about the cooperative business model and the upside of doing business with cooperatives. Jacobs, who holds the MFA Chair in Agribusiness and is a Graduate Institute of Cooperative Leadership Fellow, reviewed the historical significance of agricultural cooperatives and why they were formed.
Agricultural cooperatives provided access to unreachable goods and services, opened downstream markets, created necessary infrastructure and shared operations, addressed systemic risks, and maintained crucial market power through the collective action of the farmers who formed them.
Jacobs suggested the cooperative system is needed now more than ever.
“Without cooperatives, it’s questionable if enough competition would remain to maintain competitive pricing and services to farmers,” she said.
Jacobs said the mere existence of cooperatives benefits producers by providing options to the marketplace, maintaining the vitality of rural communities through local investments and local employment, and ensuring business decisions are made by member-owners who use the co-op and share in its successes and failures.
Sara Wyant, founder and president of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., examined hot topics in Washington, D.C., and gave attendees a look ahead to important legislative issues for 2022. Although the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) bill, which the House of Representatives passed, may appear dead after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition, it could make a comeback in a smaller form. Should BBB resurface, Wyant expects the agricultural components of the bill will shrink, though support for cover crops and carbon sequestration would likely remain a focus.
The current Farm Bill expires in 2023, and House and Senate Ag Committees will likely start hearings on the next Farm Bill later this year. Continued support for broadband is likely but not guaranteed, and there could be new opportunities for rural development programs. Wyant said there is a high likelihood that new members of the congressional ag committees will have little to no understanding of modern agriculture. The upcoming mid-term elections in 2022 could add more uncertainty. Wyant said projections indicate Republicans will likely recapture the majority in the House, but she is less certain if they will regain control of the Senate. One potential outcome of a GOP-led House could be a push for fiscal austerity and more conservative agricultural subsidy policies, she said.
Wyant encouraged young producers to get involved in the political discourse that affects their farms. Her advice to attendees was to educate themselves on the issues; talk to their local, state and federal government officials and invite them to their farms; stay active in their agricultural organizations; and engage with local consumers through their church, chamber of commerce and other opportunities.
Attorney Connie Haden, a partner at the law firm of Haden & Colbert LLC, capped off the first day of the conference with a conversation about farm succession planning.
“The primary purpose of estate planning is to preserve family relationships,” Haden said.
Taking the time to create an estate plan can prevent fights that break out in families when a loved one dies with no plan or an inadequate one in place. Haden said each plan should be unique and based on what will work best for the family.
Haden also discussed how farm businesses could be structured for simplicity, liability protection and tax advantages.
“Establishing an LLC or incorporating your farm can shield your personal assets from liability,” Haden said. “The most important thing is to remember how you’ve chosen to do business and follow the rules that go along with that structure.”
The second day of the conference featured strategic planning exercises led by David Parker, an agribusiness consultant. Parker urged conference participants to develop a vision of where they want their farm to be in the future business-wise and what they would need to do to make their dream a reality.
The meeting concluded with a roundtable discussion between attendees and leaders from the two hosting cooperatives. The roundtable featured MFA Oil President and CEO Jon Ihler, MFA Oil Board Chairman Glen Cope, MFA Incorporated President Ernie Verslues and MFA Incorporated Board Chairman Wayne Nichols. Cope talked about his experience serving on the board of directors for both cooperatives and encouraged young farmers and ranchers to get involved with their co-ops.
“We need more young people to take an interest in our cooperatives and let us know how we can best serve the next generation’s needs,” Cope said. “Attending local and district meetings is a great opportunity to share your voice, participate in the co-op’s governance and learn what’s happening in the company from an operational and financial perspective. The more young farmers and ranchers we can get involved, the better positioned our co-ops will be for the future.”
Abilene Gatson of Gatson Farms in Vandalia, Mo., was one of the 50 farmers and ranchers invited to attend the conference. She enjoyed the event and appreciated the opportunity to participate.
“We learned several things to work on in our operation and (it) definitely sparked some conversations here at home,” Gatson said.