As I looked out at the attendees of the recent rice leadership program alumni dinner in Little Rock, Arkansas, I couldn’t help but notice how many of today’s leaders were graduates of the program. Possibly even more heartening was the large number of young people who had recently completed the program and were poised to take on industry leadership rolls.
When you come down to it, the Rice Leadership Development Program is ongoing succession planning for the industry. As older leaders retire, there is a continuous group of younger folks who have been trained to fill those voids.
The seven-member 2020 class was named at the December Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock. If you count that class as the 31st, roughly 215 young leaders have completed or are currently in the program. I’m proud to say I’m one of those rice leadership graduates.
In addition to providing an in-depth education about the diverse U.S. rice industry, the class gives participants life skills, such as public speaking, media training and proper social etiquette. It also offers networking opportunities and creates lifelong friendships.
Timothy Gertson, who farms with his family near Lissie, Texas, is a graduate of the 2012 class. One of the teachings that stuck with him was the need for farmers to tell their stories to the general public. As a result, Gertson says he tries to make time for media requests whenever possible.
During development of the 2018 Farm Bill, he testified on short notice before a House conservation subcommittee. Gertson also recently visited Africa as part of a trip to gain first-hand knowledge of U.S. food assistance programs.
Jennifer James, a 1997 leadership graduate who farms with her family near Newport, Arkansas, has been volunteering in the rice industry for about 20 years. When asked why she devotes so much time to off-farm activities, she says, “It’s my duty to give back what was invested in me during my time in the leadership class. It certainly provided the foundation and gave me access to meetings, committees and networking and helped me build relationships with farmers not only in Arkansas but throughout the country. It has built my confidence and ability to represent farmers in different capacities in the industry.”
Each class comprises five producers and two industry representatives. Applicants must be between 25 and 45 years old. The two-year program involves two one-week sessions annually, finishing in Washington, D.C. It is supported by grants from John Deere Co., RiceTec Inc. and American Commodity Co.
Learn more about the program at https://www.usarice.com/foundation/leadership-program, and watch for announcements this summer about how to apply for the 2021 class.