November 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA3

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Developing Effective Agricultural Leaders

A need for effective leaders, spokespeople, and policymakers in agriculture is recognized and an ongoing program to develop such leadership is outlined-along with some short-term results.

James T. Horner
Department of Agricultural Education and Department of Adult Education
University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Where policy issues are concerned, agriculture no longer carries the political clout of yesteryear. It lost one-half of its food producers in a recent generation. While production skills were being honed to a sharp edge, leadership potential went virtually unnurtured. Few agriculturalists were challenged to look beyond the farm gate toward becoming effective leaders, spokespeople, and policymakers. An urgent need now exists!

This article describes an innovative approach by Extension educators in one state to do something about the gap in public policy education for adult leaders in agriculture. Emphasis is on critical concepts, with implications for Extension educators wishing to initiate similar programs. The Extension educator is the linkage between citizen and policymaker, between academia and the "real world," and between learners and leaders.

The Program

Three years ago, a group of recognized Nebraska agricultural, educational, and business leaders were assembled. After examining various leadership development models, such as House1 outlined, and reviewing the essential elements for success in policy education by Howell,2 the nonprofit Nebraska Agricultural Leadership Council, Inc.,was formed. The mission of the council is to enhance agriculture and rural life by developing leadership potential of agriculturalists, through a Leadership Education/Action Development (LEAD) Program.

The council directs the program, but most of the work is done through committees: academic, personnel, and resource development. More than 100 leaders across the state are involved in fund-raising, screening of candidates, or serving as resource people.

This program differs from other leadership training programs in age group, content, and intensity. Each year, 30 Nebraska agriculturalists, age 25-40, are selected to participate in a 2-year series of leadership seminars. Between October and April each year, seven three-day resident seminars are conducted for each of two groups on different college campuses across the state. The information and experiences center around human relations, communication, economics, fiscal and monetary policies, government and the political process, social/cultural understandings, environmental concerns, taxes, trade, and other issues having an impact on agriculture. Academicians and practitioners stimulate disciplined dialogue on public affairs issues.

Additionally, and uniquely, a two to three week study travel seminar is held each year; one in the United States and the other abroad. They provide opportunities to observe and analyze interrelationships of and decision making by executives in agriculture, industry, labor, and government. The foreign study creates an understanding of common concerns and interdependence of nations. Discussion with foreign governmental and business leaders and with U.S. Embassy officials afford contacts and competence in contrasting political systems, cultures, trade, and technology.

Direct dialogue with customers and/or competitors for U.S. agricultural products is provided. For example, LEAD I Fellows learned while in Asia why we're unable to sell the Chinese and Japanese all the wheat and beef we'd like to. LEAD 11 Fellows came from Argentina and Brazil with a real concern about future competition from those "sleeping giants."

This article describes an innovative approach by Extension educators in one state to do something about the gap in public policy education for adult leaders in agriculture. Emphasis is on critical concepts, with implications for Extension educators wishing to initiate similar programs. The Extension educator is the linkage between citizen and policyrmaker, between academia and the "real world," and between learners and leaders.


Statewide radio, TV, and newspaper promotion along with slide-tape presentations and brochures results in about 100 applications each year. Applicants are interviewed by lay committees in the five Extension districts. Thus, 60 young Nebraska agricultural men and women participate each year in this unique policy education/leadership program. Threefourths are engaged in agricultural production, the others in related agribusiness. Their commodities range from alfalfa to angus, wheat to corn, pigs to popcorn, sheep to sugar beets.

Individually and collectively, their professional status is impressive, including corporate presidents whose operations range from 240 to 40,000 acres. Participants have proven potential for and commitment to influencing public policy-reflected by the offices they held in civic, church, educational, and commodity organizations.


House lamented the lack of public funding for public policy and agricultural leadership programs. However, I submit that surviving programs depend primarily on non-tax monies. The Kellogg Foundation, along with the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, helped to get LEAD started. It now receives support from 200 individuals, businesses, organizations, and 12 institutions of higher education, both public and private. Participants incur few out-of-pocket costs; yet, one of the major investments in this 2-year continuing education program is 80 days of their time.


Public affairs education and leadership development programs increase problem-solving skills as well as involvement in policymaking positions. A recent evaluation of a similar program begun earlier in California, showed 840 policymaking roles in the state were held by 260 past participants-an enviable result, indeed.3

After completing the first three LEAD groups (90 Fellows and their spouses), there's no doubt that the Nebraska program is enhancing agricultural leadership. From the first 30 alone, more than 30% already hold gubernatorial appointments on state boards and commissions. Others have been elected to state producer, educational, and professional offices. Still more have been sought out for civic, commodity, and educational leadership roles at local, and even national, levels.4

Gerald Clausen, a farmer, said, "LEAD is the best thing that ever happened to me. It has provided higher horizons in thinking and the ability to base my conclusions on a much broader base of knowledge." Kathy Votaw, a correspondent bank officer, said, "LEAD is proving to be one of the most significant and rewarding experiences of my life. The Fellows are growing through speakers, but also from each other." Randy Bruns, a rancher, said, "I am learning that theissues impacting agriculture are no longer shapeless forces, but are events, people, attitudes, facts, and figures, all understandable and even manageable. The dialogueamong farmers, businessmen, professors, and politicians is fertile ground for the push and pull of ideas. I am developing a renewed sense of responsibility."


Several elements emerged as essential for success of this unique public policy leadership educational program:

  • The Extension educator plays the key role in linking leaders-in-training, academicians, and practitioner policymakers.
  • Support results from widespread involvement, at the outset, of individual and business leaders and an unbelievable number of institutions of higher education.
  • Promotion is essential to attract the appropriate quantity and quality of applicants.
  • Participants with proven leadership potential and concern for public affairs must be selected.
  • Program design should emphasize analysis of public issues, over a two-year period, and include intensive as well as extensive dimensions.


Agriculture and the nation are the ultimate benefactors of speeding up the process and making more effective policyrnakers of agricultural leaders. Support is available. Extension educators are "natural" prime-movers for such programs. They can link leaders-in-learning to leaders in the "real world." They're the critical connection in the triad for training of public policymakers.


  1. Verne House, Shaping Public Policy: The Educator's Role (Bozeman, Montana: Westridge Publishing Company, 1981), pp. 2-3.
  2. Robert Howell and others, Public Affairs Leadership Development: An Impact Assessment of Programs Conducted in California, Michigan, Montana, and Pennsylvania (Pullman: Washington State University, Department of Rural Sociology, 1979), p. 353.
  3. Gene Rapp, A Follow-Up of Participants of the California Agricultural Leadership Program (Davis: The California Agricultural Education Foundation, 1981).
  4. The Nebraska data base accommodates a contrast of behavioral changes between participants and a comparison group,in contrast to programs evaluated by Howell.