Owning and managing a farm, even a small one, can be a full-time job. Add to that a family and possibly a full or part-time off-farm job and you have a recipe for a schedule that may seem entirely booked and, at times, completely overwhelming. How then can you possibly squeeze in anything else and, more importantly, why should you?
Scheduling aside, even if you are inclined to become more involved in your farming community, it can be difficult to know where to start. Among many choices, deciding which farming organization is the best fit for you can seem like a daunting task.
Stanton Gilliam, along with his grandfather, Dewey, and father, Randy, has a large farming operation in the Sweeten’s Cove community in Marion County, Tennessee. Even with an operation considered large for Marion County, 1,800 acres of primarily corn and soybeans requiring a 70-to-80-hour work week, Stanton and Dewey still manage to be involved in multiple farming organizations because they place a premium on what they put in as well as what they get out of the experience.
Bureau & Boards
Among other boards, Dewey has been involved with Farm Bureau at the local, district and state levels for decades. He initially got involved because the organization spoke up for farmers and that collectively, you can do a whole lot more than you can by yourself.
Before he retired from the local board, Dewey committed to monthly local meetings and multiple meetings per year at the district and state levels. He helped represent his constituents from the local farming community and shape agricultural policy for all farmers at the state level and beyond.
After eight years of service, Dewey is also now retired from the United Soybean Board. The farming organization oversees the U.S. commodity checkoff program for soybeans. The association meets annually, and Dewey sees his membership and leadership in this organization as being especially helpful. It allowed him to have a part in allocating funds for soybean research and development which has, among other things, helped to greatly increase the number of bushels per acre that soybeans produce. And, in turn, he helps to increase the profitability of his farm.
Young Farmers & Ranchers
Stanton has picked up where his grandfather left off. He is a current state committee member of the Tennessee Young Farmers and Ranchers, a part of the Tennessee Farm Bureau organization and one that is specifically dedicated to serving the 18-to-35-year-old age group of rural young people.
In addition to an educational component, the farming organization offers contests with an eye toward further engaging its membership, such as:
- Young Farmer of the Year
- Environmental Stewardship
- Excellence in Agriculture
- Discussion Meet
Stanton jokes that he first took part because local Farm Bureau board president, Chris Layne, pressured him into taking part in a YF&R competition. “At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.
His uncertainty didn’t last, and it didn’t take long for him to discover the value of being part of a group of young people facing the same issues he was. Now, he finds he also enjoys the educational component of tours designed to provide exposure to all of agriculture’s various opportunities to those directly or indirectly connected to the industry. He found that he was good fit for the farming organization and was soon encouraged to take on a state-level leadership role that at times requires him to be away from his family and farm.
Nevertheless, he finds the connections he’s made and the lessons he’s learned are well worth the effort. He’s met, and gained insight from, farmers across the nation with operations that are vastly different from his own. He’s also met farmers with similar operations that, because of their distance apart, aren’t in competition with him.
Because of this, he can freely discuss strategy.
While everyone in the farming community generally works to help one another, sometimes you’re marketing to the same people, making it desirable to look for assistance away of the local area.
“It helps to get outside of your county,” Stanton says. He describes the value of this experience as being difficult to measure. An issue will come up one day and, because of the connections you’ve made, you know exactly who you’ll call for ideas to solve it.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been sacrifices. Stanton’s wife becomes a single mom of three kids when he’s away for multiple days attending a conference. In addition, on those occasions when his family can attend with him, it’s easy for the conference to substitute for a family vacation. This isn’t always ideal.
If you’re encouraged to get involved, Dewey and Stanton advise the following:
- Attend local annual meetings open to all members or open meetings on more than the local level. In this case, some counties may be able to help you financially, at least in part, with your conference attendance.
- Are you thinking you may want more? Later, if you have an interest in pursuing a leadership role, make it a point to talk to current board members at a time outside of the annual meetings, perhaps stopping by their county office when they are not busy hosting an event.
- Participate as a nonleader. Even if you don’t have an interest in taking on a leadership role, you may find the opportunity to connect, especially if you are new to farming, to someone with decades of experience capable of offering you sound advice for your fledging operation.
- Don’t go in with the idea that your way of doing things is the only correct way to do it. Keep an open mind. It’s important to realize that you can reach the same goal in many ways. It’s also important to understand that everyone has a voice and, in the end, our overarching goal is the same regardless if how we go about achieving it looks different.
Something for Youth
Do you want to encourage your children to be involved too? Standing on a legacy that exceeds 100 years, the 4-H Club is just one example of an organization uniquely poised for youth to begin their lifelong journey into involvement in farming, their communities and more.
Administered at the local level through the Cooperative Extension Service, youth take part in educational hands-on programs and projects.
Dannie Bradford, extension agent II and county director of the UT-TSU Extension Marion County, helps to oversee the local 4-H Club program. She encourages all youth, regardless of their area of interest, to take part.
“Participating in 4-H is a great option for youth because we provide valuable life skills for students as well as opportunities to use those skills in real-life settings,” she says. “Youth can make new friends all while bettering their community!”
Involvement isn’t limited to youth, and parents are encouraged to become involved with their children.
“Volunteers are beneficial to the 4-H organization because we can broaden our areas of expertise,” Bradford says. “This allows more opportunities for youth as well as freeing up the agent to plan, promote, and execute other programming.”
In Marion County, volunteer leaders help with shooting sports practices, judging teams and other events as needed. Volunteers may also be asked to judge a competition or participate in an event to help local youth. In many instances, training is available to help you become more comfortable with your volunteer role.
Michael Hooper and his son, Ethan, of Whitwell, Tennessee, located in Marion County, exemplify this type of experience. Michael currently leads the Marion County 4-H Shotgun Team, while Ethan, having graduated, is a former member.
“I have always enjoyed being outdoors, hunting and shooting,” Michael says. “I was fortunate to have positive role models to take me hunting and shooting. I hope that I can have the same impact on our 4-H youth.”
Michael is the range master and chief instructor for the program, and that level of involvement does come with a greater time commitment. “We started our shooting club on a friend’s farm about seven years ago,” he says. “We typically shoot every other weekend, February through May, with each shoot lasting four to five hours. This culminates with the 4-H Shotgun Jamboree in Nashville where we take our top shooters from each age group.
“My goals are that we always have a safe shoot, the kids learn something new and we have a great time just being outside!”
Michael’s involvement encouraged Ethan to participate. “Being involved on the team was important to me because it allowed me the opportunity to learn new skills and interact with members of the local community that I had never met before,” Ethan says. “My dad told me about the team, and I decided to join shortly after. I always enjoyed shooting skeet and sporting clays recreationally, so I thought a trap team would be a fun way to participate in the sport competitively.”
After college, Ethan would love to give back to the team by becoming a volunteer.
On a side note, if your local high school has an agriculture education program, your student may also be eligible to enroll in these classes and join FFA, an intracurricular student organization for those interested in agriculture, farming and leadership. This organization offers programming at the local, state and national levels. Similar to the 4-H Club program, your local organization may also need adult volunteers.
If you’re still not finding a good fit, many other local farming organizations benefit farmers and may seek volunteers. Check with the local offices of the following organizations or your county extension office to learn more:
- USDA Farm Service Agency
- Local Farmers Cooperative
- National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
- USDA National Resources Conservation Service
In the end, whether you simply seek to make connections within your local farming community or to become involved on a larger scale, participation in an agricultural organization benefits everyone including yourself.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.