How Board Memberships Enlighten

By Deborah Huso

Gain valuable business insights through roles in professional and community organizations

John Hardin has been volunteering his time for professional, educational and community service organizations since the early 1970s. A Danville, Ind., producer with 2,400 acres of corn and soybeans and 12,000 hogs, Hardin has found his participation on organizational boards a critical part of his professional development. 

board_table“When you get on organizational boards, you have a lot more opportunity to learn about issues that affect your industry,” says Hardin, former president of the National Pork Producers Council and a trustee of Purdue University. 

Hardin started getting involved as a young farmer, joining his local pork producers association and serving as president of his local Farm Bureau chapter. He participated on the land use plan committee for Hendricks County, which has grown from 40,000 people to 125,000 in the last 40 years. That enabled him to preserve agricultural land in his community, a role he also plays on the American Farmland Trust board. 

“Our farm gains more value and becomes more resilient because the people that I meet on these boards are often leaders in innovation. They constantly test you,” Hardin says. Organizational membership has always played a role in agricultural communities, adds Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director, USDA—National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The National Grange, a fraternal organization that advocates for agriculture, is a prime example. 

“Farmers tend to be a group of individuals that know the value of science,” Ramaswamy explains.  “They look for information that will be beneficial to their production practices, and because of that, participating in various organizations allows them to learn from neighbors and share the latest knowledge.”
Remain Involved. In the past few years, farmers have started to see that if they don’t serve on community boards, they’ll lose control of what happens to land, Hardin explains. He points to producers’ influence on establishing right-to-farm bills. 

“Farmers don’t want to see arable land subdivided,” Ramaswamy adds. “They are learning to be part of the decision-making.”

Additionally, professional organizations, such as commodity boards, allow producers to travel abroad to see what farmers are doing in Australia, Asia and South America. 

“Producers tend to be a stoic lot that likes to get work done quietly,” Ramaswamy says. “But boards can teach you to network.”

Take the case of Bill Dawson, a row-crop producer near Heathsville, Va., whose membership in the Virginia Crop Growers Association connected him to a distillery looking for a grain producer to grow and clean barley for malting. The result was a value-added business for Dawson, owner of the company Bay’s Best Feed. Today, barley production for distilleries accounts for 15% of his business. 

Put Service First To Get Started

Producers who have never served on a board should begin at the local level, advises John Hardin, corn, soybean and hog producer, Danville, Ind. “You just have to show up and act interested,” he explains. “Ask hard questions.”

Join organizations with a sense of service, adds Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy of USDA—National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “Don’t go into it with the attitude of ‘what is this going to do for me?’” he says. Most producers are surprised by the array of people they meet, including bankers, insurance agents and other business owners, all of whom can provide insights on how to become a better manager.

“Serving will broaden the way you think about things,” Hardin relays. “Plus, it makes for a much richer, more interesting life.”

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