When western Nebraska rancher Deb Fischer graduated from the LEAD program almost 15 years ago, she put the experience to use by becoming involved with the school board. Two years ago Fischer was elected to the senate.
Yet LEAD director Terry Hejny is reluctant to tell of prominent success stories. The purpose of the Leadership Education/Action Development program is more fundamental.
“When they finish, they go back to their communities and get involved—make their communities stronger,” he explained.
The program provides training for Nebraskans involved in agricultural production or agribusiness that will allow them to become lead voices in the state’s most important industry. In part, LEAD teaches the skills necessary for public service, such as speaking and decision-making. In part, the program serves as a networking opportunity for those involved.
In an increasingly urban nation and state, the Nebraska Agricultural Leadership Council and the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources—the departments responsible for LEAD—understand the necessity of farmers and ranchers speaking out.
But there is more to the program, built upon monthly seminars and global travel-study. Participants delve into such topics as government regulation, healthcare, water and energy issues, education and the arts.
Often the needs of a town seem to conflict with the interests of those in agriculture. A bond issue to fund a park or school building suits residents of a growing city such as Sidney, but affects the bottom line of farmers and ranchers dependent upon the whims of weather and water.
“We provide the opportunity, experience and information to help boost confidence, to help them to be leaders in the industry,” Hejny said. “Farmers and ranchers need to take a role in the community, find common ground, articulate thoughts, to learn to listen.”
Hejny graduated with the 1991 LEAD class, three years after Fischer. He is one on more than 900 Nebraskans trained in the program since it started in 1981.
Some graduates run for local government office, volunteer for agricultural education programs or reach out to political leaders on issues important to rural communities. A few reach higher office. Most take their expertise to local businesses. Sidney area resident and LEAD graduate Paul Schadegg works with Farmers National Company, for example.
“It’s a leadership program on the surface, but a self development program under the surface,” Schadegg said. “The networking is irreplaceable. The viewpoints you share are also irreplaceable.”
Schadegg took part in the 2006-07 class, which included study in Portugal, Spain and Morocco. He hesitated before submitting his name for consideration because of the time commitment involved.
But the first seminar hooked him.
“It’s a great program,” he said. “I’ll never regret it.”
Schadegg explained that participation opens doors and allows those involved to experience things that might not otherwise be possible.
“This program has impacted Nebraska,” Hejny pointed out. “We think we’ve made a difference.
The program, which is currently recruiting its 2014-15 class, looks for motivated adults involved in farming, ranching or agribusiness. They undergo a screening and selection process before being accepted. Over the course of a year, participants take part in 12 intense seminars covering three days. They also visit facilities and university programs devoted to agriculture in the state.
The second year of the program focuses on international study.
“It’s so important,” Hejney said of the program. “We need spokespeople from all areas of Nebraska agriculture.”