Developing Leaders with an Agricultural Worldview

Robert Soileau  |  6/11/2018 3:26:05 PM

Bobby Soileau

Noted journalist and author Walter Lippmann wrote about the stereotypical images each of us has in our minds. In his book “Public Opinion,” he stated, “We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

One of the purposes of the LSU AgCenter Agricultural Leadership Development Program is to educate farmers, ranchers, foresters and agribusiness professionals about the issues that can impact their lives and broaden their worldview. One of the tenets of the program is preparing participants for global influences and opportunities.

The program is a combination of lecture and travel seminars that culminates with an international trip. It is an opportunity for many of the class members to see the diversity of U.S. agriculture and to see agriculture in another country. For many of our participants it is their first time to travel overseas.

I have been fortunate to travel internationally with seven classes. We have visited five of the seven continents in the world — Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Europe — and 10 countries — Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Portugal, Spain and South Africa. Each country is a unique experience. In addition, each provides lessons about markets and issues.

Infrastructure

Practically every country our program visits has infrastructure problems. However, two countries come to mind with respect to agricultural infrastructure — Panama and Brazil.

When Class XIII visited the Panama Canal in 2014, the expansion was still under construction, but the future impacts were obvious.

“We were able to see how international trade and travel are affected by the Panama Canal,” said Ashley Peters, a crop consultant in Crowville. “We are blessed to have the agricultural infrastructure that we have in the U.S. It definitely gives one a different perspective on something that maybe they have seen all their lives.”

In Brazil we discovered that our infrastructure is the primary reason we are competitive with them. While visiting several large farms in the Mato Grosso state, we learned that 38 percent of their cost is transportation. They transport their grains by truck more than 1,100 miles one way to the ports.

Markets

China is a large consumer of U.S. agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, China imported $19.6 billion in U.S. agriculture products in 2017. In addition, many products sold in the U.S. are made in China.

“I still remember the $5 a day pay that workers were receiving,” said Marty Wooldridge, a beef cattle producer in Oil City. Wooldridge was a graduate of Class IX, which visited several clothing factories in 2006. “We watched young women making shirts for Banana Republic and Victoria Secret that had tags of $95 already on them.”

While today’s political environment has everyone looking at the current trade relationship with China, Chile has been one of the best trade partners of the U.S. in recent years. In 2016, they were our ninth largest supplier of agricultural imports, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. A trip to your local grocery store will reveal numerous fruits, vegetables and nuts from Chile.

The most recent trip for the program was the Class XV visit to Spain and Portugal. The U.S. is the top importer of each country’s most important agricultural product. Spain is the top producer in the world of olives, and the U.S. imports mostly olive oil. Portugal is the world’s top producer of cork, and the U.S. imports more than $1 billion annually.

Large versus Small

Depending on the crop, many of the farms in the U.S. are large. It is common to see a 1,500- to 2,000-acre farm in Louisiana. That doesn’t compare to the large-scale farms witnessed in Brazil. The first visit for Class XI was a 67,500-acre farm that produced corn, cotton, soybean and cattle. They also had their own grain mill and cotton gin facilities on the farm.

“I am accustomed to large-scale precision agriculture,” said Arron Pierre, who is a controller for A. Wilbert’s Sons L.L.C., a land management group in Plaquemine. “While in Spain, I learned that the average farm size was approximately 57 acres. It was even smaller in Portugal.”

South Africa had both ends of the spectrum. They had large farms like the U.S. and small farms for many of the emerging producers.

“A major take-away I had from our time in South Africa was how similar their production practices are to ours,” said Lance Bruce, a banker out of Oak Ridge who raises beef cattle. “The row crop operations had newer equipment with large-scale implements. The cattle producers were using excellent genetics along with forages and intensive rotational grazing.”

Leadership

Our experiences in other countries also reveal the leadership challenges we have worldwide. One memory that stands out is from South Africa. We met a gentleman named Frans “Khombi” Malela from Limpopo. He is a former electrician who wanted to become a farmer. When Class XIV visited his cotton farm, they were impressed by his dryland crop of approximately 300 acres. But when they found out he only has one 1970s tractor, they were more impressed. When they discovered his crop is hand-picked, they were shocked. When asked why, his answer was simple. He gets a better price and it gives the people in his isolated community much-needed work. It is one of the few opportunities they have to earn enough money to feed their families.

In the end the participants in our Ag Leadership program realize how connected agriculture is worldwide. Every country we visit is a new adventure. We also begin the process of eliminating the stereotypical images in our minds.

Bobby Soileau is the director of the LSU AgCenter Agricultural Leadership Development Program.

(This article appears in the spring 2018 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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A truckload of carrots and corn waiting to be unloaded at the Lo Valledor fruit and vegetable wholesale market near Santiago, Chile. Photo by Jim Monroe

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Workers at a clothing factory in Wuxi, China. Photo by Bobby Soileau

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Iberian pigs at the Jamones Eiriz farm in the Huelva province in southern Spain. The Jamon Iberico hams are air-cured for two to four years. Photo provided by Bobby Soileau

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A common scene in South Africa, a woman carrying food back to her village. Photo by Jim Monroe

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Thomas Crigler, in Class XIV, presents Frans “Khombi” Malela of Limpopo, South Africa, an Ag Leadership hat for hosting the group on his farm. Left to right are: Gina Eubanks, LSU AgCenter associate vice president; Bobby Soileau, director of the Ag Leader Program; Crigler; A.J. Sabine, with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation; Malela; an unknown man; and Lee Michael Fairchild, also in Class XIV. Photo by Jim Monroe

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