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The last of the three-piece-suit cowboys

Two champions for agriculture share highlights from a lifetime of service.

Mike Wilson

February 22, 2020

3 Min Read
Drs. David Kohl and Barry Flinchbaugh
Ag economists David Kohl (left) and Barry Flinchbaugh have spent their careers dedicated to teaching and helping students, farmers and agribusiness leaders.

This business of farming can be a solitary one. You’re often alone, thinking, driving a truck or tractor, making decisions, worrying about markets, or weather – you know the drill. Despite that solitude there are also moments of true joy and inspiration from leaders who get you so fired up about farming you can’t wait to get back at it.

Two of those leaders, Drs. Barry Flinchbaugh and David Kohl, made appearances at the Farm Futures Business Summit in late January.

To be sure, the professors have enjoyed long, impactful careers. They’ve earned the right to enjoy a good book on a beach somewhere. But Flinchbaugh, 78, is still sharp as a tack when it comes to ag policy. He still mesmerizes audiences. He still barks politically incorrect things that make farmers howl and gasp, all in one breath. I once wrote a story about him called, “Thunder on the plains,” and boy, does it still apply.

And Dr. Kohl? It could be bankers, farmers, heads of state -- doesn’t matter; the Virginia Tech ag economist emeritus keeps lighting up crowds. He makes ag economics sound like the most exciting vocation on the planet.

No wonder ag students lined up to get in their classrooms.

Both gentlemen know how to make an audience think, and how to make them laugh. At the summit Kohl stopped mid-sentence and ordered the group to their feet to “give five people you don’t know a fist bump!” Which of course got everyone laughing and focused again. Even now Kohl still crisscrosses the country, flying and driving millions of miles to share what he knows about best management practices and global economic trends. His sense of purpose and urgency is infectious. Some 15 years ago he helped us map out what eventually became the Farm Futures Business Summit. We’re fortunate to share his advice at our website and every issue of this magazine.

Related:The professors unplugged

End of an era?

This kind of leadership comes along only so often. We may be reaching the end of an era. As Kohl says, “You may be seeing the last of the three-piece-suit cowboys.”

If you’ve had a chance to hear them speak, you might wonder: how did they get so good at this? The truth is, public speaking didn’t come natural to either professor.

“In my first speech in FFA I choked in front of 400 people because I tried to memorize my speech,” recalls Kohl. “It took me three years to get back on my feet, but it was the best thing because I had coaches and mentors to help me through that failure.”

It turns out both professors had great teachers as youngsters. Flinchbaugh started developing his uncanny, dead-on comedic timing as far back as grade school. 

“It was just understood as I went through my education career I was going to learn about public speaking,” he says. “Then in my freshman year at Penn State I had a grad student who taught a beginning speech course. She was a former Miss Pennsylvania, so she had my attention,” he recalls with a smile. “The first day she wrote on the blackboard: ‘A light moment every 5 to 7 minutes.’ She told us the purpose of a speech is to teach something, and to do that, you have to get their minds open. And if they are smiling or laughing, their mind is open.

“Loosen them up with a story, then even if you tell them something they don’t want to hear, they’ll listen. I’ve used that all my life.”

To be sure, both educators have made a big impact on U.S. agriculture, but their greatest legacy is that they had someone help them ‘get where they are,’ and they’ve been ‘paying it forward’ ever since.

“The thing that resonated with me through all my schooling is that somebody cared,” says Kohl. “I don’t know if you call it leadership, but that caring attitude -- being passionate for what you do and engaging with an open mind – those are everyday skills for everyday people.”

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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