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Serving: United States
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue speaks at a recent meeting of agriculturists and environmentalists at a farm in Southern Maryland Shelby Watson-Hampton
MEET WITH LEADERS: Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue was at a recent meeting of agriculturists and environmentalists at a farm in Southern Maryland. Take advantage of opportunities to meet with leaders and get insight from as many people as you can.

Trust your gut instinct, take opportunities to meet others

Networking with others is crucial if you want to affect change in agriculture.

Y’all, I recently got one of those opportunities that turned out to be unexpectedly amazing, and I want to share it with you.

I’ve written before about the importance of being present in your own industry, and in participating and networking to protect and improve your corner of the agriculture world. I can’t say it enough: Networking matters, participation matters. Only those who show up to the conversation can help affect change. 

Case in point: I got invited to a recent meeting at a friend’s farm. Chip Bowling is a name you might recognize, as he is the former president of the National Corn Growers Association and current chairman of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. He is also a friend and local farmer in my area. Chip called me one day in April and told me about “a little meeting” he was having at his place for some farmers and environmentalists to get together and talk. 

These types of on-farm outreach meetings are common in our area. We farm in Chesapeake Bay country and are subject to strict conservation rules and lots of attention from environmental groups. Bridging the gap between what people think agriculture does and we do has become a mission of sorts for some farmers in our state.  

I’ve been to several of these meetings in the past year. Therefore, I almost declined the invite. My 9 to 5 is busy as we are managing several big ag grants, and it was also high season in the vineyard where I often work in the evening. I’ve also been trying to get better at not just saying “yes” to everything that comes across my plate, as burnout is real and I’ve come to realize that time is a precious resource that needs to be allocated appropriately.

To manage my time, I’ve been trying a new tactic: Don’t immediately say “yes” or “no” to an invitation, do a one-minute mental cost benefit analysis, and then see what my mind and gut instinct are telling me before I make a decision. I’ve applied this to a few decisions — said yes to some things and no to others — and it seems to be working fairly well, giving me some needed family time and getting me out of some meetings that wouldn't yield back the time invested. 

In this case, giving up the whole day to one “little meeting” didn’t sound like the best return on investment, given all that we had going on. But my gut instinct was telling me that if Chip was involved, it might be more than he was making it out to be and that regardless it would be worth my time, so I should say yes to this one. 

Guys, when in doubt, lean in. You’ll almost never regret it. 

My instinct was right (thank God). The meeting was worth more than one day, it was worth a lifetime of industry contacts. 

As I wrote in an article for a local newspaper, “You don’t usually see the World Wildlife Fund, Tyson Foods, PepsiCo and a group of farmers in the same room together, let alone enjoying productive conversation and sharing a meal. But that’s exactly what made the recent Honor the Harvest Conference so unique and productive.”

You see, Chip’s little meeting (farmers — always so modest!) was actually a much larger one-of-a-kind groundbreaking conference that I just happened to be accidentally invited to via his generous propensity to mentor and nurture younger farmers and agribusiness professionals like me. I am forever grateful to kindness like this, and I do my best to pay it forward. (Pro tip: Find a mentor and be a mentor.)

Co-hosted by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) and the Aspen Institute, the mission of the meeting was to map out the future of sustainable food systems, specifically by focusing on ways to harness the power of agriculture to draw down greenhouse gases while growing shared values across the supply chain.

The forum had over 100 executive-level participants, with representatives from the National Black Growers Council, the Campbell Soup Co., the American Farm Bureau Federation, Bayer, Feeding America and more.

Shelby Watson-HamptonShelby Watson-Hampton and Sally J. Rockey, executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research

NEW FRIENDS: Shelby Watson-Hampton got to meet with Sally J. Rockey, executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and quickly became new friends.

It also included Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, who provided opening remarks; former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was the dinner keynote speaker; and former Ag Secretary Dan Glickman, who performed admirably onstage during the improv portion of the team-building activity.

If you had ever told me that one day I’d be cheering on past ag secretaries from my front-row seat as they paraded across the stage wearing homemade tinfoil hats, I would have looked at you “right funny,” as my grandad used to say. But that’s the point of this discussion: You never know where opportunities might lead you and what memories you might make along the way!

At the forum, I had the pleasure of speaking with Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of USFRA; Kate Leone, the chief government relations officer of Feeding America; Sally J. Rockey, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research; and Krysta Harden, (I’m a #KrystaFanGirl, legit) former U.S. deputy ag secretary. These are all amazing women in agriculture, several of whom I have spoken to since that day. 

So, all I have to say folks is when in doubt, lean in. You never know what you might learn and who you might meet along the way. Here’s to your next adventure.

Cheers! 

Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.
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