Two young women who have already made significant contributions to Texas agriculture say their two-year tenure in the Texas Agricultural Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program opens up even more opportunities to serve agriculture.
“We are better equipped to serve as spokespersons for agriculture,” says Mary Jane Buerkle, director of communications and public affairs for Plains Cotton Growers in Lubbock.
“We will look for opportunities to share experiences,” said Lindsay Kennedy, external affairs director, United Sorghum Checkoff Program, and editor of Sorghum Grower for National Sorghum Producers (NSP), also based in Lubbock. “TALL has already been of value to me personally and to the Sorghum Checkoff. I helped start a leadership program for the sorghum industry that is largely built on the fundamentals of the TALL program. If anyone has the opportunity to participate in TALL, you should do it.”
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They agree that the most beneficial aspect of the program, which featured trips across the United States and a two-week tour of Brazil, comes from the industry network they developed from their 24 TALL classmates, as well as TALL alumni.
“The alumni network is one reason I am so excited about this program” Buerkle said.
Participant age ranged from mid-20s to over 50. Buerkle and Kennedy were two of seven women in the class. “TALL has no age limit,” Kennedy said. “Younger members learn from the older members’ experience and the older ones gain energy from the young.”
They admit that with such a diverse group, differences of opinion emerged. “It’s important that TALL members be mature enough going in to understand that we may not always agree but still be open-minded enough to listen to other opinions. All of us benefitted from discussions,” Kennedy said.
“We had a lot of opinions flying around in classes, especially on policy positions,” Buerkle said. “But we were able to talk and explain opinions from different commodities’ perspectives.” She said members were able to learn from each other. “I hope I had an impact on my classmates, because they sure made an impact on me.”
Kennedy said frequent meetings and extended trips created opportunities to build lasting relationships. “By the end, it felt like we were family. We developed a unique bond.”
“The network aspect is a great way to link up, personally and professionally, with members of this class and with the alums,” she added. “The program creates a bond that unites various sectors of agriculture across the state.”
“I have new contacts with other segments of agriculture, dairy for instance,” Buerkle said. “We met representatives from various commodities and support industries.”
The 26-member class included folks from a broad spectrum of agricultural interests, including cotton, grain sorghum, livestock, and support industries. The program included an attorney, someone from EPA, a pumpkin farmer and one member who raises goats.
“This was a tremendous opportunity to learn about agriculture across the state, the nation and the world,” Buerkle said.”
Out of comfort zone
She and Kennedy are well-versed in High Plains agriculture—cotton, grain sorghum, corn, peanuts and livestock—but travel with the TALL class took them out of their comfort zone into other parts of the state, as well as to California, the East Coast—then to Brazil for their final trip. They saw vegetables, fruit and timber; witnessed politics at work in Washington DC; toured a fish market and a family-owned meat processing operation in New York City; visited a racehorse farm and an Angus cattle farm in Maryland, and an Amish farm in Pennsylvania.
They saw roses, timber and poultry in East Texas and toured the port at Galveston. “I had a ride-along with a police officer in Houston,” Kennedy said, and witnessed someone “holding a gun on a guy; I got to call-in reports on the radio and even ate a few donuts and kolaches with the sergeant hosting me.”
Buerkle said it would be hard to pick a “favorite” trip but East Texas would be in the mix. “I had never seen that part of the state before. It was eye-opening and completely different.”
Kennedy said a logging and sawmill operation in the “piney woods” was particularly memorable. “The conservation effort is incredible and sustainable. They put back more than they take out.”
Kennedy said the East Texas poultry industry reminded her of home—Arkansas. “Arkansas is a leading poultry state,” she said. Her family’s Arkansas farm includes a poultry operation. “It’s also big in East Texas. I enjoyed seeing it.”
They admit to being somewhat overwhelmed by the diversity of California agriculture. They also said the prolonged drought and long-term water issues remind them of similar challenges facing agriculture in the Texas High Plains.
Their final trip, Brazil, reinforced the concept of the global market in agriculture. Every TALL class includes one international trip to show how U.S. and Texas production meshes with global trade.
They said Brazil has enormous natural resources but significant challenges to production and marketing efficiency.
“The level of production is tremendous,” Kennedy said. Average rainfall may top 90 inches a year in the Mato Grosso production area. Low temperature rarely dips below 40 degrees but can also top 130.
“They produce multiple crops in a year,” she added, “but production efficiency is not as good as in the United States.”
Politics and transportation, especially infrastructure, limit efficiency. “Brazil has no efficient rail system so commodities move from farm to port by trucks over bad roads.”
“They use many of the same technologies that we do,” Buerkle said, “Some are using cotton pickers with the on-board module builders. Cotton gets too tall to use strippers. They are working on improving quality.”
“Sugarcane production was impressive,” Kennedy said. She was also taken with Bos Indicus cattle operations.
Big Farm Show
A farm show also impressed them. “The Agrishow in Ribeirao Preto is the largest farm implement show in the world,” Kennedy said.
“It’s like no farm show I’ve ever seen,” Buerkle added. “A lot of people attend, and we saw a lot of equipment brands. The amount of business that takes place at the show is tremendous.”
Their first stop in Brazil was Rio de Janeiro, “to soak up the culture,” Kennedy said. “We also saw how agriculture affects the urban population.”
The last stop was the consulate in Sao Paulo.
“We were in Brazil for nearly two weeks,” Kennedy said. “The food was fantastic.”
They said the people are friendly and, as the trip occurred just before the World Cup Soccer matches, displayed the country’s national pride for soccer.
“But not everyone was happy about the World Cup because of the amount of money that was spent,” Buerkle said.
They also noted that as agriculture expanded in the interior of the country new towns developed. “Some are as new as 20 years old,” Kennedy said. “It’s like visiting a frontier town.”
They agree that the travel, the classes and the relationships will improve their abilities and opportunities to represent agriculture—within the industry as well as to non-agricultural interests. They said the two-year commitment is a bit daunting and that to take on the challenge they needed support from their families and their employers.
“But we can take these experiences back to family, friends and into the workplace,” Kennedy said. “We will look for opportunities to share what we’ve learned.”
Buerkle said the key element to the TALL acronym is the Lifetime aspect. She said the relationships, the travel and the new perspectives they gain from the program will influence their abilities to serve and represent agriculture throughout their careers.