Friday, July 3, 2015

You have to be there

February 1997

There are few topics of greater sensitivity in farm organizations than the subject of compensation for those who do the work. The concept of per diem has traditionally raised the ire of grumpy members who for some reason expect sacrifice, diligence, and thick skins from their leaders - for free!

But if you really want to send critics ballistic, bring up the matter of trips - trade missions, junkets, holidays, investigations, delegations, legations - whatever. No matter how seemingly laudable the goal, these excursions are obviously thinly-disguised partying road trips for irresponsible officials, billed at outrageous expense to the already overburdened grassroots member. 

Let’s rethink. After several years in various mid-level posts in agricultural organizations, I have had the chance to participate in, as well as audit travel activities. My attitude was skeptical initially, and still won’t allow me to be casual about spending organization money, but I have learned some lessons about these trips.

First of all, trade missions - where real, bona fide farmers get face-to-face with actual product users - have never been more critical. All areas of agriculture are increasingly dependent on export sales, and the best salesman is the grower. Especially in the Pacific Rim market, personal connections are the traditional way to establish business relationships in an increasingly impersonal and technology-driven market. Our competitors know this and are calling on the buyers that we need. Moreover, person-to-person links can help markets weather the never-ending stream of incidents that are part of international commerce.

I had a chance recently to meet some Danish farmers. By getting to know them personally and see their farms (the only way truly to understand where a farmer is “coming from” is to see where he came from), I have some insights on what else may be going on in the EC during the current GMO soybean controversy. This knowledge, in turn, helps me to make more rational decisions in the face of questionable media slants.

One paradox of the exponentially increasing flow of information is the relative scarcity of truth. In our industry, we have traditionally relied upon personal relationships upon which to base trust. This works both ways. For our customers to trust us as an industry on issues like food safety, the best strategy is to establish personal trust first.

Second, we can read about changes that are occurring with our customers and competitors, or we can witness them ourselves. In my opinion, farmers no longer need to rely solely upon government, academic, or private analysis while venturing no farther than the front gate. The first-hand accounts of fellow professionals have earned my accreditation as the highest form of business information.

Finally, tightfisted farm organization members will be pleased to know that their voices not only have been heard, but, unfortunately, allowed to determine the nature of the travel they consider frivolous. Illinois Farm Bureau legislative trips to Washington, for example, are walkathons crammed between tightly scheduled meetings. Heaven forbid someone should have more fun than is necessary. They might get excited about being a member.

This is a shame. On a similar Ag Leadership trip to Washington in 1987, a few spare minutes were available after a meeting at the Federal Reserve. I was able to wander into the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial for the first time. The power of that experience remains for me a wondrous gift, and I recall it each time my support of that program is requested.

It could be that farm organizations are headed up by self-serving spendthrifts, who, if not constantly challenged, would squander the dues on luxurious vacations. (One wonders how such people got elected.) But if that is not the case, then perhaps such travel on behalf of their constituents is better viewed as business travelers know it to be - a difficult job that steals days from your farm, career, and family. Those who have made the sacrifice only to face withering personal criticism have done their profession a great service.

As farmers, like all Americans, become more mobile, the romance of hotels and airports quickly fades. Travel is a burden we put on our volunteer leaders, not an invitation to a fraternity road trip.

Take it from a guy sitting in a Lincon, NE hotel room at 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening , on my way to a National Corn Growers Meeting. I’ve already swiped all the little soaps I can use for the rest of my life.

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