The inaugural Agricultural Leaders of Tomorrow (ALOT) in 1979 started a new tradition for Illinois Farm Bureau. Class members included Alan Dale of Bureau County, Terry Ferguson of DeWitt County and Darell Sarf of Cass County. (Photo courtesy of ALOT)
By Kay Shipman
Forty years ago, a new program launched careers, influenced organizations and changed lives.
Since 1979, graduates of Illinois Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Leaders of Tomorrow (ALOT) training program have contributed to all levels of Farm Bureau; served in local, county, state and national governments; and guided county, state and national agricultural and commodity organizations.
“It (ALOT) literally changed my life. It was a defining moment in my personal development,” said former IFB Vice President Alan Dale of Bureau County. A member of the inaugural class, Dale credits his ALOT experience with helping a shy young farmer develop self-confidence along with leadership skills.
Today, leadership training for farmers and others in agriculture is common, but that wasn’t the case 40 years ago, said Steve Newman, who was hired to develop a training program for IFB.
Newman recalled Dale Butz, then IFB executive director of commodities, learned of a Kellogg-funded leadership training program at Michigan State University and determined IFB needed to offer similar training to farmers. Butz took his idea to then-IFB President Harold Steele, who gave his full support. The IFB board approved the leadership training program, and ALOT began.
Newman left a career in university sports administration to create ag-oriented leadership training. He traveled to California and Michigan to speak with people in leadership development. “There were high expectations,” he said. “We only had one chance. If you fail, you’re done.”
A competitive application process was opened to young farmers across the state, and 25 were selected by a committee comprised of IFB directors and Farm Bureau volunteers.
“The experience was pretty much unlike anything else I’ve been through,” said DeWitt County Farm Bureau Director Terry Ferguson, one of the first ALOT graduates. “It opened up my eyes as a farmer from Clinton, Illinois.”
Participants were exposed to a range of issues. Ferguson recalled a seminar at Illinois State University with a presentation by a Palestinian. At the time, tensions between Palestine and Israel were a global concern.
Speaking as a farmer, the Palestinian used terms farmers understood to make his point -- an impact Ferguson vividly remembered 40 years later. “I never really thought of the international pressure to establish a homeland for the Jewish people. It was an interesting aspect,” he said.
In addition to what they learned, ALOT participants learned from each other. “At the time, it was a way to meet other young farmers around the state,” said former IFB Director Darell Sarff of Cass County, one of the 1979 class. “Before computers, we were networking; they were a resource.”
Sarff, Ferguson and Dale all spoke of the close connections made with fellow ALOT classmates. Those connections continue.
The program’s current director, Steve Gannaway, IFB director of training and development, said the fundamentals remain, but opportunities were expanded to male and female professionals of all ages. “A leader is born at any age,” Gannaway said. “Because unless it’s a Young Leader (group), in real life, you are working with all ages, men and women. All bring experiences to class.”
And everyone can benefit, according to Newman. “Leadership is a skill that can be learned,” he said. “There is no such thing as a born leader.”
ALOT graduates took leadership roles on many levels within Farm Bureau. “I can see how beneficial this (ALOT) has been for Farm Bureau,” Sarff said. “Look at the people and their leadership roles; it serves Farm Bureau well.”
Other entities also benefited. ALOT alums have and are serving in all levels of local, county, state and national government. Alums include state legislators, state agriculture directors and a USDA agency administrator.
Ferguson said he uses his ALOT training every month at county government board meetings. A county government board member for several terms, Ferguson added, “I’m the go-to guy for parliamentary issues.”
Plus, ALOT graduates stepped forward to serve on numerous boards and commissions for schools, hospitals and many others. “It (ALOT) really impacted the total quality of rural life,” Dale said.
ALOT began with a purpose to train Farm Bureau leaders, but its graduates find lifelong applications. “You use it in your work, your volunteer activities, your personal life. You use it in everything,” Gannaway said.
Newman shared the secret of ALOT’s endurance: “The whole reason for its success? It is a really darn good idea.”
ALOT will mark 40 years with a reception for ALOT graduates Dec. 7 during IFB Annual Meeting in the Palmer House, Chicago. An ALOT photo exhibit will be displayed on the sixth floor during the meeting. ALOT also shares news and photos on Facebook at Illinois Farm Bureau ALOT.
Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.