Excellence in Ag Award finalists cite YL program benefits

By Katie Zelechowski

Illinois Farm Bureau’s Young Leader Excellence in Agriculture Award recognizes young Farm Bureau members who are outstanding leaders and actively contributing to Farm Bureau, other agricultural organizations and their communities.

The 2019 award winner will be announced on the Illinois Farm Bureau Facebook page at noon Thursday (Aug. 8). Both finalists will be honored on Ag Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

The winner will go on to represent Illinois Farm Bureau at the 2020 American Farm Bureau Federation competition in January in Austin, Texas. The award winner will receive a prize package including their choice of three John Deere riding lawn mowers, $2,500 cash and expense-paid trips to several Farm Bureau conferences. The runner-up will receive $1,500 cash. This award program is sponsored by Illinois Farm Bureau, COUNTRY Financial and the IAA Credit Union.

Brett and Krista Swanson (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Brett and Krista Swanson, Oneida, Knox County (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Krista and Brett Swanson are no strangers to the balancing act that comes with raising a family, owning and operating a farm, participating in extracurricular activities, and managing off-farm jobs. For these fifth-generation farmers, actively participating in the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Young Leaders (YL) program has been yet another component of their busy lives but is one they say is worth the time and effort.

“It’s a great way to network and find others who are facing similar situations to you. It also helps you learn more about what’s going on in ag and connects you to a really awesome organization,” said Krista.

When Krista and Brett met in 2009, each of them was involved in the Young Leaders program. At the time, Brett had completed a bachelor’s degree in ag business from Western Illinois University, and Krista had earned an undergraduate degree in crop sciences and was completing her master’s degree in ag economics at the University of Illinois.

When the couple moved back to Brett’s hometown in Knox County the following year, they began farming with Brett’s family, managing their own operation in 2012. From there, Brett and Krista expanded their business to include a seed dealership, small seed enterprise (including forage, grasses and cover crops), and custom soybean treatment enterprise. Although Brett primarily manages their business, Krista helps as much as she can while maintaining her position as a research specialist for the Gardner Agricultural Policy Program at the U of I.

As Krista and Brett have continued to expand their careers both on and off the farm, their dedication to the YL program has not wavered. In addition to the many leadership roles each has held within their community, they have served on the Knox County Farm Bureau’s Farm Families and Task Force Committees. They have helped provide opportunities for non-ag community members to learn more about the industry by hosting a Farm-to-Fork Gala and Symphony on the Farm event.

“Some people hadn’t been on a farm before,” said Krista of those who attended the symphony event. “There were some neat conversations that sparked from that… (and it was a) great way to build relationships and trust.”

Krista added her involvement in the YL program provided a stepping stone to becoming active in Farm Bureau at the local, state and national levels. “It’s a great program for networking and meeting other young people in ag. We’ve made some really good friends with other couples in our area that we may not have crossed paths with otherwise,” she said.

Of being named finalists for the YL Excellence in Ag Award, Brett said, “It’s an honor for us because it allows us to represent ourselves, our family, our community and our county.”

Luke and Amanda Zwilling (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Luke and Amanda Zwilling, Dewey, Champaign County (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

It was a mutual passion for agricultural engineering that brought Luke and Amanda Zwilling together during a conference at the University of Iowa. At the time, Luke was completing his bachelor’s degree in ag engineering at the University of Illinois and Amanda was completing her bachelor’s degree in the same field at the University of Minnesota. After meeting, Amanda earned a master’s degree in ag engineering from Purdue University and the couple married and moved to Dewey.

Amanda, who grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, credits the principles she learned both on the farm and through 4-H for fueling her passion for ag. Luke, who was also heavily involved in 4-H and FFA, but who grew up on a corn, soybean and hog operation in Jasper County, feels the same way. The couple hopes to continue passing their passion for agriculture on to their three children, Lydia, Abigail and Franklin.

Luke and Amanda have continued to actively participate in the agricultural industry both on and off the farm. Luke works as a technology and solutions manager for sustainable agriculture at Nutrien Ag Solutions, and Amanda works as a test engineer for Rhino Ag.

Luke said he was driven to join the Champaign County YL program because it allowed him to communicate to consumers about agriculture while learning from other members within the industry.

“We have a lot of people not necessarily in production agriculture, but in agribusiness, so it’s great interacting with different folks in those roles,” said Luke.

Amanda, who currently serves as the county’s YL chairman (a position Luke held in 2015), said she was hesitant to join the program when Luke suggested it in 2011. But after attending her first meeting, Amanda said she was hooked by the group’s work to “advocate for the farmers and ag industry while helping promote (ag) to consumers.”

“Outreach” is the common thread that ties together much of what the Zwilling’s do as Young Leaders. Last year, at the group’s Wine and Dine event, Luke helped represent ag personnel during a discussion with local dieticians, offering information and answering questions. The couple has also helped with philanthropic events, like the annual Harvest for All campaign.

“That’s an important aspect for me too, to give back to those who are less fortunate,” said Luke.

When asked how it felt to be finalists for the YL Young Leader Excellence in Ag Award, the couple agreed it was humbling. They encouraged prospective YL members to join the program. “Get involved, you can make it what you want it to be -- there’s a lot of room to explore,” said Luke.

Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.

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