Even though I officially aged out of Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers & Ranchers (YFR) program, I still get to attend the annual conference with my Collegiate Farm Bureau students. One of my favorite parts of the weekend is the competitive events that recognize skills and accomplishments of both students and active farmers and ranchers 35 and younger from across the state.

I have been on all sides of these events, as a competitor, judge and coach. My favorite role is coaching because I have been fortunate to work with many talented college students who have found success in the discussion meet.

Discussion Meet is my favorite contest because it poses a challenging issue in the agriculture industry as a topic for participants to work through like they are having a committee meeting or panel discussion. Participants are judges on their understanding of the problem, ability to offer potential solutions and effectiveness as a cooperator.

This competition is one of the best ways to prepare for real-world situations. It requires learning about the causes and challenges of complex issues. Proposing solutions, listening to all perspectives and seeking common ground are vital to keeping the conversation moving forward. Through it all the competitors who can both articulate their ideas and bring everyone’s ideas together will emerge as the leaders. The competition is rarely won by the person who speaks the most.

The skills developed in this competition are some of the most universally important things we can be teaching young leaders. Leaders who we hope will be involved in their communities on boards and in elected positions. Every organization needs people with the ability to work through complex issues, engage multiple ideas and move toward solutions.

Public speaking continues to be one of the most feared activities. This competition does require speaking in public, but I often tell students that it is the best kind of speaking — where you are just having a conversation with other people.

Ensuring agriculture has people willing and able to engage in important public conversations is vital to the future of our industry. In addition to the collegiate and YFR discussion meets, Kansas Farm Bureau has invested in a high school level competition for FFA members. Win or lose, these competitions are challenging young leaders to be informed, share their opinions, and cooperate with others.

During the YFR event, I was reminded of the importance of having a voice because I lost mine. There is a certain level of irony that comes from losing your voice while trying to teach others to use theirs. I was in a constant state of frustration because people either didn’t know or forgot I couldn’t talk and kept asking me questions. I had so many things to say but was only capable of silence.

Fortunately, my silence was temporary, but it made me think about how many people in agriculture are silent by choice. Choosing not to give public comment about important tools like pesticides when they are being threatened. Not contacting elected representative to urge them to pass a farm bill to keep important programs in place. Not showing up in your community to advocate when vital infrastructure is being ignored.

There has never been a time that being vocal about the needs of our industry and communities has been more important than today. The life we live in farming and rural communities is completely unfamiliar to so many of the people who are making decisions for us. We need to realize the value of having a voice and take the initiative to use it.