New YFA Chair Hopes to Plant the Seed and Harvest More Leaders
Emily Johnson thinks her hobby of gardening and canning is unusual for someone her age. The 27-year-old enjoys it not only because it’s something she does with family but also because it’s something she can see from start to finish or in her words, “seed to harvest.”
The hobby not only preserves food but also is a way she can preserve her family’s way of life that she admires.
“I like canning because I get to do it with my mom and grandma,” said Emily. “I get to hear lots of old stories and just spend time with them. It’s special.”
The farm Emily grew up on is located west of Janesville. Her parents, Dan and Carolyn live in the house where her grandfather was born. On the farm’s 180 acres, they grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa. During her childhood, they raised Holstein steers but have since stopped raising animals in high capacity.
She has two brothers, Ethan and Caleb, who still help on the farm as needed. Ethan and his wife, Alissa, are expecting their first child and raise beef cattle.
“To me, farm means family,” Emily explained. “It’s just how I grew up. Everyone chips in and it’s truly a family affair. My parents wanted to farm and have a close family. I aspire to be like them someday because they work hard and have a strong faith and marriage. They truly have a beautiful life.”
You can see the pride Emily has in her farming roots when asked about her sole piece of farming equipment. She is the fourth-generation owner of the family’s Farmall 300. The tractor was bought new in 1957 by her great-grandpa and continues to be a strong piece of the farm’s history.
Emily grew up as the calf feeder on the farm but slowly learned more about Wisconsin’s diverse agricultural community with her other jobs.
“I didn’t grow up in FFA or 4-H. My ag experience is solely from working on our farm, the nearby strawberry farm and the local Sentry grocery store,” Emily shared. “I kind of smile now thinking about the conversations I could have been having with the shoppers at the store about their food purchases.”
Emily works as a crop insurance specialist at State Bank of Cross Plains, formally known as Union Bank and Trust.
“I went to school for finance at UW-Whitewater,” Emily explained. “I was told many times by my parents’ ag lender, Craig O’Leary, that I needed to work in agriculture. He would say, ‘we need more farm kids like you in these jobs.’”
In 2014, when a summer agricultural internship was offered, Emily applied and was hired. She worked with agricultural lenders and learned more about crop insurance and the insurance industry in general.
“I develop individualized risk management plans for farmers,” Emily shared. “I help them understand how to use insurance as a tool, especially for when times are volatile. For example, you buy homeowners insurance for the risk of your house burning down but you don’t believe it will. To me, crop insurance is even more important because you are working with Mother Nature and the commodity markets. There is so much to protect against.”
Emily admits that getting to know her customers, and being a farm kid, allows her to understand how much is at stake.
“You are definitely there during their good times and bad.”
Being young in her career, Emily has an interesting perspective on her industry.
“My coworkers have seen highs and lows, but I’ve only seen the lows,” she explained.
She is optimistic that this year might be different than last year. Last fall she noticed that her clients’ spending started changing slightly and there is a focus on renting more land again.
“I am hopeful,” she said. “Farmers have been pushed to their limit of optimism the past few years.”
Farm Bureau has been an outlet for Emily and others to share frustrations and encouragement. She is thankful for the organization’s networking opportunities.
“I was told about Farm Bureau by Jessica Sarbacker,” said Emily. “She told me as a finance major trying to start in an ag-related career it would help me connect to people. She told me Rock County had a strong Young Farmer and Agriculturist program and that I should check it out.”
She quickly signed up and showed up at a YFA event thanks to Erin Grawe and Megan Daluge.
She laughed as she recalled the first encounter, explaining she walked straight to them and said, “Hi I’m Emily, and I just joined Farm Bureau.”
She added, “My Farm Bureau involvement escalated quickly. In June, I didn’t know anything about Farm Bureau, except they had a food stand at the fair. By September, I was on the county board as the YFA chair. In December, I attended the WFBF Annual Meeting and YFA Conference because of Rural Mutual’s conference sponsorship.”
While at the YFA Conference, Emily vividly remembers feeling inspired by retiring YFA chair Andrea Brossard’s speech.
“Right then I knew I wanted to be like her and inspire people as she inspired me at that moment. I instantly started asking about the state YFA Committee and hoped that serving as chair would be in the cards someday.”
Emily enjoys that Farm Bureau helps you easily connect with many different types of people. But, even more so she appreciates the leadership development opportunities.
She graduated from Class X of the WFBF Leadership Institute with a better understanding of how to communicate with people outside of agriculture and insurance.
“It was important to learn how to talk about agriculture on a level that anyone can understand,” she stated. “When you grow up on a farm, you don’t know that the general public doesn’t understand what you are talking about.”
Her favorite experience thus far has been the capstone event of the WFBF Leadership Institute, the Washington, D.C. Fly-In.
“It was a surreal experience to talk about crop insurance with Senator Ron Johnson,” she said. “I knew what I was talking about and had grown a level of confidence in sharing what I knew to be true.”
Newly elected as the Wisconsin YFA chair, Emily knows there is a lot at stake.
“We need to take what we learned last year – a year of struggle – to come back stronger and move forward.”
She hopes to bring people together in 2021 in some way and sees opportunities ahead for young members to band together and help each other out.
“If we have learned anything,” she said, “it’s that we need people. We can’t go it alone. We need to be together and work together.”
She believes that young leaders are a crucial part of Farm Bureau, and she sees YFA as the seed in getting people where they want to go. Like gardening, the cultivating of young leaders is a process she can watch and appreciate.
Emily added, “The YFA program is a community that grows leaders and friendship. Without the unified voice that Farm Bureau gives us, what do we have?”
Story originally appeared in the February | March 2021 Rural Route. Story and photos by Amy Eckelberg.
What is YFA?
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmer and Agriculturist program is for members between 18 and 35 years old. The YFA program offers opportunities for leadership and skills development, along with the chance to meet and network with peers.
It provides members with an opportunity to enhance their leadership skills while networking with their peers. Many of the young members who have participated in the program have gone on to become active county, state and national Farm Bureau leaders, as well as respected leaders in their communities.
What is Leadership Institute?
The WFBF Leadership Institute is a year-long, premier leadership training course with the mission to develop strong and effective county Farm Bureau leaders.
- Develop and refine your follower and leader skills.
- Learn from experts, exchange ideas and gain confidence.
- Improve your communication and speaking skills.
- Learn how to craft an effective agriculture message and work with media.
- Develop friendships and find creative solutions to challenges through teamwork.
- Explore domestic and international agricultural issues.
- Join in the political process at the local, state and national levels.
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