CHARGING AHEAD OF CHANGE
INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT NEEDED TO ENRICH RURAL AMERICA, LEADER SAYS
Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
After nearly 30 years at the helm of the Equipment Manufacturers Institute (EMI) and extensive service in voluntary leadership roles, Emmett Barker was in a position to offer an industrywide call to action during his acceptance of NAMA's Agribusiness Leader of the Year Award in Denver in April. "Society is changing its contract with agriculture, and we are woefully under-prepared to be viable negotiators at the table," EMI's president and chief staff executive said. "Most of the terms for the new contract are being dictated by over-reaching environmental enthusiasts and self-appointed social engineers. We in agriculture have been too slow and too incomplete in our response. Farmers cannot stay in a defensive mode and expect the outcome of the contract negotiations to be satisfactory." (See entire speech below)
A PASSION FOR POLICY
The following week, Barker elaborated on that theme from a hotel in Washington, D.C., where he attended Sparks Companies' spring policy and economics outlook seminar. "We have a tremendous opportunity in using our land-based resource, and not just for growing corn," he said in a phone interview. "Farming the government is not the long-term answer. There are many more opportunities and ways to enrich rural America. NAMA is uniquely positioned with a membership of communicators and needs to be a little bit more leadership-oriented, not constrained by being afraid to speak up on it."
In his view, marketing and communications professionals aren't the only ones negligent in re-envisioning agricultural policy. "I think the land-grant colleges and universities could do more work to pull the resources together to make this happen," he adds.
Barker's avid interest in rural social policy is reflected in his involvement with the Farm Foundation, the Ag Day Foundation, FFA, NAMA, and the Food, Land and People project, an educational-based program that introduces agricultural science into classrooms through accredited lesson plans. He attributes his zeal to his childhood in Edison, Tenn., where multiple Barkers have a history of community service and enhancement in a heavily diversified farming community.
"My dad is one who always said if you want the roadsides to not look weedy, then go out on Saturday and mow them off. That's the attitude and spirit of our family," he says. "One of the first farm/city-type projects we had was hosting the local rotary club on our farm. Even back then in the early 1950s, it intrigued me that in such a short time period how much agriculture was changing and how quickly people lost their identity with what went on in farming."
Active in extracurricular activities at the University of Tennessee, the former dairy science student organized the presidents of all the agricultural clubs to demand a business-track program in agriculture, which eventually was approved. He also met his wife Barbara there at a 4-H dance. The two have been married 41 years.
Following college, his public farm advocacy evolved as he served as a public relations director for Security Mills Inc., a regional livestock and poultry feed manufacturer, and for the American Feed Manufacturers Association. He became involved with several agricultural communications groups, including the Agricultural Relations Council. Barker was named chairman of the national farm-city committee in the mid-1960s, a position he used to advocate rural zoning laws. "You can imagine how that was received by the major farm organizations," he says. "We were talking about the exodus from the farms, but I knew one day those people would turn around and come back and, when they did, they would not like a lot of things going on out there. If we did not start then to protect ourselves, I knew we would be at the mercy of people coming back out here like they are today."
These views have proved prophetic. "Economics underlies a lot of it, but at the end of the day, the next farm bill will not be about the price of corn," he insists. "So many other things are going on out here. It's time for a new way to talk and think and act in regard to agriculture."
"If society says they would really rather allow us to use our farmland for landscaping, aesthetics or outdoor activities -- and they are willing to pay you more for that than growing potatoes -- what's so difficult to understand about that?" he contends.
Programs like the Conservation Reserve Program aren't eliminating the rural infrastructure, just changing it, he says. He points out that the best-selling tractor model is the under 40 horsepower category, purchased mainly by what he describes as "recreational farmers."
DOING A TOP JOB
His farm policy approach, which involves a shift from defending agriculture to discussing the issues openly and building what he calls the "intellectual capital" to address public concerns, parallels his style of association management. Following a stint as organizing president of the Agricultural Services Association, a value-added cooperative in Tennessee that produced southern vegetables for a frozen food processor, he took the helm at what originally was the Farm and Industrial Equipment Institute in 1973.
Adaptability has been key to the success of his 27-year tenure with the 13-member staff, despite enormous changes in the farm equipment business, Barker says. Five years into his leadership, during the early 1980s, he watched 70 percent of the ag equipment companies that made up the Institute's board of directors go out of business.
"In serving the farm equipment industry, we had two choices: either figure out ways to increase or replace revenue streams or go out of business. So we took on more construction business equipment members and the trade show business. That's where the opportunity was, he says. "In the process, we were very disciplined in our financial operations. Between 1978 and 1986 we reduced the size of the staff by more than half, and, like good farmers, we have substituted electronic technology for much of that labor and hired people who were adaptable to change."
He says employees have two opportunities to tell him, "It's not my job" -- the first time when they don't know how to do something, and, the second time, on their way out the door. In a small group like that, you have to have a tremendous amount of flexibility and capability," he says. His management style led to an unintentionally long but fulfilling career at EMI, based in Chicago, Barker adds.
"The philosophy that I brought with me when I took this job was that if I was going to do the kind of job I wanted to do and should do, then I would challenge the board of directors so much that within 10 years they would fire me," he offers. "It seems like over that period of time, the harder I challenged them, and myself and the staff, the better they liked it. In the process, that made it new and interesting for me, too.
"When I took this job, I wanted to work for the best trade association in the world, and I decided the best way to do that was to make the Institute be that organization," he continues. "With a great deal of pride and no modesty whatsoever, I can say that we have accomplished that at EMI."
His next big leadership challenge is overseeing a merger consolidation with the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2002. The combined organization will operate from the four current offices in Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Beijing. "This is the next step in the big adjustment to accommodate change," he says. "It's to everyone's advantage to consolidate our resources." EMI's core competencies in industry policy, regulation, statistics and technical issues will be blended with the other organization's focus on trade shows and market promotion to create a broader, more flexible new trade group, he says.
"There have been two different efforts to put the two organizations together, which were not successful, but a lot has changed in the world," says Barker, who will have a leadership role with the new association. "It's going to be very interesting to help put that together." Not surprisingly, he sees it as just one more chance to take advantage of new opportunities. AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.
INDUSTRYWIDE CALL TO ACTIONThe following excerpts are from the speech given by Emmett Barker, president of the Equipment Manufacturers Institute, when he received the Agribusiness Leader of the Year Award from NAMA in Denver in April.
To be named the first recipient of this award is indeed a special honor for me. While my career path has kept me only at the edge of agricultural advertising and marketing, I can't think of any group whose acknowledgement could give me greater personal pleasure than this recognition by NAMA today.
It has been said that one is known by the company he or she keeps. If so, I am especially blessed because many past NAMA agri-marketer award winners served on my Institute board of directors at one time or another. We all must know how to choose our friends and associates.
In that regard, I also am honored today by having a special EMI support group here, including the Lanphiers, the Babsons, the Walbridges, the Baises, Gary MacDonald, and, most important, my very special person, Barbara. I've also had a great staff support team at EMI in Chicago these 27 years.
As you may have guessed from these remarks, I've had a lot of fun these past several years along with being inspired by the opportunity to work with so many interesting and successful people.
But folks, society is changing its contract with agriculture, and we are woefully under-prepared to be viable negotiators at the table. Most of the terms for the new contract are being dictated by over-reaching environmental enthusiasts and self-appointed social engineers. Robert Kennedy Jr. and the trial lawyers come to mind.
We in agriculture have been too slow and too incomplete in our response. Farmers and farming cannot stay in a defensive mode and expect the outcome of the contract negotiations to be satisfactory.
Raising the baseline for funding in the ag appropriations bills simply won't get the job done. To quote from Doane's March 30 newsletter, " ... the next farm bill debate has to be about more than just the price of corn."
It is time for a new way of thinking, talking and acting about agriculture.
Why? Instead of praising production agriculture for the fact that never before in history have so few fed so many, society is saying: "We are frightened by what you do on your factory farms and ranches."
* It appears to be inhumane to animals.
* It appears to contribute to the risk of environmental disasters.
* It appears to create an unsafe food supply.
* It appears to be unfair to small farmers.
* It appears to absorb a disproportionate share of the nation's wealth transfer.
Society is trying to tell us something. In fact, they are offering us many insights into what they are willing to support as economic alternatives to our current approaches to the production, and perhaps too much of the time, over-production of corn, cotton, soybeans, meat and milk.
Rational and forward-thinking people from all aspects of agriculture must help the owners and operators of the largest land-resource based contributors to our nation's economy become "farmers with a future" in America. And the most meaningful solutions will encompass "something more than the price of corn."
It is time for a multi-functionality use of these resources. That's where the new social and economic opportunities for agriculture will be in the future. It's time for a new way of thinking, talking and acting by agricultural leaders. AM