Issues in Agriculture

Issues in Agriculture

Class Teaches Developing Leaders How to Help Settle Conflicts


By Keith Robinson

Andrew Johnson is the type of person who tends to back away from conflicts. That's because they sometimes can damage relationships, which he doesn't want to happen. For him, the outcome of conflict usually is a bad thing.

Johnson is now learning something about himself that he wants to change: He's an avoider. He came to this realization after enrolling in a Purdue University College of Agriculture class that helps students recognize their leadership abilities and develop skills to foster agreement on tough agricultural issues that often sharply divide two or more sides.

He is coming to understand there is such a thing as "constructive conflict."

"Conflict also is a way to sharpen each other, to make each other better," says Johnson, a sophomore from Orleans, Ind., studying agricultural finance. "Being able to maintain a relationship in the midst of conflict can really make it stronger."


Purdue University course teaches students how to help resolve issues in agriculture through leadership and collaboration. (Video by Carlee Glassburn)

The class, Dealing with Controversial Issues in Agriculture (AGEC 498), explores issues such as those surrounding large-scale hog operations, community conflicts and the environment. One issue the class studied this year involved the possible sale of raw milk for human consumption. State legislative bills that would have allowed it in Indiana were unsuccessful in 2013.

Taught each spring semester by agricultural economics professor Janet Ayres, the class includes examination of case studies, presentations by guest speakers with experience in conflict situations, and role-playing scenarios that take students out of their comfort zones, such as when a student with a farming background assumes the role of an environmentalist opposed to a farm operation.

Ayres says the role-playing helps students think about how people with different backgrounds and causes might approach a particular issue.

"If we can do more of this in real life and actually put ourselves in the shoes of somebody who comes from a very different perspective, it would help us have a more open mind when we're trying to work through these problems," she says.

The role-playing exercises have been as simple as buying and selling oranges, with the students negotiating and coming to a compromise. A more complex scenario, such as one inspired by a situation in North Carolina, involved a plan to reintroduce wolves to the wild. In that one, the students represented the positions of farmers, parents, a wildlife biologist, state officials and a forest manager as they worked toward a solution.

'A wise leader speaks with knowledge'

The Dealing with Controversial Issues in Agriculture class is all about developing leaders.

As a sociologist, professor Janet Ayres' work has focused on building the skills of rural leaders and state and federal professionals to address community change, create a strategic direction, manage conflict and build leadership for local decision making and action. She has developed nearly 30 state, national and international leadership development programs, including in Poland and Russia.

Ayres emphasizes the leadership she expects the students to show in how they prepare and participate in the class, based on three key principles underscored in the course's syllabus:

  • Attendance: "One of the most important leadership principles is the 'power of presence,' the importance of being physically and mentally present in the situation."
  • Readings and class participation: "An important leadership principle is that a leader speaks out, but a wise leader speaks with knowledge."
  • Assignments of three written papers demonstrating critical thinking, logical ordering of ideas and proper use of grammar: "A key leadership skill is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively."

Whether it is in role-playing or more traditional classroom discussion, students are expected to come to class prepared to tackle issues. They did that before discussing a controversy in which farmers in Oregon, who were growing organic crops, became concerned about possible spray drift from nearby fields where other farmers were using herbicides and pesticides.

"You can see the farmers in conflict. The conflict is escalating, and you're saying 'We need to do something about this,'" Ayres says. "So the question is what can you do?"

That's where she says students learn leadership, first through preparation by reading articles on how to work in collaboration and also articles about the issue itself, then by putting themselves in the place of a local leader mediating the controversy.

This was Ayres' assignment to the students: "How would you go about building trust, bringing a group of vested stakeholders together to work through the issues so you can coexist in the same geographic place?"

Beth Forbes is a regular speaker as head of Purdue's Department of Agricultural Communication. She discusses the university's role, as a land-grant institution, in providing unbiased research information.

"I explain to the students that the university doesn't advocate for policies or issues, but rather our faculty and staff provide objective information to policymakers and others so they can make informed decisions," Forbes said.

Ayres describes the class as "a little bit policy, a little bit theory and a lot of application" that will help students become leaders whether they go back to their home farm, work for an agribusiness or pursue other careers.

"I can almost guarantee they're going to have to deal with controversial issues," she says. "So hopefully this class will help them know how to think about those issues and how their skills and talents can help lead the way through those messy issues."

Johnson says the class is helping him learn how to make good decisions involving matters that have "gray areas," as many controversies do.

"That's a skill that's applicable across a broad range of areas—in agriculture but also obviously in businesses, in my family, in my church. It's a skill that I really wanted to cultivate in myself."

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