A clean-cut, lean and studious-looking young man crossed the stage and scanned the crowd of hundreds of strangers and judges with clip boards. Unlike the others who smoothed their suits and ties with a familiar ease, Colin Johnson would feel better to be behind the wheel of a tractor. But, remembering his late father's years of leadership, generations of sweat and dirt, and all the Iowa farmers who are rooting for one of their own, he muttered a little prayer to himself: "Let God's grace give me the words and peace in the moment, to remember what's important and be able to display that on stage." He took a deep breath, smiled and leaned into the microphone.
Johnson came out on top in a tough field of professional talkers: lawyers, agribusiness leaders, grain marketers and others to win the coveted American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) Discussion Meet prize. The AFBF Discussion Meet is not a debate on ag knowledge, as much as a showcase of a Farm Bureau member's ability to hold and guide a conversation.
With anti-ag activist agendas and regulation measures bearing down on agriculture, it's never been more important for farmers to be a part of a bigger conversation than the one going on every morning at the corner Cafe or local farmer's hangout. This conversation is going on now, globally, online, through social media and national media outlets.
The 34-year-old Agency farmer's style is a welcome one in any public venue; he works to understand the people in a conversation. He listens.
Colin's wife, Dawn, believed from the very beginning that Colin could win this whole thing because she knows how engaging he can be, even in the face of adversity or opposition. His conversation-starting acumen is how they met.
Colin was having breakfast in Ames with friends, when he heard the conversation in the booth behind him turn to vegetarianism. Being the son of a third-generation Iowa hog farmer, he turned to share a different perspective. While he didn't change the mind of the vegetarian, he did change the mind of Dawn, who was impressed enough with the young man that she changed her mind about ‘never marrying a farmer'.
Colin's winning discussion points covered the critical need for all farmers, to reach out and connect with consumers. Many of his fellow Discussion Meet candidates kept saying "We need to EDUCATE consumers about farming." Colin sees it another way: farmers need to be the ones to reach out and find common ground among those who share our values.
“We have family in common,” he says. “I think of them when I raise pigs and grow corn and soybeans because I know it matters how farmers grow crops and raise animals. We're talking about food we put on the table for our family and yours; we're talking about land we all share and the watershed we all share." Johnson says it’s important to remember the big picture isn't about profit; it's about character.
Johnson has come full circle. "I've been a longtime supporter of Farm Bureau and have learned a lot from them, but one of the reasons I belong to Farm Bureau is the strong moral, Christian foundation of the organization; we're serving a higher purpose by remembering we're all in this together."
The Discussion Meet winner gets a Dodge pickup truck. With a growing family and more sweat equity than capital, it's a welcome prize. "I'll work with my wife to make sure we get one that will best suit the needs of our growing family. The color? Let's just say it'll be the color of dirt; it'll get used!"
What's next for Colin Johnson? He doesn't have a quick answer, other than to continue to keep sharing what it means to be a farmer today. Let's all keep the conversation going...
Written by Laurie Johns
Laurie Johns is Public Relations Manager for the Iowa Farm Bureau.
Colin Johnson: The Power of "Connecting"