Adding value to farm operations
By LARRY KERSHNER
VINCENT – For Afton Holt, 26, filling the post as communications specialist for NEW Cooperative is her dream job.
The daughter of a livestock farmer growing up between Ellsworth and Jewell, Holt said her primary goals in college were to work in agriculture and to stay in Iowa.
Having fulfilled both objectives in October 2008, she now has new goals to reach.
Hew new objectives – renewed daily – she said, includes “continuing to improve communications between the co-op and farmers and to add value to farmers’ operations.”
She said adding value isn’t always measured in dollars. Many times its providing farmers with new information, or providing options for crop inputs to protect or increase yields.
Like many who make their careers in agriculture, Holt credits the leadership and communication experiences she had in 4-H and FFA helped her determine her field of study.
She said she still serves in various ways in 4-H and FFA judging and with the 4-H Foundation. “It’s giving back what I’ve been given,” she said.
Her entire family is intensely involved with 4-H, she said.
On the family farm, she and her sister, Whitney, managed a production flock of sheep to show lambs at the Hamilton County Fair and the Iowa State Fair. That flock is now managed by a younger sister, Raquel, 14.
Holt and Whitney assist their younger sibling in getting lambs ready for shows. They still enjoy their annual sojourn to and camp out at the state fair, Afton Holt said.
Holt graduated from ISU with a degree in ag communication with a minor in animal science.
“I expected I’d be working for a commodity organization,” Holt said, “like Iowa Corn.” But the opportunity to work for NEW Cooperative opened itself to her, and she said she’s never regretted it.
“There’s no better place,” she said, “helping farmers be better. I’m lucky to be working with farmers every day.”
Her daily chores, she said, “are never the same. Ever.”
Writing marketing communications, announcing charitable donations, updating the company’s website and social media outlets, taking photos and videos of NEW Co-op employees or members at their work are part of her routine assignments.
She’s also director of NEW Cooperative Foundation, which awarded seven $2,000 scholarships to high school seniors and college students enrolled in agriculture-related majors this year.
She writes about the cooperative’s primary products – grain, feed, agronomy – and MAPS.
MAPS, Holt said, is a full-service agronomic program, supplying precision agriculture solutions through services, sales and support to customers looking to add value to their farming operations, assisting farmers in gaining insight into their fields to improve management decisions.
“And there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t get donation requests,” she said. These include requests from schools or rural fire departments, or other entities seeking financial assistance for improving the communities. “The foundation has become a very important part of what I do.”
She also assists in organizing cooperative social and annual events, lining up speakers, getting news releases out and keeping members and employees informed of meetings and gatherings.
She said many of NEW’s 21 locations are essential to their communities, often the largest employer, and frequently the morning gathering place for farmers to catch up on local news.
She said although NEW has been successful since it was formed 40 years ago when the elevators at Vincent and Badger merged forming North East Webster Cooperative, “we don’t want to lose the co-op feel,” she said. “Members still sense this is still their co-op and the board has the same goal, not to lose the feel.”
She noted that as early as five to seven years, cooperatives and ag retailers considered her position as unnecessary. The different duties she fills were handled by others, but were not their primary job description.
With her in the communications slot, she handles advertising, marketing, public relations and other functions, freeing up other employees to concentrate on their jobs.
She sees other smaller cooperatives seeking communications personnel now.
“Ag is rapidly advancing,” Holt said, “and communications are needed for faster communications with members.”
And not just to members, but to the community in general.
Holt said she was scheduled to attend three county fairs last weekend, “to tell the story of farming, cooperatives and NEW.”
She said NEW has become part of the Food and Family Project, started by the Iowa Soybean Association.
“We have the outlets to tell our story,” Holt said. “I’m an advocate. Ag is so important in everyone’s lives.
“If farmers can’t do their jobs, there won’t be any food, any clothing and no fuel. I love being part of it.”
Being part of it includes assisting co-op members in creating their own social media accounts and how to tell their own stories about farming.
“There’s a lot of farmers on social media and blogging,” Holt said. “Once they get started, they can’t be stopped.”
She said what continues to impress her is how farm families tend to stay close, even if some branch off into non-farming careers.
She said she’s also impressed with the vast knowledge of co-op history among the long-time members.
“It’s fun to see these generational families still members of the co-op,” Holt said, as well as second and third generation members on the directors board.