AG CAREER PROFILES: WHAT DOES A GOVERNMENT AGENCY EXEC DO?

12-8-16alston_0824Michael Alston grew up in Michigan and played football at Michigan State University, but never considered that his career would lead him to agriculture.  Alston is currently the Associate Administrator of the Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Deputy Manager of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) Board, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In this role, he is the senior career employee within the RMA.

The RMA is the agency that administers and oversees the federal crop insurance program.  This program helps farmers insure their crops against weather losses like tornadoes, droughts, or hail, as well as against total losses from other pests and pressures. The program covers more than $100 billion in liabilities nationwide every year.

Alston oversees the daily operations of the agency, advises the Office of the Secretary on RMA issues and positions, and also ensures the safety and workplace environment of the Washington, DC and field office employees.

Lindsay: What path led you to this position at this time?

Michael: Working here, in this position, has been a 30-year journey.  After I graduated from Michigan State University, I took a job with the Justice Department, which led me to live and work overseas.  From the Justice Department, I worked for the State Department for a few years, and at that point in my life, some personal factors led me to switch careers and work for the USDA.

At that time, USDA was looking for leaders, and by that time I had developed some good leadership skills so it was a good fit for me.  I worked in Springfield, IL as the Deputy Director of that RMA office and then became the Director there.  After about 10 years in Springfield, I took a position in Washington, DC working as the Associate Deputy Administrator for Compliance and l later moved to the Deputy Administrator for Insurance Services.  At this point in my career, I was overseeing the ten regional offices of the RMA, and working with the 16 private insurance companies and the binding document between the government and those insurance companies.  I oversaw that process.

All of those positions in the USDA were essentially leadership positions – making decisions, providing the right information to the right people, ensuring the appropriate work was getting done, and often being strategic about what positions and what work was most important to accomplish a goal.

Lindsay: What do you love most about your job?

Michael: I know at the end of every day that I have helped and worked with someone in rural America.

ag-careers_executiveI have always understood that rural America is the backbone of our country and that a lot of folks don’t understand where food comes from.  When you have the opportunity to travel overseas to countries where food isn’t available as I have, you understand how important food security and food to sustain a country really is.  Go to places where they don’t have food and then you are ready to invest in fresh, safe, cheap, available food.

So I love knowing that I’ve helped a farmer or rancher stay in business.  I love knowing that I’ve expanded opportunities for them.  I enjoy promoting rural America.

Lindsay: What skills/education do you believe have helped you to be successful?

Michael: For me in my career, the most important skill set is flexibility and adaptability.  I think often times people hold onto some theory of the past, and it has long ago become obsolete.  You constantly must look at yourselves and what you are doing and try to improve.

Also, the foundation of any leader is accountability and integrity.  If you aren’t accountable or you don’t have personal integrity, no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter.  You have nothing.

Lindsay: Describe a “day in the life” at your office.

Michael: I start at 8 am and I have meetings from 8 am to 4 pm.

I meet with folks from IT, I meet with folks from civil rights, I meet with the budget office, the chief financial officer, and folks from the FCIC Board.  I spend my day talking to others, making decisions, and channeling information up or down.

Lindsay: Based on your experiences, do you think young people today should consider a career in agriculture?

Michael: Yes, definitely.

Agriculture makes up about 17 percent of all the jobs in the U.S.  If you look strictly at rural America, that number goes up to about 35-40 percent.  Most of those jobs are not about having your hands in the dirt – although that’s important – but there are so many other skill sets involved in the industry

In the USDA, I can go to any college campus in any discipline and hire someone.  We need folks good at math, geography, finance, computers … there’s so much more to this industry than farming and ranching.

So yes, not only is it a vibrant industry, but it’s just very important and it sustains our country.  I would definitely encourage young folks to think about agriculture.

Mitchell_LindsayLindsay Mitchell
Marketing Manager
IL Corn

INTRODUCTION TO AG: WHY IT SHOULD BE A GEN ED COURSE

My junior year of college at Illinois State University, I shared an apartment with four other girls. One of the girls, Cailyn, was an agriculture major from a small town just like myself. The other three girls were non-agriculture majors and were from the Chicago suburbs. Kayla was a history education major, Sarah was a communications major, and Genny was a broadcast journalism major. After living with three girls that didn’t understand how their food is grown, couldn’t unscrew a door hinge or change a car tire, and thought that GMOs would kill them, I wholeheartedly believe that an Introduction to Agriculture class should be a required general education class in college.

We live in an uninformed society today. Because of this, there are all kinds of misconceptions about agriculture that get made. Some of these misconceptions include ideas that farmers inject steroids into their animals, that there are antibiotics in their food, and that all farms are big corporate farms. By having college students take an Introduction to Agriculture class we could help eliminate these misconceptions about agriculture.

Do you know what the average age of the US farmer is today? No? That’s okay, you’re not alone! Today in the United States the average farmer is 58 years old. Yes, that’s right, 58 years old! The average retirement age of US citizens is 63. Think about that! Why is this average so high? Because more and more people aren’t returning home to take over the family farm. It’s easier to get a job within the agriculture industry where the stress is much lower and the pay is much higher.

According to the USDA, there are expected to be 60,000 jobs opening annually in the agriculture industry with only 35,000 graduates to fill these jobs. By requiring college level students to take an Introduction to Agriculture class, students would understand all that the agriculture industry has to offer. Jobs such as agriculture accountants, agriculture loan officers, agriculture education teachers, insurance agents, and the list goes on and on. By exposing students to this industry and the job options it offers, this could encourage students to possibly change their major from business to agricultural business or finance to agricultural finance.

One of the biggest problems we face in America is the skepticism that our food is unsafe and that GMOS (genetically modified organisms) are harmful to us. By taking agriculture classes in college, students will see that in America we actually have the safest food supply in the world. They would also learn that it has been proven time and time again that GMOs are safe for human use and consumption. In fact, GMOs have been used for thousands and thousands of years. For example, corn is not a naturally occurring plant and instead was bred from a wild grain called teosinte. This is exactly what we do when we genetically modify plants today. We breed plants for whatever traits we want in plants. These traits include higher yielding plants, drought resistant plants, etc.

The most important reason that I believe college students should take agriculture classes is because they will learn life skills that they may not have been taught at home. Things like being able to change the oil in their car, use a drill to put in a screw, or wire an electric outlet in their home.

Agriculture classes would benefit college students and would help make these students more rounded individuals who would then be able to contribute to making our world a better place.

ellen-young
Ellen Young
Illinois State University

PORK POWER!

Who doesn’t love a good home-cooked meal around the holidays? My favorite things to enjoy with my family are ham and mashed potatoes. Many branches of the agriculture industry in Illinois team up for the holidays to make sure everyone in the state can have pork at their family dinners. This movement is called Pork Power and consists of Illinois Pork Producers Association, Illinois Association of Meat Processors, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Soybean Association, Feeding Illinois working together to gather pork to be donated.

12-5-16-pork-power-lightning-boltThis program was launched in 2008 by the Illinois Pork Producers and has continued to grow every year. The mission statement of the program is “To provide access to pork (vital meat protein) to our neighbors throughout Illinois by partnering with Feeding Illinois.” The 2015 results show that the mission statement is definitely being upheld. A whopping 500,000 pounds of pork was donated just last year. The half-million-pound donation amounted to 2 million meals being served to the people of Illinois.

Other events that support Pork Power are held throughout the year as well. These events include a fundraising meal at the Illinois Department of Agriculture and fun Pork Power t-shirts being sold at the Illinois State Fair. Some of these shirts have the Pork Power logo while others have puns about bacon that never get old!

Interested in donating pork to the cause? A few guidelines and more information on donating to the movement can be found here! Any other questions? Ask in the comments!

amanda-rollinsAmanda Rollins
Illinois State University