Cassandra Valdez was unsure about her future when she joined the Leader Fellowship program through Agriculture Future of America (AFA).
“I started the program in 2020, when I was hopeless and clueless,” says the Merced Community College and California State University, Fresno student. “The pandemic had just started, and I needed something to help me continue to grow professionally as we all stood still from home, but I didn’t know how to do that. As an ag major, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to get involved in the industry side while still being connected to my ag education roots.”
Through the fellowship program, Valdez started to see other career opportunities in agriculture. “All I had known from college was that there was a classroom route, so exposure to other options through the AFA fellowship is something that I’m grateful for,” she says.
Supporting Valdez and other emerging ag leaders is the mission of the CHS Foundation, which was established in 1947 by the founding members of CHS to support rural communities and the future of agriculture. Since then, the CHS Foundation has been devoted to developing the next generation of ag leaders through cooperative education, university partnerships and ag leadership programs.
Throughout the CHS Foundation’s first 75 years, strong partnerships have emerged to give all young people the opportunity to become leaders in agriculture and further their ag education.
Starting almost 20 years ago, the CHS Foundation and AFA have shared a goal of educating the next generation of agricultural leaders. Since 2004, the CHS Foundation has been the largest supporter of AFA, funding programming, encouraging AFA board members and providing meeting space.
Funded by the CHS Foundation, the AFA Leader Fellowship program pairs AFA student teachers like Valdez with trained industry professionals to coach them through personal development and career exploration.
“Through the fellowship program, I chose a mentor who would guide me in this two-year journey of developing a series of leadership competencies,” says Valdez. “They helped me see areas of growth where I could develop as a young professional and agriculturalist and create a development plan that would commit me to my goals.”
The CHS Foundation also partners with organizations focused on cultivating learning and career opportunities that value diverse thinking, voices and backgrounds. That commitment was the driving force behind the Foundation’s relationship with Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) that began in 2010.
“It’s beneficial for students to see multiple career paths in agriculture,” says Ebony Webber, MANRRS chief operations officer. “Being able to travel to attend a national conference is transformative. Having the financial support to go to college and major in these careers is equally transformative.”
As the primary supporter of the Junior MANRRS Gold program, the CHS Foundation provides funding for the Going for Gold scholarship, which supports high school students who plan to pursue ag-related or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields of study.
Building the future of ag
FFA and 4-H are synonymous with the future of agriculture, and the CHS Foundation has supported both organizations for nearly six decades.
Currently, 40% of Minnesota FFA students come from economically challenged households. With financial support from the CHS Foundation, Minnesota FFA has been able to offer more scholarships to create opportunities for these students, including helping them attend the Minnesota State FFA Convention. Each year, the convention hosts more than 5,000 students, teachers and supporters from around the state.
Youth engaged in 4-H and FFA are making a big impact in their local communities, teaching young learners about animal safety and other ag-related topics.
“With the CHS Foundation, it goes much deeper than just financial support,” says Val Aarsvold, executive director of the Minnesota FFA Foundation. “It’s about having conversations about what communities and agriculture need, then building our programs around those goals and needs.”
The CHS Foundation brings the same mission of providing equal opportunity into its partnership with 4-H, which serves 6 million youth annually, including youth participating in 5.6 million STEM projects and 3.1 million ag projects each year. “Those are huge numbers of young people who are finding their spark and pursuing that all the way through their 4-H career,” says Heather Elliott, National 4-H Council chief development officer. “It builds a pipeline of workforce-ready young people who have skills like teamwork, communication and leadership.”
The CHS Foundation has committed $1 million to the National 4-H Council to support the 4-H True Leaders in Equity Program and What I Wish People Knew (WIWPK) storytelling platform. The 4-H True Leaders in Equity program will create more than 1,000 youth-led equity and inclusion projects in local communities. The WIWPK platform empowers youth to lift their voices and share their stories and passion for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Boost for innovation
At universities around the country, students and educators are engaging with new technologies and practices that will impact the future of agriculture. “The CHS Foundation supports this important work because new thinking will be the engine that drives agriculture forward,” says Nanci Lilja, president of the CHS Foundation.
The CHS Foundation has supported innovative projects at colleges and universities since 1952. Today, students at SDSU are developing precision agriculture technology for the future.
Among other higher-education support, the CHS Foundation has:
- Helped North Dakota State University establish the Center for Trading and Risk Management to prepare students for the complex world of agricultural commodity trading
- Supported the Raven Precision Ag Center at South Dakota State University, the first university to offer a B.S. degree in precision agriculture
- Partnered with the University of Minnesota to create the Minnesota Model program, which helps modernize K-12 agriculture education
“We’re helping students see that if they're interested in technology, education, agriculture or food production, this is a field that allows them to use technology,” says Steven Corkery, associate vice president of the Corporate Engagement Center at the University of Minnesota.
It starts with teachers
The CHS Foundation supports teachers who are committed to bringing ag-related lessons to their students. Through National Agriculture in the Classroom (NAITC), for example, the Foundation provides scholarships for teachers to attend a national conference, resources to bring ag literacy into the classroom and the chance to experience agriculture in a specific region.
“Our relationship with the CHS Foundation has been really important for increasing the number of teachers we’re able to bring to the conference and providing classroom grants,” says Andy Guffey, NAITC executive director. “Those hundreds of teachers are influencing thousands of students.”
Ag teachers like Desi Severance, pictured, and Rachel Sauvola help spark students’ passion for agriculture through hands-on experiences in their classrooms.
The CHS Foundation also provides support to the National Teach Ag Campaign, which provides an avenue for new and aspiring educators to make a difference in the classroom.
Rachel Sauvola, a high school teacher in New Richmond, Wis., has been an ag educator for24 years. Her passion, she says, is mentoring teachers and pre-service teachers to help them be the best educators they can be — and the Future Agriscience Teacher Symposium (part of the National Teach Ag Campaign) enables her to do that.
“We train college students who are studying to be teachers to think about how they can encourage students, ask important and challenging questions, and move away from the textbook,” Sauvola says. “Ag education is different now. We have hands-on labs and experiences that make our students think about how they can help solve world problems.”
Focus on cooperatives
As the charitable arm of the largest farmer-owned cooperative in the U.S., the CHS Foundation is driven to keep the cooperative system strong and thriving.
First supported in 1959, North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) was one of the first entities to offer cooperative education. In 2020, the CHS Foundation supported development of the new Jamestown Camp facility.
“We train our summer staff counselors on the cooperative business model,” says NDFU Director Miranda Letherman. “They in turn teach campers the basics of how a cooperative works, and campers put that knowledge to work operating their own cooperative store. Campers take those skills home and share them in communities throughout North Dakota.”
The CHS Foundation also partnered with Discovery Education to build the Cooperative Minds platform, an online portal that features free videos, curricula, career profiles and other resources to educate students about the cooperative business model and careers.
“We’re thankful to farmers, ranchers and cooperatives for being part of the CHS family and helping the CHS Foundation continue its mission,” says Lilja of the CHS Foundation. “We are looking forward to the next75 years of working together to drive growth and development among students and teachers who are helping shape the future of the agriculture industry.”
Check out the full C magazine with this article and more.