Ontario Agriculture

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Learning the RULEs of Leadership at State College, Pennsylvania

Today marks our ninth stop on this “Amazing Race across North America.” We’ve parked our bus at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, for a joint day of leadership learning with the RULE participants and alumni of Pennsylvania. RULE stands for “Rural Urban Leadership” and they’re currently in their 16th class of participants, just like us at AALP, as we’re Class number 16 too. There are 38 state organizations in the USA, either RULE or LEAD programs, which focus on rural and urban leadership skills that can be put into practice at home, work, farm or community. These leadership skills are extensively worked on over a two-year period by utilizing three different teaching methods: experiential learning, individual self-assessment and team activities. These RULE and LEAD programs in the USA are also connected to 10 international leadership programs across the globe, which includes the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program (AALP) in Ontario, Canada.


In case you’re curious, here are a few fun facts about the state of Pennsylvania:

  • 12.7 million people with average household income of $53,000/yr
  • Harrisburg, PA is the state’s capital city 
  • The state’s official beverage is milk 
  • PA joined the United States of America on Dec 12, 1787
  • 59,000 farms in the state with 7.7 million acres of farmland in crop production
  • Top 5 crops grown: 1) mushrooms 2) hardwood lumber 3) Christmas trees 4) eggs 5) apples 6) grapes 

Our day was jump started this morning by a mutual appreciation of patriotism that included passionate singing of both the American and Canadian national anthems. Warm words of welcome were provided by JD Dunbar, Program Manager of RULE Pennsylvania, which included an inspiring quote from a world-renowned and respected leader Muhammad Ali, “Impossibility is not a declaration; it is a dare.”


A past RULE participant of Class 7, Rick Viello, who works for the Governor of Pennsylvania, shared his story about being elected as Mayor of his local community. Through strong leadership performance and saying yes instead of no, Rick had a record high 93% of the popular vote in the mayoral race by his third term in office. Rick isn’t serving as the mayor for the money, as he only gets paid $37.50/week, but he is involved in his local community as he feels strongly that “good things happen when you say yes.”


Our next speaker was Dr. Thomas Murray, Director of the Marcellus Center of Outreach and Research at Penn State University, and he shared an important thought with respect to research, that “translation outreach of the data findings creates advocates of science.”


We were fortunate to hear from Erick Coolidge as well this morning. Erick owns Le-Ma-Re Farms and this dairy farm has been in existent for over 169 years. He is a 4th generation farmer who milks 120 Holstein cows in a tail-to-tail tiestall barn with his son, who is the 5th generation on the farm. Erick also grows 700 acres of cash crop with the bulk of the crops grown being used for cattle feed. Erick is very involved in his community and he is currently the Tioga County Commissioner. When he took office in Tioga County, the county was running a negative $8 million dollar budget. Under Erick’s humble and positive leadership style, he was able to navigate the county out of a deficit position. Tioga County has now reported seven years of income surplus without raising taxes and at the present time, they have cash in the bank. Erick was recently awarded a spot in the Top 100 Voices in Agriculture, an award listing created in honour of Farm Credit’s 100th anniversary, to acknowledge great innovation and leadership over the past number of years.


Switching gears, we had a great presentation from current RULE 16 scholar Zachary Gihorski, who was raised on a livestock farm in rural New Jersey. Zachary has relocated to the state of Pennsylvania and is currently the Pennsylvania State Fair Coordinator. There are 62 counties in the state of Pennsylvania and within these counties, there are 109 annual fairs. According to Zachary, a fair is a “community event that brings people together” and this is a great opportunity to share with attendees what our positive agricultural messages are.

When asked how to improve participation from schools in the agricultural education programs at fair exhibitions, Zachary said “go to the head of the school board and ask them to tour your farm for an hour to show this person the opportunities for learning and how the safety risks have been mitigated.” Zachary had a very powerful closing comment for us, “When you leave your leadership class, do not forget why you came here; you came here (to this AALP class), to make a difference.”


Speaking from the heart was the theme of the inspirational presentation by Melanie Baber Palmas, a RULE Class 15 graduate. She’s a busy lady as she’s a director at YMCA, a Spanish professor at two different post-secondary institutions, and a hard-working mom. Melanie encouraged us to have a strategy to get to where you want to go and to write down your goals and leverage your contacts to implement the strategy. Melanie shared a positive quote with us about her RULE experience, “Leadership is like a butterfly spreading its wings… a miraculous and unexplainable transformation!” She also feels very strongly that “all things are possible” when you use your network through RULE/LEAD/AALP.


A healthy lunch of chicken salad was enjoyed by all in attendance, which included nine participants of the current RULE 16 class plus alumnus of the past 15 RULE Pennsylvania programs. The energy and buzz in the lunch room was invigorating and inspiring as both RULE and AALP leaders immersed themselves in meaningful networking conversations. It was suggested that we adopt the new name “Class 16 squared” in order to symbolize the intersection of our leadership programs.


Our post lunch speaker was Angela Callie, graduate of RULE 7 and a facilitator of RULE 16, from the rural development branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Angela shared with us that the Rural Development mission statement is as follows, “committed to helping improve the economy and quality of life in rural America.” Angela educated us on government programs to assist with creating opportunities in the rural communities. A few examples of assistance are as follows: subsidizing interest rates down to 1% and extending the maximum amortization from 33 years to 38 years to allow for cash flow reductions to make rural housing more affordable.


“A leader needs to make sure that everyone feels like they belong in the room.” This was the key message in a passionate presentation from JD Dunbar, RULE Program Manager. JD also gave a shout out to our fearless leader Rob Black and we would like to say a huge THANK YOU to Rob for organizing an amazing North American study tour!

According to our last speaker of the day, the hilarious Rick Bryant, the four keys to success are as follows:
1) Listen for your call
2) Show up on time
3) Dress for success
4) Be ready to play

We’re now off to board the bus for a tour of the Penn State Campus and on-campus Berkey Creamery.

Once again, we’d like to say THANK YOU SO MUCH to our new friends at RULE Pennsylvania – for a great Class 16 squared experience. For us at AALP class 16, RULE means the following: “Really, Underestimated (this) Lively and Excellent (day)!”

That’s a wrap… until tomorrow!

-Class 16

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