Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ag Jobs A to Z: Non-Profit Work

Photo credit: Elaine Bristol

While I've been traveling the country as part of Why I Farm Roadtrip, I've met lots of fantastic people. I'm so thankful to have met Elaine Bristol, who helped me coordinate several of my Michigan farm visits. With her help, I had a fantastic time in the country's second most agriculturally diverse state. Part of Elaine's job at Michigan Ag Council is to help people like me learn all Michigan does to feed and fuel the world. Here are the details straight from her perspective.

1. Where did you go to school?
My sister, cousins and I were the fifth generation on my dad’s side of our family to attend Michigan State University. On my mom’s side, my sister and I were the fourth generation of Spartans. I didn’t apply to any other colleges because no other school in the state had an agriculture and natural resources (ANR) communications program.

2. What inspired you to pursue a job in agricultural Non-Profit work?
Growing up on a farm, being involved in 4-H and FFA and being a lifetime learner led me to pursue a career in agricultural communications. The natural resources component is also important for all the environmental discussions we’re having in today’s culture. Most of my career has been spent in association management work – we used to call this non-profit work, but it gives young professionals the wrong idea about opportunities! Like a farmer (actually, I am a farmer off the “8-5” clock), I wanted my work to mean something. Enjoy what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life, right? 

3. How long have you been working in agricultural Non-Profits?
Since I got my first “real” job in 2007 working as a student graphic artist in the state 4-H office (which transitioned later to a spot in the ANR Communications office), I’ve been working in this field. Excuse the expression – ha! I had internships that included church mission work, a state park seasonal job, social media work for career services, Michigan Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau. Unfortunately for my supervisors, I have a difficult time saying goodbye, so when I hired in, I oftentimes stayed longer than one semester. In fact, my final official internship at American Farm Bureau Federation transitioned into my first full-time position out of college.

4. What skills are necessary for a career in agricultural Non-Profits?
Constant adaptability and ability to learn. Being an achiever who follows through on projects, and a developer who can pull together resources to get a job done and/or who can provide direction to volunteers. Belief in your abilities to contribute to worthy causes. Personal/people skills, relating to the people you come across in a career.
And please, if someone doesn’t answer the phone, leave a voicemail.

5. How does your job fit into the agricultural industry? (Who do you work with? Who do you help? Who helps you?) 
Farmers have a lot of responsibilities, so it’s pretty common that public relations gets pushed to the back burner. On the other side of the table, consumers are seeking more and more information about their food and agricultural products. My job in association management is to connect Michigan farmers with their neighbors (consumers) to bridge the gap and make proactive communication a priority through simple relationship building. Michigan has nearly 10 million residents and only about 52,000 farmers, but the agricultural sector is the second largest industry, contributing about $101 billion to the economy each year. I work with other Michigan agribusinesses, agricultural organizations and retailers to make sure we’re representing as many agricultural voices as possible.

6. What career/internship opportunities are there in Non-Profits?

When I was earning my degree, I thought agriculture and natural resources communications was possibly too specific. Let me just say, I was wrong. Whew! There’s an overwhelming amount of opportunities in association management, especially in the agricultural sector. Agriculture is seeing an upswing in customer interest – people want to be more connected to local foods (and here in Michigan, other ag products too!) and the farmers who grow and raise those products. 

I’d say that when I started into agriculture and natural resources communications, I expected to be a journalist or a reporter of some sort. However, with the evolution of today’s communication tactics, I found new media to be more appealing as a writer. News stories now have to be condensed to a headline for people scrolling through a newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook; a soundbite on radio or TV needs to be less than five seconds for our audiences; marketing materials and sales pieces need to be descriptive through imagery rather than text. In general, communication techniques need to be adapted for our audiences.

7. Is there anything else you would like a student audience to know?
It’s important to have goals in mind but to not be afraid to hit a curveball if it comes your way. Rural America is accepting and encouraging of millennial entrepreneurial spirit, so I always wanted to return home to the community that built who I am. This community is home to the 160 acre farm my grandparents bought in the 60’s, the 40 acre farm my parents bought in the 80’s and now my 6 acre farm that I bought in 2015. The curveball I mentioned is that I had to work in Washington, D.C., before returning, my parents had diverse experiences in New England before investing in their dreams, and my grandparents had to work other jobs before “settling down” on their slice of golden ground. Working hard pays off, but it’s important to be flexible as you plan and dream.

Huge thanks to Elaine for sharing her career story, and all the resources she has through Michigan Ag Council. I'm so glad our paths crossed during the Why I Farm Roadtrip, and can't wait to see all the wonderful things she accomplishes in here Non-Profit role in the future.

Thanks for reading!

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