Being raised in the Midwest didn’t prevent essay winner Whitney Wiegel from understanding the problems facing the Southern farmer. “There are some definite differences between the South and the Midwest in terms of land use and the scope of agriculture in the two regions,” he said.

“But the South and the Midwest have a lot of the same challenges — commodity price swings and high input costs. Farmers in both regions are asked to produce food cheaply and affordably and safely.”

Wiegel, who won $6,000 in the contest, is working on his masters in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He earned his undergraduate degree in agricultural education, also at Columbia, and is certified to teach high school in Missouri.

Wiegel grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, where his father produced soybeans, corn, hogs, cattle and sheep. His mother, Doll, worked off the farm part-time. When the family moved to Indiana, his father left farming “because the 1980s were hard on him and it just wasn’t working out for him and the family. He took a sales position with an agricultural business and the family moved to Indiana. We wound up in Missouri in 1994, when my father got a job selling (farm) equipment.

The process of writing the essay was a learning experience for Wiegel. “I definitely learned more about Southern agriculture, and more about the specific commodities they grow, like peanuts, cotton and forestry. I did a lot of reading to prepare to write. And that was very good experience.”

Wiegel’s essay focused on how farmers can do a better job of marketing, purchasing and applying political pressure through collective action, whether by joining trade associations, buying groups or simply by expanding their focus beyond the farm gate.

“One of the things that really plagues farmers is that they have trouble organizing themselves. If they would bond together, they would definitely have more bargaining power and more strength in dealing with the challenges that are facing them. Farmers need to be more organized and cooperate with one another to accomplish similar goals and take ownership of their industry.”

Wiegel, who expects to graduate in December, is already looking for a position in some type of agribusiness or with a university Extension program. “Those are my two main options right now. I’d like to stay in the Midwest, but I’m willing to think about other areas, too.”

Wiegel gives credit to his ag teachers in high school “who shaped some of what I think about agriculture and food” and the University of Missouri, “where you get a lot of different opinions and perspectives and definitely are exposed to more research-based information. My college professors really got me to think about things in new ways and broadened my horizons.”

With his prize money, Wiegel hopes to pay off a car he recently bought. “I’ll probably save the rest. I’ll be searching for a job here shortly, and I don’t know when something might happen on that. So I’ll do smart things with it.”

To read the winners’ essays go to www.FutureofSouthernAg.com, and click on the official winners link.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com