I have been privileged these last two years to be a part of the KARL program, short for Kansas Agricultural and Rural Leadership.

KARL is a nonprofit organization that strives to build and improve selective leaders for rural Kansas through a two-year program. The program is filled with three-day seminars of experiential learning held several times during the fall and winter months.

As a farmer who started his operation 15 years ago from scratch, with no access to equipment and very little access to land, and on top of that, being a city kid from Derby, I am always looking for educational events or other opportunities to improve myself as I build my agriculture operation.

This is why the KARL program was attractive to me. The Goessel community where I live and have family history was very accepting of me both personally and in regard to my desire to farm for a living, so for this I strive to give back to rural Kansas.

My KARL experience has not only enhanced my own farming operation and leadership skills but also given me benefits to give back to rural Kansas. For instance, I’m the board chairman of the Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale and a director of Co-op Grain and Supply in Hillsboro.

Through my KARL training I am learning to take criticisms, sometimes shared with me rather loudly and emotionally, and reacting to them in a calm, positive way while evaluating the true concern behind the spoken words that may need to be addressed.

With my roles serving on the Bethesda Nursing Home Board, assistant fire chief of the Goessel Fire Department and in the many business dealings I have regarding my own farm, learning how to understand people’s personalities, understanding people’s nuances and making sure their intentions are honest and genuine have been a key aspect of success I have learned through KARL.

To be successful in farming is more than just planting and harvesting – just as being successful in community leadership roles is more than just sitting in a meeting. Being a “good farmer” and being a “good leader” is a continuous, never-ending job description, not a title.

Some key points I have learned to be successful in both roles of farming and volunteering are making people feel comfortable to speak up and share, communicating expectations and details clearly, allocating talents and people to the right places, challenging people to think beyond natural and political tendencies, asking questions and absorbing answers, and for myself, to be accountable to all.

As I think about the future of my own farm and the future of the institutions I serve, my outlook remains guardedly optimistic. The challenges are many, and they are always very present. Key people in my farming operation such as agronomists and bankers may come and go and key leaders such as CEOs and managers in institutions may come and go. However, with enough wisdom, guidance and introspection, true leaders will emerge to fill those positions.

The final session of my KARL class ends with a trip to South Africa in March. It is an understatement to say I look forward to it. As Mark Twain states it, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness ... Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Matthew Voth farms near Goessel in Marion County. He is currently one of 30 members of the Kansas Agriculture and Rural Leadership program’s Class XII – a two-year program that concludes this month with an educational trip to South Africa. For more information on KARL, visit karlprogram.com.