Levi and Darla Dunn talk about their involvement in the Emerging Leadership Program Jan. 7 at their farm in Osakis, Minn. The program has given the Dunns more to talk about while they complete farm chores.
Levi and Darla Dunn talk about their involvement in the Emerging Leadership Program Jan. 7 at their farm in Osakis, Minn. The program has given the Dunns more to talk about while they complete farm chores. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
    OSAKIS, Minn. – Rural communities are the backbone of Minnesota. For small pockets of the state, in areas driven by agriculture, the livelihood of a community is dependent on leaders willing to invest in their neighborhoods, and ultimately that of the North Star State.
    “Every time you do something and help the people around you, you’re helping the next generation,” Darla Dunn said. “As dairy farmers we don’t have a ton of extra time, but we’ve decided it’s worthwhile to commit to something that is important to us.”
     Darla and her husband, Levi, are Agassiz Ambassadors of the Red River Valley Emerging Leadership Program, where they represent the future of northwest and west central Minnesota in one of the state’s oldest University of Minnesota Extension programs.
    The couple is completing their term as ambassadors on behalf of Douglas County, where they dairy farm near Osakis, Minn.
    They spent the past two years connecting with other individuals in 19 rural counties as they took part in leadership training, networking between new participants and alumni, and recognizing past participants in local and regional public events. The first year was spent as participants of the leadership program and the following year has been spent as ambassadors for the program.
    “We got hooked in right away and were really excited about the program,” Levi said.
    Darla agreed.
    “In dairy farming, when do you get the opportunity to do something like that?” she said.
    In October 2017, after being nominated by a friend and former participant, the Dunns decided they would represent Douglas County as part of the leadership program, which began a month later.
    “We went back and forth,” Darla said about getting involved. “How do we commit this time? Who do we get to milk?”
    Levi agreed.
    “[My friend] laid it on thick, and then I thought, he had cows at the time [he was a participant] and made the effort to find somebody to milk and they really enjoyed it,” he said. “They used it as a way to get off the farm; as a getaway.”
    Participants spent four separate occasions – three weekend excursions and one during the week – honing their skills as rural leaders. The course took place over the winter months in locations across the 19-county region of Becker, Clay, Clearwater, Douglas, Grant, Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Otter Tail, Pennington, Polk, Pope, Red Lake, Roseau, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin counties.
    “By the time we got to the last session, we didn’t want it to end,” Darla said. “It was just too good. In four session, we developed relationships with people who are now like family.”
    Following the yearlong program, participants can then be nominated to serve as ambassadors for another year – promoting the program and working with staff to train the next class of participants.
    Traditionally, each class nominates couples to serve as ambassadors. Those who accept the nomination go through an interview process that decides one pair to act as program representatives.
    “We were really on the fence about doing this and being nominated as ambassadors,” Levi said. “How could we commit to another full year of this?”
    Despite their slight reservations, the Dunns wanted to be ambassadors and play a larger role in the leadership program.
    In March 2018, Levi and Darla were appointed as the 2018 Agassiz Ambassadors.
    Soon after their appointment, the Dunns began traveling across the region, attending county recognition events and meeting new couples as part of the 2018 class and alumni. This spring they will also help with the program’s end-of-year recognition banquet before completing their term as ambassadors.
    “It was a lot of fun because you meet more people from the program,” said Darla about her and Levi’s role as ambassadors. “You know your classmates who are there and then you meet the new couples and all the other alumni.”
    Of all the responsibilities as an ambassador, Levi most enjoys the camaraderie he upholds with fellow program participants.
    “We have built fantastic relationships,” he said. “We’re not afraid to give them a call and say this is what we have going on in our area and what would you do?”
    While the program is no longer designed solely for those involved in agriculture, or dairying specifically, many are familiar with farming.
    “It’s people with the same ideas, a very rural mindset, same age and place in life,” Levi said.
    As the Dunns reflect on their time in the Emerging Leadership Program and the short months remaining as Agassiz Ambassadors, they appreciate the tools the program provided them to reconnect as a couple and serve as leaders in rural Minnesota.
    “It’s given us a lot more to talk about in the barn,” Levi said.
    The couple now realizes their strengths and how they can best facilitate compromise for local issues. They have also found confidence in speaking with state representatives and legislators on issues that directly affect their daily lives, or that of their community.
    Since participating in the Extension initiative, the greatest step the Dunns have taken to find purpose in their community is becoming members of a local 4-H club.
    “In a small manner, you need people to be in those leadership positions,” Darla said. “That’s something we’ve never thought of before, and that’s why we got involved.”
    Participating in the leadership classes and then facilitating its evolvement as ambassadors has transformed the Dunns into trailblazers for themselves, the local community and that of greater Minnesota.  
    “This program taught us that there is a need for people to step up in leadership roles and get involved,” Levi said. “Previously, I didn’t think leadership was for me, and I didn’t want to take any more time away from my family. Now, I look at it as something I’m doing for my family.”