Give Guide Nonprofits: Stu O’Neill, Rogue Farm Corps
Stu O’Neill is the Executive Director for Rogue Farm Corps, an organization that trains a next generation of farms.
Rogue Valley Messenger: You grew up near DC. What interaction did you have with farms?
Stu O’Neill: Growing up near the city, I was about as removed from farming as one could possibly be. As a young child, I remember being able to walk to the edge of suburbia and find horses in pastures and what remained of the agrarian community in northern Virginia. Growing up, I watched suburbia grow and grow and grow, consuming all of the remaining farmland around the greater DC area. Now, one would probably have to travel over an hour by car to find actual farms from where I grew up on the edge of the city.
Moving to Oregon was a huge eye opener for me, as I learned about our land use planning system that protects forests and farmlands from rampant development and sprawl. While the system has provided a lot over the years to protect Oregon’s farmlands, it is constantly under attack in the legislature and economic forces are such that affordability is becoming a huge concern for keeping our farmland in the hands of farmers. Rogue Farm Corps’ Farm Preservation Program is working hard to ensure that farmland stays in farming and that new and beginning farmers can access land at affordable prices to keep our local and regional agriculture strong into the future.
RVM: What attributes or skills do you believe you have to make you a good leader?
SO’N: Listening to others, building trust, and developing systems that support people achieve results are important leadership attributes. Rogue Farm Corps was founded by a community of farmers that wanted to pass along their knowledge and expertise to the next generation. One of things that I am most proud of in our work is that as we have become a larger organization with a professional staff, we have remained rooted in the farming communities that we serve. And we have been able to do that because we continue to listen to our farmers and gain their trust through showing up again and again. We value their contributions and take the extra time to listen to the daily challenges they are facing on the farm. As an organization, we strive to create the same connection to our staff, our board, and our partners across the state. When you value others and take the time to hear from them, you do not need to lead, you just need to get out of the way and let them thrive!
RVM: How do you think leadership models have changed in the past 25 years?
SO’N: Top down models are ineffective at creating long-term durable change. Unfortunately, top down leadership still holds sway over many organizations, large and small. This model dis-empowers individuals, especially folks from marginalized and under-served groups like women, people of color, LGBTQ, alter-abled, and low income. I want to believe that models of leadership are changing, but we have a very long way to go!
One way that Rogue Farm Corps is trying to model this change is through our work to support the education and training of Latino beginning farmers. Instead of simply attempting to adapt our programs to serve another audience, we work to support and build the capacity of Latino-led organizations that are already serving this role. Leveraging our capacity in this way can go a long way to creating space and allow the work that is already underway to flourish and grow.
RVM: Essentially Rogue Farm Corps is teaching individuals how to run their own businesses, correct? What leadership skills are important to teach for that role?
SO’N: Running your own farm business means you must be a Jill-of-all-trades. One minute you may be fixing a broken piece of equipment, the next you are calling a customer, and the next you are working on your branding or marketing or have your nose deep in the book keeping. At every step of the way, you have to continue moving your business forward and supporting all the moving parts, including your staff, customers, and your community. This requires one to be nimble, focused, open to new ideas, flexible and efficient. Rogue Farm Corps is fortunate to have a number of these folks mentoring the new farmers joining our ranks.