Ag Careers Spotlight: Communications, Education and Leadership

Jennifer Elwell, Executive Director Kentucky Agriculture & Environment in the Classroom

Jennifer Elwell, Executive Director
Kentucky Agriculture & Environment in the Classroom

I will admit that this edition’s profile is somewhat selfish. Not because I want to toot my own horn, but subjects willing to be interviewed at 1 a.m. are non-existent. Late nights, early mornings and a lot of varied tasks rule my world, but I love every minute.

As many young people do, I changed my mind about what I wanted to “be” many times. The two careers that occupied my head most of the time were teacher and scientist, and according to personality tests, professorship is right up my alley. Once I got to college, however, I realized that it was utilizing my creative spirit that really drove me.

I won’t bore you with my journey to self-discovery, but I will advise any young person to use as many career services as possible. UK’s Career Center really helped me focus come my sophomore year. That is when I added an individualized program of Agricultural Communications to my Animal Science degree program. The rest, I can say, is history.

It took me a few months to land a job in Kentucky’s agriculture community upon graduation, becoming the communications director of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association and the Kentucky Small Grain Growers Association in early 1998.

I was charged with farmer-member newsletters and legislative calls-to-action, writing press releases, developing the web site, designing print campaigns, and promoting grains through education programs. Being part of a small staff, I had my fair share of administrative duties as well, such as membership processing, meeting planning, and writing up board meeting minutes. I really enjoyed having a variety of tasks.

After many years, I gave myself new challenges to develop underused skills and eventually proposed a new agriculture education program called Kentucky Farms Feed Me. Working on that project helped me learn that agriculture literacy was really where my passion lay.

In late 2014, I said goodbye to regular paychecks and working hours, and started a small business called Farm Scholar, LLC. My business goal was to develop education resources and programs to help students understand how important agriculture is for everyday life. This also paved the way for me to provide administrative management services for the KentuckyAgriculture and Environment in the Classroom. Two years later, I could not be happier, or busier. There is much work to be done.

My words of wisdom to young adults searching for a career are these:

  • Use your talents and the things you love to do to your advantage.
  • Make your own path and create the job you want.
  • Learn skills that few people have.
  • Find professionals doing what interests you and look over their shoulders.
  • Don’t limit your job description.  

I also want to share a few more things that I believe improved my chances for professional success.

1 - Get as much hands-on, working experience as you can. As soon as I had more focus on my studies, I asked for a student job in that field. I worked in the UK Agriculture Communications division in various capacities. I helped edit and prepare documents for extension publications. I was asked to write and design promotional materials for college programs, and I started coding web site files for a new agriculture education online tool. I also worked for the college student newspaper - The Agriculturalist, and was a charter member of the new Agriculture Communicators of Tomorrow. And being completely self-serving, I organized a communications critique contest, where students could submit communications projects (articles, brochures, press releases, newsletters, etc.) to area professionals to receive feedback. I landed three internships (American Association of Equine Practitioners communications and two consecutive years at the North American International Livestock Exposition Press Room - this one landed me a freelance writing position with Kentucky Farmer magazine.). I am 100% positive that my print, digital, and web design skills helped me land my job, and has provided me a regular source of extra income for the past 20 years. 

2 - Build your network of professional contacts. I admit that I hated the whole "it's who you know" aspect of landing a job. I wanted to know that I was hired based on my abilities as opposed to what connections I had. It's more important than I care to admit. Don't be afraid to meet the right people, and then let them know what you can do. 

3 - Never stop learning. I have always worked to build my communications skills, but I have also been fortunate enough to be involved in several advocacy and leadership programs the last several years. In fact, it was the Kentucky Agriculture Leadership Program that helped me build my confidence to try something new. It is a wonderful program, administered by the University of Kentucky, and I would encourage any young person in agriculture to set their sights on being a class member one day. 

Please be sure to visit kyfoodandfarm.com often. This is one of my agriculture education projects!