Ag Career Profile: Special Projects Coordinator
As my role in agriculture has changed over the years, I am able to meet more new people in our industry. Once in a while, you meet someone that gives you a clear picture of how they earned the job they have. One of those people is Ben Conner, Special Projects Coordinator at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Technically, by the time you are reading this profile, Ben will have changed positions to assume the role of Produce Safety Program Manager for a new program KDA is leading to help producers and consumers. What this says of Ben is he ready to handle any task sent his way and will go where he is needed.
Ben grew up in Smiths Grove, KY (Warren County) raising and showing cattle. He was also an active member and leader of his high school’s FFA chapter. His love of farm life led him to pursue an education in agriculture. He initially wanted to become a veterinarian, and his mentors affirmed that would be a great career for him. Three weeks after he entered the University of Kentucky’s pre-veterinary program, however, he changed his major to agriculture education.
“I grew up in an agriculture family, but also a family full of teachers,” Ben said. “Agriculture education allowed me to combine two passions into one.”
Even though many who study agriculture education have dreams of entering the classroom, Ben knew he was interested in something outside of a school building.
“The University of Kentucky did a great job exposing me to different aspects of our industry. With exposure through internships and observations, I knew my place was not in the classroom, but in a more non-formal education role such as sales or extension.”
Upon graduation, Ben took a crop protection sales trainee position with Dow AgroSciences, a job that moved him to Louisiana. It was not long before he found a way to get back home.
“It was a great experience, but Kentucky was home,” Ben remarked. “It was what I knew and what I loved.”
Ben started with the KDA in April 2017 as the Special Projects Coordinator, where every day is different.
“I am involved in the Kentucky Proud program, worked on the hemp program as an inspector, helped the Shows and Fairs Division during their busy season, as well as with special meetings and conferences that have a KDA presence.”
He commented that the favorite aspect of his job is interacting with the different people in agriculture across the state, whether they are farmers, extension agents, educators, or others in the industry.
“I get to do that weekly, and I love every part of it. Being able to be introduced to so many different programs within the department is great. The Department of Agriculture has a lot of different programs going on, and I got to dip my fingers in a lot of different areas and help make sure that those programs run smoothly.”
In his new role of produce safety program manager, Ben will work to make sure farmers are aware of and following food safety rules to ensure the health and safety of produce for consumers.
When asked if he would have changed his education if he knew he would have the job he does now, Ben said, “I don’t know if I would have done something different, but I would have added some courses.
“Luckily, the [agriculture education] course work includes several different aspects of agriculture, such as crop production, which has been a great resource going into my new role. I may have done more on produce production and food safety. An accounting class here or there would have been a great thing to have in my bag. I also took a farm business class that was great, as we got to see where profit and loss are. We had a lot of different classes, but it was just the tip of the agriculture iceberg.”
Ben’s advice for young people interested in a job of this nature is to learn to communicate with individuals of many different generations.
“When you go into agriculture, you deal with people born in different time frames, and being able to talk the language of agriculture is important,” he said. “At the same time, if you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask. One of the things I enjoy most is learning new things.”
Ben also talked of the importance of building your network.
“Having those people on the same boat as you can lead to a lot of different opportunities.”
In addition to having a passion for his job, Ben is dedicated to telling agriculture’s story.
“It is important to note that agriculture has been criticized from the outside for the past several years, so it is important to take the message to consumers and inform them of what is going on. It is a two-way street. If we don’t tell our story, how do we expect the consumer to know what is going on. When you are out in public, don’t be afraid to tell the story. They may not have the background we are blessed to have.”
Ben recalls a time in college where he was known as the “ag guy” to his non-farming fraternity brothers, and they would often ask him questions about agriculture before turning to Google. He said he was texted about the documentary Food, Inc. and ended up having a good conversation because he was a trusted source of information.
I know he will continue to be a great champion of Kentucky agriculture, wherever his career takes him. Thank you, Ben.
Kentucky universities that offer an agriculture education program or emphasis:
University of Kentucky
Murray State University
Western Kentucky University
Eastern Kentucky University
Morehead State University
By Jennifer Elwell