The South Dakota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (SDARL) program provides professional development and leadership opportunities to farmers, ranchers, and agri-business professionals not just to strengthen South Dakota’s rural communities, but the entire state.

“We believe we have a responsibility to provide training in agriculture and civic development so that we can keep our rural communities not just viable, but vital,” SDARL Executive Director Lori Cope says.

Our goal is to develop leaders so we keep the chain of leadership going in such things as county commission, school board, and city commission, and serving on industry and co-op boards in our rural communities.

— Lori Cope

The SDARL program is open to South Dakota residents between 25- and 50-years-old working in agriculture. The multi-faceted 18-month-long program includes meetings with agriculture mentors in influential leadership positions at the local and state levels (many of whom graduated from the program), 10 field seminars across the state, a national seminar in Washington D.C., and an international seminar. Past international seminars have taken SDARL fellows to meet with agriculture professionals in Africa, South America, Oceana, and Western Europe, where fellows got a chance to see the scope of international agriculture trade and regional trends and techniques.

Cope notes roughly 90 percent of SDARL’s funding comes from sponsorships, grants, and charitable donations. This includes a $10,000 innovation grant from South Dakota Community Foundation (SDCF), funds that were integral in making the program’s state-level seminars possible.

Eight classes have graduated from the SDARL program since its 2000 inception. Out of those 243 students, three went on to work as the Secretary of Agriculture for South Dakota, and countless others serve their communities as state, county, and city-level representatives. Cope notes several SDARL program graduates even serve on national agriculture-related committees.

“The world continues to change—there really are no borders anymore,” Cope says. “We feel a responsibility to challenge our people in South Dakota to emerge in leadership positions, to recognize what they need locally to keep their rural communities thriving, and to think regionally, nationally… even globally. The recognition of South Dakota agriculture as a global player is going to compound, growing technology and innovation as we go forward into the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond.”