by Amy Hadacheck, “The Fence Post” Reprinted with permission

After attending a whirlwind three-week international rural leadership conference in Germany this summer, Nick Levendofsky of Republic, Kan., has returned to the U.S., passionately determined to incorporate the many economic development tools he learned and meld them into developments for rural growth back home.

Admittedly on sensory overload after joining rural leaders from 34 countries on his first-ever international visit, Levendofsky amassed a 40-minute power point presentation from the 26th International Leadership Workshop for Rural Youth, which is held every other year in Herrsching, Germany.

Filled with tips for rural leaders, Levendofsky delivered a rural economic development update and compared and contrasted numerous aspects of farm life in Germany to the U.S., including a pictorial of Bavarian Farms, the majestic Bavarian Alps and stately European architecture.

In addition to his roommate at the workshop who represented Hungary, other participants at the event were from India, Serbia, Bangladesh, Columbia, South Africa, Switzerland, Madagascar, Austria, Russia, England and the Ukraine, to name a few.

The dominant conference theme of rural issues is particularly relevant to Levendofsky, whose goals for his tiny hometown of Republic and his rural roots will now be integrated into ideas.
“The rural exodus of our young people going to the cities is not just a U.S. problem, but it’s a problem that’s worldwide,” said Levendofsky. “Unfortunately, a lot of countries don’t have the programs that we have to encourage people to stay in the rural areas, or come back to rural areas.”

With the message, “Think globally, Act locally,” Levendofsky is intent on using the tools he learned and put them into action to help strengthen rural communities.

“I plan to take a lot of the skills that I learned about conflict resolution, communication and leadership skills, learning what people want and need, and helping them succeed, through my work with Kansas Farmers Union and at the local level,” said Levendofsky. “At Farmers Union, we do a lot of work with beginning farmers and understanding their concerns, as they come back to rural areas. So, it’s important to hear their concerns, as well as those of military veterans who are returning from combat to rural areas.”

Levendofsky exchanged ideas for direct marketing with his new international friends. The group also brainstormed solutions for village and rural development, such as renovating structures to use for other purposes.

Levendofsky compared those renovations to Kansas issues and buildings, which are closing and being renovated for other uses, such as the Republic County Middle School in Belleville, Kan. Although the school was just closed, it’s been purchased by the The Pioneer Group in Topeka, Kan., and is now being transformed into apartments and condominiums. The Pioneer Group redevelops neighborhoods in the core areas of cities and historical preservation projects.

Levendofsky observed that farms in Bavaria, Germany, are relatively small and laid out in a patchwork design. With farming on a much smaller scale than in America, Bavarian farmers put their energy and manpower into agri-tourism.
“Agri-tourism is very important in Germany. That’s how they make their income; through the hotel and restaurant business, because they don’t make as much money from their farms. So, what they do is host people at their homes, and rent them out.” A room at the inn typically costs $75 a night and visitors are also encouraged to help out on the farm.

The young rural leaders visited a Bavarian organic dairy farm and learned that ecological farming (which is sustainable agriculture through reducing the demand on the earth’s ecosystems,) is expanding considerably faster in Bavaria than the national average.

“Their tractors have 120-horsepower; considerably lower than ours in the U.S. Some farmers were using a John Deere 1020,” observed Levendofsky, “And, interestingly, other farmers were happily raking hay by hand for hours, so manual farming is still being done.”

While touring German farms, Levendofsky observed that corn grown in Germany has been developing similarly to corn in Kansas. “The corn was tasseled, like ours, and it was next to wheat, and then there was barley,” said Levendofsky. He observed that the predominant type of cattle raised in Bavaria was Fleckvieh cattle.

The rural leaders also experienced sobering moments, when they saw Dachau’s Nazi Concentration Camp in Germany. In his power point presentation, Levendofsky showed a photo of the cremation ovens, noting it needed no words; that it spoke for itself. “I thought I was prepared to see that, but it was harder than I realized,” admitted Levendofsky, as he explained reactions from seeing the ovens.

When Levendofsky’s flight to Germany was initially delayed a day due to the airplane’s mechanical problems, Levendofsky was surprised to experience a rousing welcome from his new European counterparts, who were anxious to meet their new friend from the U.S.

With Levendofsky and only one other rural leader from Ohio representing the U.S., he watched with amazement the level of respect other participants offered them, and the enthusiasm about receiving guidance from the U.S.

As the conference got underway, Levendofsky quickly realized that many of the participants were fluent in three languages, including French, German and English. “They told me, that just knowing English isn’t enough anymore,” Levendofsky said.

What he does know is the importance of honing the tools provided for the young rural leaders as role models for social change in the vital footprint of rural sustainability and growth.

“When you make the commitment to come back to a rural area, you have to walk the walk, and talk the talk, and that’s why this presentation is called, “think globally, act locally,” said Levendofsky.