Several years ago, the Beef Checkoff, concerned that good communications was becoming a long lost art, especially in the larger conversation about beef and agriculture, launched the Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program. It was designed to help beef industry people learn how to advocate effectively with the general public.

Suzanne Strassburger of Strassburger Steaks was one of the first to graduate from the original program six years ago. She was also one of the first to sign up for a new program, MBA 2.0, two years ago.

She blogged, following her graduation from that first 'Top Class,' about the advantages of both programs.

"I completed the Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program in 2010 as part of my journey to promote everything about the meat industry. Completing the MBA program catapulted me to a whole new level of advocacy, including feature articles in the Wall Street Journal, an appearance on FOX News Live and lots of other media stories.

The next step in my journey was to compete for one of five spots in the inaugural MBA ‘‘Top of the Class” training program. Created as an educational celebration of our successful completion of the Masters of Beef Advocacy program, sponsored by the Beef Checkoff, this two-day workshop held on National Agriculture Day in Denver, Colo., was an unforgettable event that helped to strengthen and continuously inspire the forward thinkers of our industry.

Cattle ranchers, veterinarians, chefs, wholesalers — the industry is full of incredible individuals from all around the country, all with different talents and assets that came together to celebrate beef."

Approximately seven thousand people have earned their MBA and most of them have gone forth to talk about beef and its proper place in American agriculture and at the center of our dinner plate. Those folks are now eligible to take the next step and become "Top Class Beef Advocates."

The Beef Checkoff is encouraging every one of the first group of graduates - a bumper crop of communicators if there ever was one - to take advantage of their continuing education program and take the MBA 2.0 course. To learn more about both courses, I contacted two of the most outstanding grads; Joan Ruskamp and Mike Erickson.

Joan is extremely active in the cattle industry. A member of the Cattlemen's Beef Board, operates a feedlot and row-crop farm west of Dodge, Nebraska, with her husband, Steve. On the farm, she's the cattle doctor and office manager. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Curtis, where She earned an associate degree in veterinary medicine in 1980 from the University of Nebraska - Curtis. She's also been a member of Nebraska Cattlemen, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, American National CattleWomen; Nebraska Farm Bureau; Nebraska Soybean Association, and the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska (AFAN).

Mike is one of the country's top chefs.  A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he received his Bachelors degree in Food Entrepreneurship from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. He spent eight years with some of the best restaurants in New England before he returned to his hometown Austin, Texas. He's worked for The Driskill Grill, Star Canyon, Demi Epicurious, Whole Foods, Shady Grove and Tres Amigos.

Q. When the Beef Checkoff started its Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program, you two were one of the first of approximately 7,000 to grab the opportunity. Why was it important to you?

A. Joan: There has been a conversation about how food is raised that included everyone but the farmer and rancher. I knew the importance of joining the conversation but felt I needed training to build skills in reaching out to consumers. The MBA program has been a key educational component to joining the conversation about how food is raised.

Mike: I wanted to connect with other passionate industry professionals to learn and be able to share the correct knowledge and facts about the beef community with my students, friends, community, and chef friends while being an advocate for the people in Agriculture in my state of Texas. I was concerned with some of the rhetoric and information I was hearing in my community and wanted to make sure I was informed and sharing the correct information with my students in the classroom.

Without ranchers working hard and doing what they do I would not have had a 25 year career cooking, serving, and teaching about the product they raise, it is a symbiotic relationship and we need all people in the supply chain working together to promote beef.

Q. Now that you've had some time to utilize your MBA, what has it done for you, personally?

A. Joan: The MBA program has personally built up my confidence in sharing the beef story. I have participated in a variety of situations from a panel in New York City, to radio and television interviews, to speaking one-on-one with consumers since participating in the MBA training. The skills I use from the MBA program help me understand the consumer, utilize current research and effectively communicate the beef story.

Mike: It has made me more aware of the challenges the industry and farmers and ranchers face everyday and helped me develop some amazing relationships as I work toward one day raising my own cattle in retirement from my teaching career.

Q. You've both communicated often and well about the beef industry. Have you been able to change some opinions? What are some of the highlights of your actions?

A. Joan: I have had the opportunity to hear from many folks that had misunderstandings about how beef is produced. When consumers have the chance to meet a real farmer and rancher outside of the Farmer's Market they get to hear a story of big ag that is not equated to "bad" ag. The most influential ag advocates are those that build up the beef community by embracing methods other than only one way of doing things. I believe consumers appreciate our support of choices in the market place while we share how we best utilize our resources to bring them those choices.

Mike: I have had the opportunity to speak to many different people in many different settings and conventions and without a doubt I think my perspective has helped inform and educate many people. Our film TRUE BEEF has gone out to every Culinary Arts teacher in Texas and it will impact tons of young people who are developing their opinions about food production and the things they eat early in life.

My hope is classroom teachers and chefs will use TRUE BEEF for years to come in the classroom to introduce students to the relationship they have with farmers and ranchers who work to feed them everyday while also being more respectful and appreciative of those efforts to feed the World. I think Jake Gies and Susan Strassburger from the first Top of the Class program inspire me both with the passion and commitment to Agriculture in the US.

Q. Good communications involve speaking with groups, blogging, one-on one discussions. What has been most effective for you?

A. Joan: My favorite communication method is wherever people are present whether it is one on one or a panel or at as a speaker. I like to interact and hear concerns consumers have about what we do on our feedlot and why we do it. I have learned the value of practicing a one minute intro that highlights messages we want a group to know.

Mike: Speaking is the most effective for me as well as cooking demos.

Q. Brandi Buzzard Frobose, NCBA's Manager of Issues Communication, was interviewed by KayDee Gilkey on AgInfo.net's Open Range program about the next step in communications training, their "Top of the Class" program. Brandi said, “The Top of the Class is the next level advocacy training program for MBA graduates. We’ve had chefs, we’ve had some meat purveyors, we’ve had ag ed teachers — we’ve had a wide variety of people apply and really get a lot of great information and training from the program. We encourage all members of the beef community to complete the MBA program and to apply of the Top of the Class program.”

As an MBA grad and an important part of the beef community, what do you see as the advantages of a Top of the Class program?? Are you considering pursuing a program that might be likened to a Ph.D. in beef industry communication?

A. Joan: We need every voice we can get to share the beef story. The Top of the Class program fine tunes skills to help even the most experienced MBA graduate. Another important part of sharing the beef story is building friendships within the beef community. The TOC training gives you time to get to know other advocates so you can build friendships along with the training.

Mike: I think the program has a lot of value for producers to learn more about sharing their story. I have all my students go through the MBA program just for continual learning and getting engaged with people who raise their food everyday. I think the MBA program brings passionate people together to share and learn from each other by sharing their perspective, beliefs, and methods for being an Advocate for the beef community.

Q. Rebekah Gustafson, whose blog, "Cooped up Creativity," talks about some of the more interesting aspects of ranch life, was a participant in a Top of the Class session in March.

Afterwards, she blogged, "My class included 4 other beef advocates from all areas of the industry and myself and we spent two days learning how to better communicate and connect with consumers about the beef industry. Those communication areas included Media and Interview training, Blogging, Finding our personal story and how to best share it, Social Media, and Farm and food photography.

Our training was very direct and one-on-one with those who do this best for the NCBA, and much of it was a swift kick to get motivated and do a better job with my advocating skills."

Joan, it's your turn. Let's do a mini-blog right here. Talk about what you would expect to get from what's more properly called MBA 2.0.

A. MBA 2.0 is designed so everyone of us gets an overall picture of the beef community that looks back in history so we understand how we got to where we are today. When we enter the conversation about how beef is produced it is important to have knowledge about all segments and why we have evolved to where we are today. MBA 2.0 is easy to use at your pace and in your own home and it's funded by beef producers through our checkoff dollars. If you ever wondered what your checkoff dollar can do for you then this would be one place to look!

If you are interested in participating in the MBA Top of the Class session in October, please contact Brandi Buzzard Frobose at Bfrobose@beef.org.