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JBS USA BrandVoice: How Companies Can Invest In Rural Communities To Help Them Thrive

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The following comments from Tim Schellpeper, CEO of JBS USA, on how and why companies should invest in farming communities, have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

It’s The Right Thing To Do

The case to invest in communities across rural America has never been a complicated one but has become more compelling as we weather historic challenges including a pandemic, climate change and supply chain disruptions.

Aside from being the right thing to do, investing in rural America is critical since much of our food is produced by individual farmers in small communities across the nation. Yet all too often investment in these areas is overlooked or stretched thin. As a fourth-generation farmer myself, I know this shortsightedness poses a risk to the future of farming communities, which have already been shrinking for decades. But it also impacts the farming industry itself and a major related issue—food security.

Simply put, we need thriving U.S. farmers and ranchers to grow our food. Yet they do not operate in a vacuum—they need the support of prosperous agriculture communities that can attract a workforce willing to build a future for themselves and their children for years to come.

Here’s how businesses can make a difference.

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1. Companies Need To Be Creative And Open-Minded In Their Approach

Companies should ensure their team members have access to attractive and well-paying jobs that include the promise of a career, not simply a paycheck. That’s a given.

However, for agricultural communities to thrive—now and for future generations—we need creative and open-minded approaches to community investment, beyond only businesses. Towns need to be attractive places where people want to live and are proud to call home.

In many of these rural communities, one company is often the largest employer. While businesses don’t usually see themselves in the role of community builder, having an outsized presence means they have a greater responsibility to be an active investor.

What do we mean when we say investing in communities? It includes providing and supporting access to family-friendly social and recreational facilities, primary and higher education opportunities and affordable housing for families to put down roots.

2. Listen To Team Members And Community Leaders, Then Act

Every community is different, and so are its needs. To be an effective partner it is important to talk—and listen—to those who live there and will benefit from local investments.

By collaborating with mayors, city managers, school boards and other local partners, and not coming to the table with a fixed agenda of our own, we have been able to identify and support unique and innovative efforts to grow and strengthen community infrastructure, health and happiness.

Listening to people in these communities has guided our efforts, including our $100 million Hometown Strong initiative that we launched in 2020 to support the communities we call home.

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To meet the unique needs of each community, we have invested in schools and STEM education projects around the country, equipped an early childhood learning center in Grand Island, Nebraska, with furniture and fixtures that help kids develop their motor skills and built aquatic centers in Cactus, Texas, and Tolleson, Arizona.

We’ve invested in numerous recreational facilities, such as a community field house and recreation center in Worthington, Minnesota, and a state-of-the-art indoor sporting complex in Ottumwa, Iowa. We have also invested in social services, like supporting a women’s shelter in Greeley, Colorado, and a bookmobile in Louisville Kentucky, among many other projects across the United States and in Puerto Rico.

Whatever the investment, the key is to be open-minded and make sure you address local needs.

3. Attract Talent Today And For The Future

To sustain our agricultural communities for the long term, the foundations for generational stability and growth must be laid to help families establish roots. For many, this means home ownership and continued investment in education for adults and children.

Creative thinking and innovative investment play important roles to help meet the specific needs of each community.

For example, in areas with limited housing options we are funding the construction of affordable single-family homes and apartments to help JBS employees take their first step toward the dream of home ownership. To cover the upfront costs for construction, we have seeded the project with $26 million. Proceeds from house sales are then reinvested to make the program self-sustaining.

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Equally important, we provide financial literacy education to help many first- and second-generation Americans understand how to best prepare for home ownership and the associated costs and requirements that come with it.

To help avoid “brain drain” and create opportunities for advancement, the JBS Better Futures program provides team members—as well as their children—free tuition for a two-year community college or technical certification in any degree or discipline they wish to pursue. We also provide access to ESL courses and citizenship classes. It’s tuition paid, not tuition reimbursed. By removing the need for tuition loans, we eliminate one of the biggest hurdles to people earning a college education. The Better Futures program opens doors to a brighter future to team members and their families—a door many believed was closed to them. Today, more than 3,500 of our team members and their children have signed up to improve their lives through education.

4. Success Is Focusing On Your People, Not Metrics

Some people question why a food company is investing in community development and team member education, and how we can measure our return. The honest answer is that we don’t have hard metrics for what a return on this sort of investment looks like. But the evidence we have seen shows us that this approach to investing in our business, team members and their families, and local communities is generating important benefits.

We see it in decreased team member turnover, increased applicant flow, less absenteeism, more team member feedback and engagement, and more people seeking promotions to further their careers. And we see it in improved customer service levels and product quality, which tie directly to our business performance.

As a company, we are convinced that some percentage of these returns can be attributed to our commitment to invest in and strengthen the 60-plus rural communities across the country that we, and our team members, call home.

Seeing our team members proudly wearing a JBS shirt while volunteering in their hometowns may not be hard data, but it’s a sign that our efforts are having a positive impact, and in my opinion it is good news for the future of our agriculture communities and American farming.

Source: Forbes

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