By Jeremy C. Nagel
DENVER TOWNSHIP, NEWAYGO COUNTY — My coworker Kelly and I have been on a mission to crash as many Community Group meetings as possible over the past month or so. She put out a call to the counties and upcoming dates started trickling in. Among the first was one in Newaygo County and I lunged for it.
“We’re the youngest group in Newaygo County,” said hostess Laurie Norris shortly after I stepped into her and her husband Gary’s warm home on 3-Mile Road, just outside Hesperia and less than a mile west of the family dairy farm now mostly run by their three boys.
“Only two groups left in Newaygo,” she added.
(NOTE: There are a lot of other quotes coming in this article, but only the one from Laurie there is properly attributed to its speaker. It was a late night and I was more concerned with capturing what was being said than who was saying it. Truth is this group is so tight they essentially speak with one voice.)
The rest of the Neighborly Northerners arrived over the next few minutes and, with their discussion leader absent (Tigers game), they turned the floor over to me, the guest from Lansing.
I began explaining my several reasons for being there.
First was the simple fact that their group is located just inside the wide swath of western Lower Peninsula I call home: pretty much everything from Whitehall to White Cloud to Reed City to Onekama. (My own mother even shared their Hesperia address for many of her final years.)
Another reason is Kelly’s and my belief in the value of these groups, and our suspicion (conviction) that the forces holding them together is a very potent, very concentrated form of the glue that binds together our entire Farm Bureau family across two peninsulas, 65 county organizations and hundreds of different commodity sectors (often with conflicting interests and priorities).
We’re convinced maintaining the strength of those bonds is vital to the survival of the organization itself, so we’re on a mission to better understand their chemistry in hopes of recreating it and sharing it statewide.
Decline, part 1
It’s no secret the number of Community Action Groups has declined alarmingly since their heyday in the mid-20th century—from more than 1,500 then to less than 100 today.
We discussed the self-evident truths and acknowledged how times have changed: how people communicate (and don’t communicate), how people socialize (and don’t socialize), agriculture itself, personal priorities and how mobility and technology have shrunk our world, partly neutralizing the once-crippling isolation of an inherently rural way of life.
We also discussed the misconceptions and stereotypes that dampen interest in this once-vibrant program. We’ve all heard them all, but dismissing Community Groups as just old-timers gumming bland food and jawing about yesteryear is no different than dismissing all Young Farmers as rowdy, beanbag-chucking drunkards.
Stereotypes may contain pinches of reality, but they’re also very thin covers by which weighty, mysterious books mustn’t be judged.
Every tangent eventually came back to the warm core inside Laurie and Gary’s living room.
I flailed about for the right words to describe it: camaraderie, fellowship, community, high-bar friendship. The big enchilada came out as a cautious question, not wanting to overstep: “It looks to me like this is a family—or is that going too far? Isn’t this a family??”
Every head in the room nodded assertively: Yes.
And they said it, too: “Yes—absolutely!”
Even the men—even the men were outspokenly agreeing: “Yes—absolutely we’re family.”
(You know what I mean. That sort of feedback doesn’t mean any more coming from a man; it’s just a lot less common to see that level of enthusiasm from them.)
Neighborly Northerners started meeting in the early 1980s, inspired and spurred by their parents, who were so involved in their own Community Groups that they’d sacrifice productive, good-weather evenings on the farm because their group had a meeting.
“We’re all second, third generation—all our parents were in groups.”
“Mom and dad always took off to their Farm Bureau meetings.”
They credit their longtime MFB regional rep, the late Pat Lause, with encouraging their formation and motivating their activities until his retirement.
“There were many more groups then—20 or more. We didn’t realize the benefit until we’d been going for a while. We realized our lives were different than our peers’. Soon it was just the camaraderie…
“This quickly became our social outlet—our lifeline.”
“We call it our ‘support group.’ We have everything in common.”
Decline, part 2
“Our kids grew up together…”
But for reasons we don’t yet fully understand, those kids aren’t following suit like their parents followed their grandparents. A lot’s changed since the Iran hostages were released, but wouldn’t today’s younger generation benefit from the same camaraderie, the same sharing of common ground, the same support?
The Neighborly Northerners say their children aren’t interested.
“Our kids hear us say, ‘Why don’t you start a group?’
“They have a respect for it—even some envy. They wonder why and how we all have so many friends—and how close we are.”
“I don’t think they build relationships like we did. People don’t go to each others’ houses.”
“We think they’re missing so much by not having this kind of camaraderie with other farmers.”
“I think the next generation needs it even more than we did—but they don’t realize it yet.”
That’s all for now, but re-read that last sentence a couple times. Let it sink in. And stay tuned for more…