A record number of newcomers to the organization attended Michigan Farm Bureau’s second Growing Together Conference last weekend, returning home Sunday with fresh motivation, practical new tools and a deeper understanding of their place in the state’s largest and most successful agricultural group. Some 500 attendees from across the state convened in downtown Grand Rapids to take part in the event that combines the organization's Voice of Agriculture and Young Farmer Leaders conferences into a hybrid seminar with something for everyone.
Increasingly a highlight of Farm Bureau conferences, first-day attendees had four bus tours to choose from, each examining different agricultural themes with visits to ag-related sites across western Michigan.
The Feels Like Home tour visited a museum archive to touch base with Farm Bureau’s ongoing centennial celebration, then crossed town to a Michigan Turkey Producers facility on Grand Rapids’ southwest side before heading farther west to Herman Miller’s Greenhouse near Zeeland.
Food for the Soul took members to Feeding America West Michigan’s food distribution hub on Grand Rapids’ north side, then stopped at the Meijer corporate headquarters in nearby Walker to learn about the company’s commitment to marketing food produced and processed in Michigan.
Michigan’s equine industry colored the Won’t You Be My ‘Neigh’bor tour, centered around a horse boarding and training facility. Participants also learned more about the popular Family Farm and Home retailer and visited Heeren Brother Produce, a local, family-owned produce packager and distribution facility.
Agriculture’s evergreen concern with environmental issues informed the Let’s Talk A-boat Water tour, taking members to Grand Valley State University’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources institute in Muskegon. Before returning to Grand Rapids the group also stopped at Continental Dairy in Coopersville to learn more about the company’s milk-product innovations.
For a crowd accustomed to measuring seniority in terms of multiple generations, keynote speaker Jay Hill shared the novel perspective of a relative newcomer to farming. Bucking his father’s advice, Hill stubbornly pursued his teenage farming dreams and, through his fair share of trials, now finds himself atop a wildly successful hay business based in the desert southwest.
Describing his childhood home as “a tractor tire sandbox and 10 acres,” Hill shared that his more sensible siblings chose degrees and secure lines of work far from rural New Mexico. But an early fixation with the potential of those 10 unused acres led him to plant it with onions when he was still in high school.
A lucky break blessed him that first season when weather conditions led to lousy onion crops elsewhere in the country while his little 10-acre plot prospered. That led to a strong market and an unusually fat payday for the first-timer, and the hook was set.
Aggressive tactics and faithful lenders helped him continue his winning streak, and today Hill commands a prosperous hay empire, raising thousands of acres of animal fodder in New Mexico and southwest Texas.
The substantial risks he took as a younger man have so far paid off, but not without several flirtations with the poor house.
“If you don’t look outside the box and change the mold, you won’t be here in 10 years,” he cautioned an attentive audience.
Managing opportunities and risks as they come is another vital skill he encouraged attendees to consider, as well as cautiously navigating through hard times, reasonably diversifying your interests and enjoying an appropriate level of pride in work well done.
Attendees at the Saturday lunch program listened close to a quartet of key Farm Bureau leaders share their insights into the organization’s current status and their thoughts about the future. MFB President Carl Bednarski and CEO Scott Piggott were joined onstage by Cathy McCune and Nate Clark, the outgoing chairs of the state-level Promotion & Education and Young Farmer committees.
Bednarski spotlighted close relations between MFB and Farm Bureau Insurance as an important step forward in unifying the entire Farm Bureau family. Piggott lauded the MFB staff—“brilliant people who want to make a difference”—and emphasized the importance of hiring the best people, encouraging them to focus on what they do best, “Then get out of their way!”
Clark highlighted an enriched Collegiate Farm Bureau program that’s seen significant expansion in recent years, far beyond the campus of Michigan State to affiliated programs in almost a dozen smaller schools across the state.
Fielding a question from the audience, Clark also advised beginning farmers.
“Don’t get boxed into doing things the way you’ve always done them,” he said—wisdom earned through the many permutations his own family farm has taken over the course of multiple generations.
Reflecting on her program’s many outreach achievements during her tenure as its leader, McCune cited improved consumer contact via social media and reaching thousands of young minds through Project RED (Rural Education Day) and the FARM Science Lab.
Breakout sessions throughout Saturday addressed a wide spectrum of interests, from hard-ag technicalities to outreach tactics and how to get more out of the Farm Bureau membership itself. Presenters included select MFB staff in addition to guest experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, American Farm Bureau Federation, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, U.S. Farm Report and other ag-industry allies.
From the state’s agribusiness sector came a panel of cider, wine and beer producers; farm-friendly lenders; and county Farm Bureau leaders sharing their expertise in strengthening community partnerships locally to help bridge the gap between farmers and their townie neighbors.
Awards given out at the conference included a trio of scholarship recipients and a lineup of outstanding 4-H educators.
Taking home MFB’s Marge Karker Scholarship in support of their agricultural education were Amanda Forraht, Elizabeth Ritchie and Samantha Wagner.
Celebrated 4-H leaders include Mary Hutka, Diane Keinath, Kathy Grau and Mary Hammer.