This month sees the first gathering of a new cohort of Academy for Political Leadership, Michigan Farm Bureau’s program for aspiring candidates, campaign managers and others looking for a deeper understanding of the political process.
The group will come together several times over the next four months to work through a four-part agenda that peeks behind the curtain at how the sausage of politicking comes together. Topics include election law, media relations, fundraising, social media and the realities of running an effective political campaign.
Created in part to equip farmers with the tools necessary to successfully run for public office, it’s fitting that one of the Academy's own graduates will share his experience with participants next month. Elected to the Michigan House of Representatives last November and sworn in just weeks ago, Isabella County dairy farmer Jerry Neyer — also now known as Dist. 92 Rep. Jerry Neyer — embodies the program’s holy grail: the creation of more farmer legislators.
Let’s meet this year’s Academy for Political Leadership cohort:
Gratiot County familiar face Burt Henry has worked in agriculture his whole life, including almost 30 years as an educator, going on 10 with St. Johns-based fertilizer manufacturer AgroLiquid and more than 25 operating his own food packaging and sales business. His Farm Bureau involvement has focused on policy and the political realm, chairing Gratiot’s candidate evaluation committee and taking part in several Lansing Legislative Seminars.
He’s helped several legislators forge relationships in their rural, mid-Michigan districts, and looks forward to continuing the same in retirement.
“I’m also interested in being on the AgriPAC committee,” Henry said, referring to Michigan Farm Bureau’s political action committee. “I’d like to understand more of the inner workings of campaigns and elections — what it takes to get elected. It’s a lot more complex than just counting votes.
“If I’m going to help candidates, it’s important that I have a solid understanding of campaign finance and strategy. I just want to learn more about the whole system to become a more effective leader and Farm Bureau member.”
Kalamazoo County’s Kelly Leach is part of a large fresh-vegetable farm near Climax serving restaurants, grocery stores, farm-market sales and her own food truck. Her extensive Farm Bureau resume runs the gamut of organizational programming, from Young Farmers to candidate evaluation, policy development and county leadership.
Somewhere in her future, though, is taking her established leadership game to the municipal arena, starting with either the township or county level.
“Through the Academy I can grow my influence and knowledge of the political world,” she said. “Policy and advocacy will only take us so far, politically. If you aren’t willing to do the work, you can’t complain. It’s time to do the work to make sure agriculture continues to have a voice at all levels.”
Chris McCallister hails from Jasper in southern Lenawee County, where he and his wife run a small hobby farm alongside his day job as an agronomist with a successful ag service business. His experience with policy and candidate-evaluation — and as a county Farm Bureau leader — nicely complement his local political involvement as a township treasurer and supervisor.
“I feel the Academy will give me a better understanding of the political process beyond township government,” said McCallister, who strives to balance working with constituents in his course of his day job, while also working for them as an elected official.”
He also wants to better advocate on the farm sector’s behalf within the political arena.
Liz Snoblen boards and trains horses in Oakland County, sells livestock feed and is active in candidate evaluation, policy development, the county Farm Bureau board and MFB’s state-level equine advisory committee. She sees the Academy as a means of bolstering the influence she hopes to exert someday at the state level, advocating for agriculture and other small-business interests.
“I’d like to expand my knowledge of politics and government and meet like-minded people who want to see change and advocate for those who need someone to fight on their behalf,” she said. “I’d like to have an impact on legislation affecting agriculture, small businesses and future generations.”
Cheryl Sullins grows blueberries near Grand Junction in Van Buren County. Active on her county Farm Bureau’s board and policy development committee, she’s considering a potential future run for a local-level office.
“I want to be more vocal on issues close to my heart,” she said, especially fundamental ag-literacy education for consumers and students.
“I want to be more aware of the political arena and learn to listen, ask the right questions and present my views. Learning how to network, collect information and present ideas that follow my passion for the industry are essential. Being politically active and willing to advocate with current politicians is a way to accomplish some of these goals.”
Gratiot County cash-crop grower and soil sampler Eric Whitford has a deep resume of Farm Bureau involvement across the organizational spectrum, including the Young Farmer program, ProFILE, membership development, legislative seminars and county leadership. He’s also a township trustee and planning commissioner curious about maybe climbing the political ladder in the future.
“I plan to continue advocating for agriculture by staying involved in both Farm Bureau and local government,” Whitford said. “I’ve always been passionate about Farm Bureau’s mission, and with my interest in government, I’d like to be as knowledgeable as I can about procedures and policies related to agriculture.
“I know I’ll finish the Academy better prepared to achieve my goals; the networking alone will be invaluable.”
From way Up North in Cheboygan County comes Greg Whittaker, whose farm near Wolverine centers around a 1,600-tap sugarbush producing 600 gallons of maple syrup annually. Currently in his ninth term as county Farm Bureau president, Whittaker also served on MFB’s state-level policy development committee in 2018-19 — an experience that whetted his appetite for measured dabbling in politics.
With experience in regional event-planning groups and farm associations, including the Farm Service Agency for Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties, Whittaker is now considering a run for county commissioner.
“Michigan Farm Bureau’s programs are all top notch,” he said. “I feel this program would give me the upper hand on my opponents and help me offer quality assistance to my allies.”