Ramping up to the recent Growing Together Conference, there was some chatter among staff about us feeling “rusty” in pulling off a large event with speakers, presentations, stage scripts and meal functions. But near as I could tell few coworkers and zero members seem to have missed a beat since St. Patrick’s Day 2020 when the world we once knew crumpled into the burn barrel.
After two years of virtual this and hybrid that, there’s little debate that the best part about being in-person again is the obvious betterness of being in-person again.
Feedback from attendees on the three Friday-afternoon tours has been universally positive. That includes the 50+ whose spirits were untarnished even after a lengthy and unscheduled stop at a bustling gas station halfway between Rockford and Cedar Rapids.
I know because I was on that busted vehicle and witnessed firsthand the affable patience and just-go-with-it resiliency only a busload of wide-eyed farmers may be capable of. We found ways of passing the time and eventually made the most of our visits to Main Farms’ potato storage facility outside Greenville and Lane Grieser’s sugar shack up near Six Lakes.
Both stops had their share of Only-in-Farm-Bureau moments, and as one of the few non-farmers along for the ride, it was the jarring uniqueness of those moments that has my mind still racing.
Every November grocery stores stockpile larger-than-normal piles of bagged russet potatoes leading up to Thanksgiving. It’s notable but hardly awe-inspiring, and few of those “average consumers” we fret over give it much thought after hoisting their 5- or 10-pound bag into their cart.
If that same consumer were to follow Joe Main into the storage barn he gave our group access to, it’s safe to say a much deeper impression would be made — especially when Joe explains that none of those millions of spuds will see the Meijer produce department.
Instead they’re trucked all over the eastern U.S. to be washed, sliced, fried, salted and bagged by dozens of household-name chip makers, because that is the glorious fate of most Michigan potatoes.
Now, most everyone reading this either (a) already knows that or (b) finds it only moderately interesting. The Farm Bureau members reading this article aren’t easily wow’d by the immensity of your own industry; it’s your environment and you’re used to it.
(Remember: Growing Together is all about energizing members involved in our key leadership-development and outreach programs: Young Farmers and Promotion & Education.)
Maple syrup production is not really Lane Grieser’s day job; it’s sugar beets, dry beans, cattle, sheep and a lot of hay that pays the bills. He repeatedly referred to his syrup sideline as “a very expensive hobby,” and the gleam coming off his shiny new evaporator rig made that very believable.
But anyone who passes up Log Cabin for a jug of the real thing has some appreciation for the craft that goes into boiling sap down to a tasty concentrate. A lot of very hard work that goes into that, not to mention some pricy infrastructure and a committed team ready to focus on just that during a brief window in late winter.
What struck me is how adding that laborious, idiosyncratic and inherently stressful activity to your life — and calling it a “hobby” — is not on the same level as needlepoint, scrapbooking or building birdhouses.
On most Farm Bureau conference tour buses, I may be the closest thing to that fabled “everyday consumer” (aside from the driver). And at almost every farm stop I’m rarely less than awe-struck by what I see and learn.
We already know there’s no substitute for personal interaction when it comes to member involvement. You’ll always hear the most ‘yes’ responses by asking people face-to-face.
Similarly, in the realm of public outreach and boosting “ag literacy,” there’s really no substitute for putting consumers in first-hand contact with agriculture. Nothing else will more convincingly open eyes and minds.
Planning and executing farm tours is time consuming and labor intensive, but there’s a huge gap between their effectiveness and that of a meeting-room slideshow or farmers market conversation.
We’ll never get every curious consumer onto an actual farm, but those who do see farming close-up with their own two eyes are almost certain to return home very positively impressed with YOU, the good work you do and how well you do it.