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Newcomers filling big boots on state YF committee

Mitch Kline joined the board of directors as the Young Farmer program representative at MFB’s 2021 Annual Meeting.
Date Posted: January 13, 2022

Every new year brings a reshuffling of leadership throughout your Farm Bureau organization, from your local committee chairs and county presidents to the roster of state-level leaders steering major programs and the MFB Board of Directors itself. As we head into the meaty part of meeting season, Farm Gate will introduce some of the ambitious newcomers and milk the wisdom of those stepping away.

Following Promotion & Education in our first issue of 2022, we now turn to the state Young Farmer committee. Things are a bit more complicated here, with five new members succeeding as many retiring veterans. Here’s one of each:

Chairman Kline

Incoming state Young Farmer Chair Mitch Kline takes over from Branch County’s Paul Pridgeon, who won election to an at-large seat on the MFB Board at the 2021 annual meeting. Kline raises 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay near Scotts in Kalamazoo County, and runs a seed-corn business called Full Swath Harvesting.

A first-generation farmer with a passion for working the land, Kline put in his first 10-acre hay crop at age 14, and since then has worked tirelessly to grow his business. Soon after that first successful year he began working with a mentor to sharpen his sustainable farming practices and add acreage through local connections.

Since earning his degree in agricultural business management from Michigan State University in 2015, Kline has focused on investing more time in his farm — and his Farm Bureau involvement.

“I think we’ve got a good Young Farmer program with a lot of leadership development offerings,” Kline said recently. “We’ve got the Growing Together Conference coming up — that’s going to be a good one.”

One of his priority issues is how the state committee can better maintain Young Farmers’ engagement with the program itself — and Farm Bureau in general when they “age out” at 35 years.

“There’s a big gap after the Young Farmer program and sometimes it’s hard to keep people interested,” he said.

And he’s plenty familiar with the top reason many cite for dialing down their involvement: “Too busy...”

Between the farm, the business, wife Brandie and their three young boys, “too busy” is familiar ground.

“But it’s so important to be involved in organizations that help your occupation and your career,” he said. “For me, it’s important to be part of this.

“I just make the time.”

Five Newcomers

Farther down the leadership roster, the District 1 representative seat vacated by Kline’s chairship is filled by Riley Brazo of St. Joseph County. In District 5, Cody Ferry of Genesee County is stepping into the boots of Eaton’s Claire (White) Dewy.

Newcomer Kate Wernette from Mecosta County is taking the at-large seat previously occupied by Genesee’s Sonja Lapak County. Representation from District 11 is flip-flopping from west to east as Presque Isle County’s Jeremy Karsten steps in for Bradley Jericho of Emmet.

And in District 8 outgoing representative Amanda Sollman is handing the remote over to her husband, Mitch Bigelow.

Sollman dove right into the Young Farmer deep end after winning the state Discussion Meet in 2016: “I jumped into everything all at once,” she said, looking back through her years in the program she feels has made notable strides.

“One of our big areas of focus was how we set up young leaders for success. There’s been a lot of action regarding Young Farmer chair training and creating more resources for county chairs.

“When we invest time training county leaders, I’ve seen an increased level of confidence in them to take the initiative in their district.”

Navigating the pandemic has tested everyone’s resolve, but Sollman emphasizes how a new approach ultimately strengthened the program.

“COVID was a challenge for everybody but even more so for the Young Farmer program, which is driven by in-person interaction. When you take away Young Farmer Leaders’ Conference and Growing Together and people can’t get together, it’s a real struggle.”

The silver lining, she said, was a pendulum swing back toward more regional-level activities.

“I think it’s been successful for a couple reasons. It lowered the stakes geographically as a good middle-ground from county-level activities, where it can be hard to get the volume of people and feel like your time was worth it.”

Sollman also points to streamlining the committee itself — from 22 to 15 members — as a nod toward realistic volunteer expectations and a more agile decision-making body. Quick validation came when a similar move was echoed by the state Promotion & Education committee.