A major milestone along the home stretch of Meeting Season 2023 took place Feb. 24-26 with this year’s Young Farmer Leaders Conference, hosted in Michigan’s capital city. More than 230 members from across the state came together in Lansing for a packed agenda with plenty to offer both newcomers and experienced program veterans.
Easily one of the most important events on the Farm Bureau calendar, the annual Young Farmer conference helps build unity and awareness among the current cohort of regular members aged 18-35 — the always-incoming stream of future leaders so central to the survival and identity of Michigan agriculture.
Attendees took part in informative tours of ag-related sites across central-lower Michigan, connected with peers from across both peninsulas and their sweeping commodity spectrum, and packed their Young Farmer toolkits with practical, take-home guidance to enrich their experience in one of Farm Bureau’s most vital program areas.
Preluding the event was a Friday-morning summit focused exclusively on Young Farmer chairs — the county-level leaders who carry and distribute much of the programmatic water to the program’s grass roots.
“The state committee really enjoyed the Chair Summit,” said Tonia Ritter, manager of education and leadership programs for MFB. “They felt like it set up our county leaders with a little bit extra — better connections with state committee members so they could refer back and continue building their network.”
Friday-afternoon tours took four busloads of attendees on as many circuits through mid-Michigan ag sites, each following a different theme:
- From Farm to (Economic Development) Table showcased agriculture’s role as a driver of Michigan’s economy. Stops included Gratiot County’s economic development agency; Breckenridge-based Michigan Agricultural Commodities; and AgroLiquid’s brownfield redevelopment project in Ashley.
- Pigs, Plants and Public Health examined innovations in animal and plant health, visiting several MSU sites including the swine farm; veterinary diagnostic lab; plant science research greenhouse and several south-campus farms.
- Inspiration, Innovation, Food Nation toured three hubs of value-added production: Lansing’s dynamic Allen Neighborhood Center (plus the affiliated Hunter Park Garden House and incubator kitchen); MSU Extension’s Food Processing and Innovation Center; and the popular on-campus dairy store and ice cream production facility.
- School House Rock Revisited took Young Farmers to the Michigan Hall of Justice; new state capitol visitors’ center, and the new downtown satellite facility for MFB’s government relations staff.
Meat & Potatoes
Attendees spent most of Saturday circulating among workshops and breakout sessions focusing on a wide spectrum of content pertaining to their formative careers, business opportunities, leadership skills and other practical concerns.
Guest speakers, staff and panels drawn from their own ranks addressed topics from media relations to Young Farmer recruitment, carbon credits, agritourism, labor and financial reporting.
The lunch program included a conversation about the future of farming led by a panel of established industry professionals from Michigan Pork Producers Association, The Nature Conservancy, Star of the West and Nestlé North America.
Afternoon sessions looked at policy development, mental health, woodland management and additional labor topics.
Passing the Baton
The event also marks the official handing-off of the Young Farmer leadership baton, with six newcomers stepping up to take the place of as many “retiring” members leaving the state Young Farmer committee.
Stepping down were immediate past president Mitch Kline of Kalamazoo County, Jeff Dreves (Northwest Michigan), Jade Edwards (Tuscola), Jennifer Lytle (Mac-Luce-Schoolcraft), Joe Packard (Washtenaw) and Erika Schunk (Clare).
The conference gave Kline a high-profile opportunity to bid farewell to the body he’s led since the 2021 annual meeting. In his departing comments the well-loved first-generation hay farmer led with encouraging words for those gathered in Lansing.
“You could be me,” he said, referring to his own rapid ascent up the program’s leadership hierarchy. “You’re only five years away from being the state Young Farmer chair!
“I didn’t know six years ago what Farm Bureau was, and it’s completely changed my life.”
Leading the program this year is new State Young Farmer Chair Lane Grieser of Montcalm County. Other new members are Josh Aube (Huron Shores), Chad Fusilier (Washtenaw), Natalie Holbrook (Lapeer), Leroy Sadlier (Copper Country), Samantha Schade (Mason) and Sarah Zastrow (Midland).
Finally, it wouldn’t be a proper Young Farmer conference without some competitive fundraising — or in this year’s case, foodraising — in the form of a mini-golf-food-drive mash-up.
The Putt Putt Pantry challenged pairs of Young Farmer districts to build mini-golf holes out of non-perishable food products. Playability took a back seat to clever design as canned goods and boxed staples were used as landscaping components, forming at once challenging putt-putt holes and a collective donation totaling four pallets of food for the Greater Lansing Food Bank. Those four pallets added up to more than 2,500 pounds of food — more than 2,000 meals.
District 11 reigned supreme in Harvest for All donations. Members from across the tip of the Lower Peninsula gave 656 hours of volunteer time to their communities and over 15,700 pounds of commodities and food.
Another angle on giving came with the annual live auction benefitting the Michigan Foundation for Agriculture, the 501(c)3 organization that underwrites so much of Farm Bureau’s leadership and educational programming.
Young Farmer teams from each of MFB’s 12 districts contributed gift packages to be auctioned off — plus a couple from state staffers — raising more than $7,000 total for the Foundation.