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Farm Women’s Symposium celebrates 25 years of fellowship and fun

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The 25th annual Farm Women's Symposium (FWS) was held March 9-11, 2016 in Traverse City, MI at the Park Place Hotel. 151 ladies representing Michigan’s diversified agriculture, including several from outside of the state from Rhode Island to Kansas, attended this event which is hosted by a different town every year since its inception in response to the apple Alar scare back in 1992.

After Chairperson Agnes Talaski, Elkton, MI, welcomed the attendees, Travis Tkach, the National Cherry Festival’s Executive Director, informed us that the festival will celebrate 90 years this summer. Tkach gave a brief history lesson on Traverse City and spoke of the festival’s mission -- to celebrate and promote cherries in the Grand Traverse area.

Randy Stec from Greenstone FCS talked about their 100th anniversary in 2016. Congress created FCS in 1916, recognizing farmers’ need for credit. After reporting that 31% of Michigan’s farmers are women, he quoted Laura Ingalls Wilder, “A woman’s role is the most important factor in the success or failure of the whole farm business.”

Iowa farmer and speaker Jolene Brown’s first presentation, “Who’s Hiding the Humor?” brought up stress and using humor to alleviate it. Brown explained, “On my cash crop farm, there are three major times of stress: planting, harvest, and breakdowns,” illustrating that with stories of a dented grain bin and a buried auger. Brown empathized with having to defend her livelihood: “People say farmers aren’t smart enough to go to college to get a REAL job,” countering that opinion with all the hats we must wear nowadays to be successful, and that it’s a shame that our bottom line all too often depends upon Hollywood, media, and the government.

Before lunch, Marv Pichla’s talk “Legacy of Farming” compared farming and growing up in his grandfather’s generation to now. “Wear your business suit and look the part,” Pichla said, describing his grandfather’s long sleeves and overalls, checking out the soybean fields. “Don’t take success for granted, get in with the weeds.” Midway through his high school senior year, Pichla’s father told him there wasn’t room for him on the farm. Pichla, one of eight children, told his guidance counselor, asked his friend what college he was attending, and found himself at CMU the next fall. “In the workplace, make others feel special, “spoil” them—it’ll come back to you. Get help from people who know you best. Be a mentor.”

Jolene Brown returned with “Stop the Fighting on the Way to the Funeral Home!” which highlighted problems rampant within family farms. Speaking on transitions, she explained that the #1 job of leaders is to replace themselves. “Has the senior generation secured their financial future?” she said must be answered first. She also emphasized the needs for business meetings, a farm overview, a management chart, and an exit strategy.

Rob Sirrine from MSU Extension (Suttons Bay) presented “What’s All the Hype about Hops?” describing Michigan’s rise in hops production. Michigan has 400+ acres in hops; there are 4000+ breweries in the USA with a new one opening every 16 hours.

Founder of “FarmHer”, Marji Guyler-Alaniz, from Iowa, studied photography and design but got a “safe” job in crop insurance for 11 years. Feeling unfulfilled, Marji “jumped off a cliff”, quitting her job and waiting for inspiration while raising children. Marji’s mission was to use her photography to “update the image of agriculture to include women who work the land and raise animals, and to document women rising to the forefront of the field.”

Many generous sponsors had donated silent auction items which attendees were eyeing and bidding on throughout the first day. Proceeds grossed $3,700 to defray expenses and launch the 2017 FWS budget. Several more hundred dollars were raised raffling off the beautiful red and blue patterned quilt made by Marlene Schulte, Harbor Beach, MI. The winner was Doriene Grider from Berkley, MI.

Friday’s lecture agenda started with 101st District State Rep. Ray Franz (R-Onekama) with a legislative update. He presented a tribute signed by several legislators and the governor, recognizing the Symposium’s 25th anniversary. He touched on PA-116 reforms, aquaculture, the Flint water crisis and how it’s being addressed, Detroit Public Schools debt, and the state budget review, especially as it concerns agri-science, testing/labs to facilitate exports, and ag processing.

Bev Berens from Michigan AgrAbility then spoke about her transition from 25 years of freelance writing, to being asked to do a story on AgrAbility which had just received a grant, to being on their staff. This organization helps farms and families with a member facing disability.

Elizabeth Lautner, DVM of the National Veterinary Services Lab (NVSL), Ames, IA, gave a general talk about her origins growing up in nearby Cedar, MI, and stories about her career in animal health mixed with anecdotes about her own life, as she went from universities to private practice to USDA laboratories. Dr. Lautner joked about being compared to an energizer bunny, but it was clear to the audience that she was full of energy and passion as she took them along for the “journey” of her life, as she faced obstacles of sexism early in her career with humor and sheer drive to succeed.

Completing the slate of speakers was Kim Bremmer from Wisconsin, with her talk, “Sharing Your Front Row Seat to Farming.” After an Animal Science degree from UW-Madison, Bremmer was a dairy nutritionist for Vita Plus for fifteen years. A few years ago, she volunteered for CommonGround, a website made up of a group of farmers discussing their farming practices. Bremmer recently quit her nutritionist job and started AgInspirations, a website dedicated to “sharing the real story of agriculture.”

Thursday was set aside for the popular bus tour. Attendees were split among three chartered buses. On the tour was Gillison Variety Fabrication, Benzonia, MI; St. Ambrose Cellars, Beulah; Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm & Boutique, Frankfort; Higher Grounds Coffee, Traverse City; Left Foot Charley Urban Winery, Traverse City; and self-tours of the former Northern Michigan Asylum or State Hospital, a 63-acre site which is being repurposed into shops, professional services, and eateries -- called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Thursday night’s banquet was a celebration of 25 years, with a slideshow of an array of photos over the years, a delicious pork and beef dinner, and entertainment from a local band of educators called TC Duh, LLC.

As new friendships were formed and older networks solidified, farm women from all over Michigan and several beyond were inspired, educated, and entertained for a time, forgetting their cares and responsibilities. As FWS 2016 drew to a close, the ladies returned home, renewed and ready for a busy spring on the farm.

Farm Women’s Symposium tentatively is scheduling FWS 2017 in Port Huron.