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White House honors Thumb farmer

HARBOR BEACH, MI -- Farmers in Michigan's Thumb don't normally stray far from the sugar beet fields this time of year, but Rita Herford recently made an exception, making room in her mid-September calendar for an exceptional appointment. Dismounting the Case-IH and forsaking grain and bean fields for the marbled halls of D.C., Herford visited the nation's capital recently to receive a special honor from the White House.

One of a group of 11 influential young women from across the country, Herford and her peers were celebrated in Washington as Champions of Change—women empowering their communities and motivating others to follow suit.

After earning her bachelor's degree in crop and soil science from Michigan State University, Herford returned home to her family's Huron County farm near Harbor Beach. The fifth-generation farmer works alongside her mother, stepfather and brother, raising 4,400 acres of sugar beets, dry edible beans, corn, soybeans and wheat.

The accomplishments that sent Herford to the White House are rooted in her passionate advocacy for modern agriculture. Her natural ability to demystify farming—and her eager willingness to help non-farmers understand it—has fueled her rapid ascent up the ranks of outstanding Michigan-based 'agvocates.'

"Coming home from college I realized how far most people really are from agriculture," Herford said. "Less than two percent of the population is involved in production agriculture, but it's important that they understand what we're doing and how we're doing it."

She started with simple, small-scale farm tours for friends and family—a popular practice that started spreading her name well beyond the farm.

"This spring I spoke to the Rotary Club in Bad Axe about the safety of genetically modified crops," Herford said. "Then I spoke to an agriculture class for beginning farmers at Saginaw Valley State University about what today's farming practices look like."

But juggling the busy pace of farm work and family means speaking engagements and other in-person outreach opportunities have to fit perfectly into tiny—and increasingly rare—windows of down time on Herford's packed calendar. Accordingly, she channels most of her efforts toward social media, documenting everyday activities on the farm on the Gentner-Bischer Farms Facebook page.

"I started simple, just putting up every few days some updates about what we're doing and what's going on," Herford said. "What I've found is that almost everyone's interested in what's going on on the farm because they're so far removed from it. Even family we've got who've moved to the city like to stay current on how things are coming on the farm."

The interactive essence of social media gives Herford the latitude to explain concepts and nip misconceptions in the bud.

"This spring when we were planting dry beans, I got some questions about why they were blue! I explained how the seeds we put in the ground get treated first to make them unpalatable to insects—it gives them a fighting chance against hungry bugs in the fragile first few weeks of their lives.

"I think people are just curious about what goes on today," Herford said. "Some people may remember their grandparents farming, but it's been a long, long time since most Americans have really had active, first-hand contact with food production."

Daughter of Allen and Debbie Bischer, Rita Herford and her husband Luke are expecting their first child.

For more about Champions of Change, and further comments from Herford and her accomplished peers, visit the White House website.