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Farm women unite in Port Huron

The 26th annual Farm Women's Symposium (FWS) was held during extremely windy, winter-coat weather from March 8-10, 2017 in Port Huron, MI at the Blue Water Convention Center/Double Tree Hotel. The event challenged the organizers with last-minute delays, cancellations of flights, power outages, rearrangement of speaker times, but farming forces flexibility—no one can control the weather. Over 150 ladies representing Michigan’s diversified agriculture, including several from outside of the state (from Rhode Island to Kansas and even Ontario), 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. 46 of these ladies were first-time attendees!

After Agnes Talaski (FWS chairperson-Elkton MI) welcomed the attendees, former District 83 State Rep. Paul Muxlow told of his dairy roots in Lapeer Co. which he returned to live after his MA at UM and teaching career. After his public service in the legislature, Muxlow now is a Sanilac Co. commissioner.

Joe Bixler, District 10 Coordinator for MSU Extension based in Port Huron, an integral part of spreading the news about FWS coming to the Port Huron area, talked about the partnership between public/private in planning and building the Blue Water Convention Center which overlooks the bridge to Canada. He explained several functions of Extension and that agriculture is a $100 billion industry in Michigan, and how necessary it is to help feed the 4 billion people on earth.

FWS committee member Emelee Rajzer introduced and moderated the Farm Bloggers’ Panel. Three Michigan bloggers each ran a power point describing themselves, family, farm, what led to blogging, topics they cover; and afterwards shared a favorite blog and took questions from the audience. Ashley Messing-Kennedy, a young mom from Bad Axe, is a writer, speaker, and photographer with a blog called Messy Kennedy. Ashley has a 240-cow dairy and 600-acre crops farm where she is herdsperson. The farm has 4 Lely robotic milkers and auto calf feeders. She focuses on millennial moms explaining the farm’s role in food production as well as non-ag topics. Amanda Zaluckyj is a practicing attorney besides being a former farm kid with her parents growing and selling fruit/vegetables, and now farming corn and soy in Coloma/Berrien Co. The goal in her blog, The Farmer’s Daughter, is to promote U.S. farmers by explaining and educating her followers about trending issues. Diane Reed Loew, a regular FWS attendee herself, does weekly radio spots promoting agriculture, is the matriarch of her transitioning family dairy farm in Byron Center/Kent Co., and is the proud grandmother of several “wigglies”, with a blog called A Farm Wife. Their Indian Trail Farm LLC milks 700 cows, gives hundreds of tours each year, plays host to Tractor Supply Co. photo shoots, and has done an American Farmer reality show.

Michelle Neff, Clare Co. MSU Extension, led a session on determining personalities based on reactions to photos/text and answering questions. Results categorize people into four colors: blue-nurturing; gold-dependable; green-logical; and orange-spontaneous. Higher numbers indicate a “screaming” dominant color, whereas middle numbers show a mix of traits, with the lowest numbers mean you’re definitely NOT that color. By knowing how you and others operate, we can all hope to communicate effectively and avoid unneeded conflict. Attendees then grouped together according to color for lunch.

Peter Patrick, certified insurance counselor from Barnich, Kavanaugh, and Cooper, Inc. (BKC) of Cheboygan MI, talked about covering farms with adequate insurance, and specifically about the tornado damage suffered by a Thumb area dairy. The dairy’s owner Henk de Vor’s assistant herdsperson, Rose Perez, spoke also from her perspective as an MSU intern at the time of the disaster. The total claim was over $10 million for the 3500-cow dairy with construction crew just finishing a barn at the time of the June 22, 2015 tornado that was on the ground for a 20-mile stretch, damaging 85% of building sites. There were no human injuries, but 80 cattle died that night, with 320 more having to be put down later. Both Peter and Rose described the relocating of cows, help that poured in from surrounding areas, clean-up process, and rebuilding at a level that was completed in an unbelievable six months.

Keith Kalso, Agricultural Operations Manager at Michigan Sugar Co., Croswell MI, gave an overview of the bus tour stop at MI Sugar scheduled for Thursday. Taking in sugar beets from a 60-mile radius, his company processes it into primarily Big Chief and Pioneer brand sugar. He showed a video detailing the timeline from plant to harvest to sugar.

The keynote speaker, Elaine Froese, CSP/CAFA from Manitoba, Canada, never made it further than a hotel in Minot, North Dakota where she was stuck in a blizzard, with high winds in Detroit cancelling all flights. By moving her presentation late in the day, the Port Huron hotel was able to connect with her over Skype, and Elaine narrated the power point she had sent called “Discuss the Undiscussa-bull”. She prefaced her talk with sending a message of hope and concern to the Midwest wildfire sufferers who lost beef herds, feed inventories, and grasslands—over 2 million acres affected among four states with Kansas hit the hardest. In her discussion, her e-book “Do the Tough Things Right”, and in her book “Farming’s In-Law Factor” that each attendee received, Elaine gave tips on how to de-escalate fears of fighting, rejection, and loss of wealth, identity, and control. “Respect is paramount,” she said. “Different is not wrong; it’s just different.” Elaine also touched on depression and bi-polar disorder. “Every front door is beautiful,” she told the attendees. “But go inside and it could be hiding doubt, inadequacy, and pain.” Elaine received questions from the audience via text and made her talk as interactive as possible by stopping to answer each one.

Many generous sponsors had donated silent auction items which attendees were eyeing and bidding on throughout the first day. Bids closed at 5PM with proceeds grossing $3500 to defray expenses and launch the 2018 FWS budget. Close to $800 more was raised raffling off the beautiful red patterned queen-sized quilt made by Marlene Schulte, Harbor Beach. The winner was Ramona Okkema, Blanchard.

Friday’s lectures started with Sarah Black, Director of MFB Public Policy & Commodity Division, with a legislative update. Sarah began by reporting where she was during 9/11—a fly-in strategy session in Congressman Mike Rogers’ office with a delegation of MI growers concerned with a Peru shift from drugs to growing asparagus. “Everyone can tell you where they were, when they first heard about 9/11,” she said. “Be present, dial in, engage. The world is run by people who show up.” Sarah continued with info about the new cabinet heads for the EPA and USDA, the travel ban, regulatory reform, expediting infrastructure projects, health care, the “Freedom Caucus”, 2018 budget, makeup of the House and Senate, two new MI Congressmen, trade issues, and the MFB watchlist of issues.

Madlynn Ruble, Associate Director of Issues Management, National Cattlemen’s Beef Ass’n (Denver CO) next spoke about Building Trust with Consumers. Growing up on a Shorthorn ranch in Minnesota, Maddy has a strong background in ag. She linked several YouTube videos showing false information about beef and other farm products, high lighting how naïve many consumers are and willing to believe the worst about farmers. “You are the only one who can tell your story,” Maddy told the women. She said farmers are rated just as credible as academics, veterinarians, and the USDA. “One million women farm or ranch,” she reported. “30% of them are principal operators. Consumers want to know how you care for your animals and land, and how you are sustainable. Emphasize that you care, and that you’re capable. Listen, connect (look for common ground), and share (use personal stories).”

Tim Moffett (Bradenton FL) also known as Tim the Dairy Farmer, closed out FWS 2017 with a comedy routine aimed to send the ladies back home with smiles on their faces. He often cracked jokes about being a chubby kid—“If there was a blue ribbon for gaining weight like hogs at a fair, I would have won it,” he said. He referred to growing up watching pennies—“Most games my mom would buy at yard sales, and missed vital parts. We had to really use our imagination.” He joked about the risk of eating at family reunions depending on who was cooking—“It’s like playing E Coli Russian Roulette.” He also recounted times at the fair and putting his life into the hands of a snaggle-toothed homeless looking guy with tattoos, wondering if he had tightened up the bolts on the Ferris Wheel. After his routine, Tim was encouraged by Silent Auction chairperson Kimba Clunis to auction off a few leftover items, which he did with his own special flair.

Thursday was set aside for the popular bus tour. Attendees were split among two chartered buses. On the tour was 3 North Vines (Croswell MI), a vineyard and shop owned by Kristi Nichols Shopbell. After researching 100 years of weather and Michigan’s east side topography, she discovered that the property she ended up purchasing is in a glacial moraine in a valley within a few miles of Lake Huron, ideal for growing and sustaining grapes. C. Roy & Sons Processing (Yale) home of Yale Bologna, is a full-service butcher shop. Co-owner Nancy Roy married into the business 40+ years ago and she runs a tight ship, working with inspectors and crew and family, besides being chief promoter. Mrs. Roy with her dry wit and sparkling personality shared several stories including how they accommodate the large Dearborn Muslim community, as well as organics and natural designations. The smell of hickory and teriyaki had everyone salivating and several women bought bologna and other meats to bring home. Helena Chemical Company (Croswell)—with the high winds taking out their power, crop advisor Sean Bender couldn’t demonstrate the computerized controls, but took the women outside to show the huge storage facilities for liquid nitrogen and commodity bays for different fertilizers, and they also saw the railroad tracks behind the facility. In a few weeks the scene will change as workers will be putting in long hours assisting farmers with planting. Michigan Sugar Company (Croswell) was host to another leg of the FWS tour. Rita Herford (Harbor Beach) led a sit-down session with slides discussing GMOs. Then factory manager Ken Bennett took the ladies through the plant, watching 50# bags robotically filled with sugar. Outside back on the bus, ag operations manager Keith Kalso explained the 25’ high piles of sugar beets, how they are aerated, loaded, and processed. On Bus B, bus leader Marlene McLeod (Brown City), a sugar beet grower herself, talked about how farms are contracted each year (MI Sugar is a co-op) and have to adjust planting depending on MI Sugar’s capacity to process, harvest according to a lottery system, and never know what price they’ll receive till after harvest is complete. Lunch was also affected by the power outages, and Bus Driver A was instrumental in reserving Dorsey House (Clyde) who last-minute provided tossed salad and dozens of delicious pizzas for all the ladies.

Thursday night’s banquet offered an appetizers and drinks reception, a delicious pork and beef dinner, and entertainment from local DJs Joe & Stacy Biel (Brown City). FWS attendees and photographers Christina Gelder and Bev Ransler took photos as each table was released for the buffet.

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 2017 drew to a close and the ladies returned home, renewed and ready for a busy spring on the farm.

Farm Women’s Symposium tentatively is scheduling FWS 2018 in Grand Rapids.