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The 27th annual Farm Women's Symposium (FWS) was held during cold weather and gray skies from March 7-9, 2018 in Grand Rapids, MI at the DoubleTree by Hilton-GRR Airport. In contrast to 2017’s event in Port Huron, we did not lose power, and all speakers arrived without issues. 110 ladies representing Michigan’s diversified agriculture, including several from outside of the state (from Rhode Island to Kansas to Wisconsin), 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 Agnes Talaski (FWS chairperson-Elkton MI) welcomed the attendees, Mimi Fritz, President/CEO of Downtown Market GR, gave an historical perspective of the city and for what it is known—furniture, museums, arts, music, food, craft beer, recreation/trails. The current “River Project” will restore the rapids in the Grand River. Trulia lists GR as the hottest RE market to watch in 2018, #1 place for millennials to relocate, and #1 spot to start a new business. Downtown Market GR opened Labor Day 2013; it has incubator kitchens, a culinary school, several unique food venues, a greenhouse, as well as sourcing ingredients from 100 local suppliers. (FWS attendees on Bus Tour Day saw the market and had lunch there)

The key-note speaker, Mike Pearson from Grinnell, Iowa, is a farmer, former banker, and Public TV’s Market to Market host. His morning presentation detailed “The 4 Mega-Trends in Ag” which are analytics, robotics, biotechnology, and industry’s changing structure. Mike’s enthusiasm, and warm and engaging personality kept the audience’s interest as he explained the 1970s sparked the first major specializations in ag, personal devices connect today’s farmers to world consumers, and the expanding middle classes and socially-conscious millennials who are willing to pay a premium for an “experience”, which leads to income potential in smaller niche markets. It wasn’t news to the attendees that net farm incomes have declined in half in the last five years. Pearson also talked about tools available today and of the future, including drones, and technology from Germany which has a 4” long “bean” that can test moisture and temperature, equipped with GPS and data that can be tracked inside grain bins all the way to elevators and its final export market; and an exoskeleton reminiscent of Iron Man which can allow a farmer super-human strengths. “The wealth of information available today means there’s a huge need for analysis to produce actionable items,” Pearson stressed. He also touched on SE Asia’s huge expanding market, China converting to a service provider as labor costs have increased 4X in 10 years, the new Animal Rights, and the lack of water west of the Missouri River.

The morning’s next speaker was Suzanne Pish, Branch County MSU Extension Educator, who discussed “Managing Farm-Related Stress.”  “Farming ranks in the top ten most stressful occupations in the U.S., and we have one of the highest suicide rates,” Suzanne said. She gave each attendee a packet including several hand-outs about recognizing signs of stress, changing to a productive mindset, coping mechanisms, how-to’s, and resources available to help. Suzanne discussed how a body changes during stress, how cortisol (fight or flight reflex) takes over, and how to neutralize this. “Farming is an isolating career,” she cautioned. “Be careful how you talk to yourself, because your body is listening,” Suzanne told her listeners. “You may not be able to control every situation and outcome, but you CAN control your attitude and how you deal with it.”

Mike Pearson returned with his second presentation “What’s Driving Ag in the Year Ahead?” after lunch. “Soy acres may surpass corn for the first time in history in 2018,” Mike predicted. Exports are stepping back, with a lot of risk in late year contracts, and the 5-week rally is prompted by soy-rich Argentina’s drought. “Sell into rallies as they happen, and sell an incremental % of the crop,” Pearson advised the women. He told us that we’re more realistic grain marketers than men. Mike explained the three trader categories: non-commercial (outside hedge funds), commercial (co-ops, elevators), and small-scale speculators; and how he watches their buying/selling trends as a predictor. He spent time on the cattle markets, lean hogs, and dairy—which is in crisis. “No good news for dairy, as more will exit. The successful ones will somehow make ends meet. The margin protection program needs fixing, and be pro-active with lenders,” Pearson advised. With households not cooking as much, domestic demand for beef is driving strong prices, even with record numbers of slaughter. Exports are driving premiums for pork. Pearson warned of “unprecedented risk in all ag exports” from today’s politics. Decisions made have hurt USA’s negotiating power.

Katherine Hanna White, Executive Director and DOJ Rep., The Immigrant Connection (Grand Rapids) led a session called “Immigration 101-How the System Works and its Impact.” Katherine made the migrant worker crisis personal, as she handed out note cards with a description of a refugee or possible immigrant, and attendees decided which pathway to citizenship fit them, if they were eligible, and how many years and the cost it would take. In many cases, if there was no existing close family member already in the USA, immigrants were out of luck, unless through the Diversity Visa Program (which excludes several countries and applicants have a 1/160 chance), or one applies as a Refugee and Asylum Case (must prove persecution, and then can be admitted, but there is a “cap” set each year, and likely will have to wait 5-15 years in a refugee camp before permission is granted). Katherine works with low-income people partnered with a non-profit church, and since opening in 2015, has dealt with 1150 clients from 48 countries.

Three others then joined Katherine for the “Immigration Panel”: Helen Dietrich is an apple grower and FWS attendee from Ridgeview Orchards, Conklin MI. She hires 500 seasonal workers and advocates for the need of a guest worker program. Helen recounted how orchards have changed since the 1960s, mentioned the Bracero program of 1942-1964 that allowed Mexican workers into the U.S., and the 1986 Immigration Reform & Control Act signed by Pres. Reagan that granted one-time amnesty for 3.5 million farm workers. She estimates that of the 1 million migrant ag workers today, that 70% are undocumented. Helen described the early MI spring of 2012 that decimated fruit, workers went elsewhere, and many didn’t return for the bumper crop of 2013. Helen approves of the current H-2A program but that it doesn’t apply to workers needed year-round.

Katie Rasch Vargas is the operations manager for Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, formed in 2015, that is under the umbrella of Michigan Farm Bureau. She educates employers on H-2A regulatory compliance, and oversees the processing of those applications through agencies. She works on international coordination, domestic recruitment, interviews, orientation and training. Katie reported that the going hourly wage for migrants is $13.06, plus free housing and transportation, which equates to an approximate $18-$19/hr.

Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhaut is the founder, executive director, and managing attorney of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates of Holland MI—a 501c3 nonprofit immigration law office and advocacy center serving the lower Lake MI lakeshore region. Her center’s primary focus is family reunification; migrants use their services to be put on the path to citizenship, DACA, or seeking asylum. A secondary focus is humanitarian work, dealing with VAWA (Violence against Women Act), temporary protected status, and refugee services. Her center also provides workshops, debunking myths, knowing rights.

Q & A period followed the panelists’ presentations, with questions about deportations, media, and ICE, among others. What can we do? Support immigration reform, asylum, and pathways to citizenship. Continue learning and have hard conversations with each other and your representatives. Volunteer or donate. This was the first time immigration as a topic was covered by FWS and much was learned.

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 $2052 to defray expenses and launch the 2019 FWS budget. $670 more was raised raffling off the beautiful green and blue patterned queen-sized quilt made by Marlene Schulte, Harbor Beach. The winner was Pam Baese, Elsie. Wednesday night’s banquet offered an appetizers and drinks reception, and a delicious dinner buffet.

Thursday was set aside for the popular bus tour. Attendees were split among two chartered buses. First on the tour was Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 158-acre main campus opened to the public in 1995. One of the nation’s most significant sculpture and botanic experiences, Meijer Gardens featured in March its famous Butterfly Exhibit. After a long and colorless winter, the bright colorful flowers and butterflies, coupled with the lush greens of all the plants, was balm to the soul and a harbinger of spring. Next was Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery, established in 1911 and owned by generations of the Robinette family. Ed Robinette hopped on each bus and gave a history lesson as he explained how their business has evolved over the years. The ladies were treated to mouth-watering warm sugared donuts and cider as they toured the working part of the business, observing apple storage, donut, cider, and fudge-making equipment. Downtown Market GR was the site for lunch, with 21 indoor market vendors to choose from. The ladies enjoyed meeting the diverse group of vendors and browsing through the market. The last stop was Swiss Lane Farms (Alto, MI) named for the founder, Fredrick Oesch, who was born in Switzerland and came to America in 1904. The farm evolved into a parallel 16 dairy parlor milking 1300 cows by 2010; in 2011, they built a 500-cow 8-robot cow facility. Fredrick’s great-granddaughter, Annie Link, hosted the tour as she got on each bus and chatted about the history, dairy, feed/crops, etc., with everyone getting off the bus to watch the robots in action.

Thursday night the ladies were offered two options: the Grand Rapids Beer Trolley—a fun way to get to downtown, dine, and gather while visiting GR’s famous breweries and night spots; or Movie Night—Michigan Sugar sponsored a showing of the documentary Food Evolution, narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which seeks to dispel myths about GMOs and use science-based facts instead. Ladies were treated to popcorn, snacks, dip, and drinks.

Friday’s lectures started with a panel from Ag Community Relief (formerly Michigan Convoy), that began one year ago with the wildfire devastations of the Panhandle/Midwest and the response by Michigan volunteer Matt Schaller (Corunna MI), that rapidly spread throughout the state’s farmers and agribusinesses, as semi-loads of hay and fencing supplies headed in convoys to Kansas and other staging areas to be donated to those in need. Matt’s wife, Jenna Schaller, headed the panel along with Ag Community Relief (ACR) board members Jeana Cheek (Peck MI), a crop advisor with Helena Chemical; Carrie Lyons (Ubly MI), who works for Cargill Animal Nutrition; and Teresa Sisung (St. Johns MI), from Michigan Corn Office. Giving the Midwest perspective was Elly Sneath (Meade Co., Kansas), K-State Research and Extension.

After a short video showing the devastation and the relief efforts, Elly described the fires that hit her part of SW Kansas into Oklahoma. In an emotional account, Elly said what hurt the farmers the most was losing the livestock they loved so much, cow herds that were built up from generations of top breeding, right during calving season. Orphaned calves were taken in by 4-H moms and kids. Elly received a call from Matt Schaller and they set up a drop-off spot for the first convoys. “To “my guys”, he and the convoy made a big difference,” she said. More convoys arrived throughout that spring.  Teresa got a call from Christy Gordon who was overwhelmed with messages from donors. Teresa took over the Convoy web site, becoming donation coordinator and a main volunteer. Carrie while taking hay samples for clients, had an idea to urge them to donate their lesser quality hay to the fire victims.

“Fourteen semi-loads of hay came from my area in the Thumb,” she said. These fires were followed by the Texas hurricane/floods, another in Florida, and the Dakota fires—all which Ag Community Relief supported with more convoys of donations. Jeana, from Illinois, was working as an intern in Michigan when she began volunteering. She described the Western Wire Round-up that is currently set up for Montana and North Dakota. Jenna, Matt’s wife, said he’s always had lots of ideas. He started a Go Fund Me page for wildfire relief, eventually creating Michigan Ag Relief, a 501c3. “Matt came back from the first convoy a different person, a better man,” she said. During Q & A, media coverage was discussed, with national coverage sketchy because of low populations affected, but local and ag networks did an excellent job telling the story. Interstate travel was aided by permits with state governors stepping in to expedite the process. Indemnifications were slow and based on market price, not replacement value as a breeding animal. Currently, Michigan is divided into four quadrants with people in place from MI Ag Relief to manage further donations as need arises. A second Barn Bash is scheduled in June to raise more money.

Rebecca Park, legislative counsel with Michigan Farm Bureau, provided a legislative update. She discussed air emissions reporting at the federal level, along with H-2C Visa program which would address year-long migrant workers who are not covered under H-2A. At the Lansing level, Rebecca talked about ag sales/use tax, how the state is ratcheting down on allowable exemptions, and that MFB is working with legislators on purpose-based sales tax legislation (HB 4561-64). HB 5638 introduced by Rep. Aaron Miller in Feb. revises the groundwater withdrawal permit regime, with streamlining site-specific review (SSR). Rebecca emphasized that the 2018 mid-term elections are critical, to monitor AgriPac endorsements that are pro-farmer, and watch the statewide candidate interview forum that will be live-streamed in August.

Michigan Sugar spokespersons Rita Herford (Harbor Beach) and Allyson Maxwell (Hope) then presented “Cultivate Facts—Not Fiction—About GMOs. They began with a smart-phone multiple choice timed test with tables competing for the most correct and fastest answers about sugar beets and GMOs. Rita and Allyson said bad and misleading food marketing is rampant, confusing, and tries to direct consumers away from the technology farmers use; that consumers should be able to make informed choices at the grocery store. “Read the backs of food labels,” they advised. Besides the ten GMO crops, many do not realize that genetic engineering is also used to produce insulin, vaccines, and rennet used in cheese production.

FWS 2018 ended with an interactive presentation by Craig Tornquist, a professional comedian from Indiana. Craig hosted a music-accompanied trivia game show that had tables of women competing in categories from cartoon characters to science to famous groups. He ended with a dance contest that had volunteers dancing short clips of several genres of music, with awards for the most enthusiastic and coolest moves (won by Marlene Schulte and Shelley Capling-Brant).

As new friendships were formed and older networks solidified, farm women were inspired, educated, and entertained… for a time, forgetting their cares and responsibilities… as FWS 2018 drew to a close and the ladies returned home, renewed and ready for a busy spring on the farm. 

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