Another successful year for FWS
The 28th annual Farm Women's Symposium (FWS) was held during cold weather and light snow from March 6-8, 2019 at the Hilton Garden Inn-Benton Harbor/St. Joseph—the first time held in the southwest corner of Michigan. Those arriving from I-94 had some treacherous driving conditions. Around 90 ladies representing Michigan’s diversified agriculture, including several from outside of the state (Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin), attended this event which is hosted by different towns since its inception in response to the apple Alar scare back in 1992.
After Debbie Rasmussen (FWS chairperson-Sheridan MI) welcomed the attendees, Jeff Noel, VP of Communication/Public Affairs at Whirlpool Corporation-Benton Harbor, talked about his farming roots in tobacco country in Kentucky, and the women who influenced him—namely, his cousins Doc and Boo-Boo. “You women in ag are my heroes,” Jeff said. In its infancy, Whirlpool Corp. began when brothers Lou and Fred Upton in 1911 patented an electric motor-driven wringer washer in St. Joseph. What was the Upton Machine Co. gradually morphed into Whirlpool, acquiring KitchenAid and Maytag along the way, after shutting down during WWII to provide components for aircraft and military equipment. Berrien County’s proximity to Lake Michigan and its sandy soil made it ideal for peaches and other fruits which had a huge Chicago market. The Harvest Festival began in 1906 with the Blossom Time parade becoming famous. The county’s youth fair is one of the biggest in the nation. With 40 miles of Great Lake frontage, coupled with several inland lakes, the area has become a tourist destination. After a period of insolvency,180 land parcels were invested in and converted to the Harbor Shores Resort. The United Way and Boys/Girls Clubs are just two of many charities that have been targeted by local philanthropists.
The key-note speaker, Katie Dilse from Scranton, North Dakota is a farmer, wife, and mother of four sons. Her morning presentation “Life is a Highway—Roll On!” contained several metaphors comparing life with traveling or vehicles. “Jump into the driver’s seat of your life,” she encouraged. “Hold your accelerator down until there’s nothing left to give. Climb steep hills. Toss out your load of fear on the road of life.” Katie told a humiliating story of “bringing fire to the fire” when she drove an old semi water-truck to help at a neighbor’s fire, not realizing a brake issue had caused her own rig to combust. “It’s in the depths of the trenches of life where resilience is born,” Katie believes, citing crop failures, weather extremes, cattle losses, and financial woes. “Even in the dark times,” she said, “remember why you farm. Find the romance.” She remembered going back to her roots in Alabama and a relative saying that North Dakota sounded so romantic. Katie joked about her husband’s typical response to an invitation requiring an RSVP—“We’ll see.” She praised our “sisterhood of farmers” and said to rely on faith, hope, and love to plug our own “broken brake lines” of stressors.
The morning’s next speaker was Dann Sytsma, an improvisational coach from Kalamazoo. His presentation was structured around building great relationships, using communication skills to build collaboration, and comparing the differences when using negative vs. positive feedback. He had the group divide into pairs who didn’t know each other, with one suggesting a travel destination. The other would immediately respond with “Yes, but…” listing a negative, finding that it took much more energy to defend the place, then it did later when the other would agree, with “Yes, and…” then listing what else they looked forward to seeing or doing there. Another exercise was to begin a story of a failure or learning experience, with the other reacting with “Color that” meaning to go into more detail about something. This emphasized that the listener was truly paying attention and interested in the story, wanting to go deeper, and not just thinking how to top it, or what they were going to say next. With employees—develop a system so they can buy into what they are doing; and with vendors—see them as a partner, get them to like and believe in you, and build on this. “Start on common ground, keep the conversation positive, drop the agenda, and move to a win-win solution,” Dann advised.
Katie Dilse returned with an interactive workshop “When the Scale Tips” after lunch. Using smart phones, attendees got on a site to key in answers to questions, with the most common responses showing up on the big screen. “What does the farm mean to me” answers were FAMILY, work, lifestyle, pride, food. “What knocks you down” answers were WEATHER, health, markets, mental stress. Katie handed out pictures of stacked rocks that she wanted the audience to label with things, people, or concepts that empower, or give joy, starting with the foundation rocks and leading up to the stone that teeters on the very top. “Change is part of living, open another door and accept the consequences. Finding balance takes work and time. Just say no sometimes. Be all-in, take the moments captive. Take interest. Remember why we are all doing this,” Katie advised. With her humor, experiences, and empathy, Katie Dilse struck a resonant chord with her audience, with a lot of laughter, agreement, and a few tears.
The SW Michigan Producer Panel sat down with Emelee Rajzer moderating to give overviews of their operations. First was Erica Burke of Berrien Springs’ Hillside Orchards. Chestnut trees have become her main area of interest at the orchard. The nut is low-fat and gluten-free, and has become popular. Hillside currently has 3000 trees of 4 varieties, with 90% sold to the Chicago markets. Tarps are placed underneath the trees, with the nuts collected and then sorted. She’s hiring Chicago teens as well as retired people at the market and pays them hourly with good results. Matt Schilling, manager of Benton Harbor’s Greg Orchards & Produce, explained that there is more fruit product than demand, and that buyers can be super picky about quality, with only 50% of harvest sold as #1’s. Freight is a challenge with new rules shutting down trucks when hours are maxed. Documenting food safety with USDA audits and DEQ is time consuming and costly. Stores can be unreasonable demanding types of fruit before they are ripe. Mechanical harvesters and automated equipment can cause overproduction as a side effect, but it is the future. Labor continues to be a big challenge, using H2A for field production, especially with peaches which are sensitive when they ripen in a very narrow window. Trever Meachum, High Acres Fruit Farm, Van Buren Co., produces fruits, vegetables, and cash crops. He’s in charge of payroll, crop inputs, and trucking. Trever told about his twins’ emergency delivery seven years ago, and how their birth and his wife’s health crisis put his life into perspective. He recounted how a chance visit to a Georgia tomato/pepper farm planted the idea of producing grape tomatoes commonly found in salads. He now has the 2nd largest plot at 20 acres in the state, producing the “Spencer” tomato. Harvesting is done right after blueberries, so his workers just stay put. Tomato plants get up to 10’ tall and are staked by rebar. All the growers said that minimum wage is rarely used; workers are instead paid by the piece at 7-10 hours/day which equates to ~$25/hour.
Kathy Maitland from the Michigan Abolitionist Project (MAP) in SE Michigan discussed human trafficking. (Judy Emmons, scheduled to appear, had been involved in a car accident on the way) “Using force, fraud, and coercion, criminals profit from the control and exploitation of others—modern day slavery,” Kathy said. It is the 2nd largest criminal activity after drugs. Street prostitution, home brothels, hotels, and nail salons are typical sites for trafficking, with migrants at high risk. It is widely unreported because of the shame and mental manipulation. The demand side of the equation needs to be addressed. Judy Emmons, with building good networks, helping to form 12 community groups, and passing legislation has brought Michigan’s score from an F to a B. Kathy emphasized that public awareness is key, for people sitting on juries, custody battles. What can people do? Educate others, know the signs, report, invest in young people, monitor kids who age out of foster care who are very vulnerable. Kathy views recent news headlines as positive, with arrests and major fines being signs of a crackdown. “Be aware of social media, images with geographical location, that make it easy for criminals,” she warned.
Sponsors and attendees had donated silent auction items which were bid on throughout the first day, with proceeds grossing $1843 to defray expenses and launch the 2020 FWS budget. $625 more was raised raffling off the patriotic red/white/blue queen-sized quilt made by Marlene Schulte, Harbor Beach. The winner was Rae Lynne Lomont, New Haven, IN. Wednesday night’s banquet offered an appetizers and drinks reception, and a delicious dinner buffet, followed by MI Sugar Co. sponsored Trivia Night Contest.
Thursday was set aside for the popular bus tour. Attendees were split among two chartered buses. Stops were: 1. North Berrien Historical Museum in Coloma. Peter Cook, Jack Greve, and Marc Hettig were on hand to direct tours and answer questions. Marc said the Berrien County area started as a logging community. Soon stumps abounded, and many German-born immigrants came, up to the challenge of buying land cheap and putting sweat equity into clearing stumps. Wet, cold springs and warm falls were ideal for growing peaches. The area converted into fruit orchards, finding a big market in Chicago, along with manufacturing their own equipment. Much work has been done collecting vintage machinery, basket weaving tools etc. to collect in several educational displays throughout the museum. 2. 12 Corners Winery in Benton Harbor is a 115-acre farm which includes 40 acres of wine grapes, with one of the largest tasting bars in southwest Michigan. The owner, Greg Oberst, said that Niagara white grapes, and Riverstone red grapes makes the most popular wines, along with their hard apple cider. He described making ice wines which are harvested at 17° and pressed. Attendees were treated to up to 3 wine tastes. Greg reported that the recent Polar Vortex took out 50% of his grapes. 12 Corners is located at the intersection of several roads, on the top of a ridge with a beautiful sweeping view. 3. SW MI Research & Extension Center tripled as a boxed lunch stop, a presentation by Ron Goldy about making 3-4 minute educational videos about vegetable and fruit start/finish to inform the public, and a power point from St. Joseph County’s Eric Anderson about drones. 4. Sawyer Garden Center provided a shopping opportunity with its large gift and flower store. 5. Matt Gura and Brent Christensen hosted the tour at Hop Head Farms in Baroda. The attendees first walked around the headlands of last fall’s hops, with the two guys explaining the trellis and coconut fiber string system, spraying, how cuttings/rhizomes from Zeeland are started, eventually growing 1’+/day during peak growth. Inside the expansive harvesting/drying building, two stationary combines and three levels of dryer shelves, built with German technology, process and dry the season’s hops into pellets at the rate of ½ acre per hour. Starting with 15 acres in 2014, Hop Head now grows 150 acres on its Baroda land, making it the 2nd largest hops farm in Michigan, with more in the original property in Hickory Corners.
A Thursday night optional activity was painting a canvas of delphinium flowers at the JLN Studio in Stevensville, with 20 women becoming artists for the night.
Friday’s lectures started with a legislative update from freshman State Rep. Pauline Wendzel of the 79th House District, Watervliet. Pauline is a new young legislator with just two months under her belt, from a 4th generation farm, living in the house her great-grandfather built. “I was a field girl,” Pauline commented, referring to her early work at her family’s business, Coloma Frozen Foods. “At 16, I drove out in my Ford 150 to find customers to buy our fruit.” Pauline later met with suppliers in a 16 state area, including Spartan Nash, as part of Coloma FF’s market and product development team. She also worked for North Berrien Historical Museum, talking to the older populations and convincing them to part with their vintage equipment. These ties came in handy as Pauline started her campaign, because she knew a LOT of people. Her grandpa loved parades, her grandma wrote letters, her Mom put up yard signs, and her sister was by her side constantly, knocking on doors. Pauline gained MFB’s endorsement, and ran on rural infrastructure, Broadband access, Career/Tech Ed (CTE) workplace training, and food safety. She is concerned about aging farmers with average age 58, MSU Extension viability, and farm regulations. Pauline was put on the House Ag and Energy committees.
Northwestern University’s Dr. Alexandra Solomon then started her presentation, Key Principles of Thriving Relationships. Dr. Solomon is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Staff Therapist in the university’s Dept. of Psychology. “Love isn’t a fairy tale; it’s messy and imperfect,” Dr. Solomon said. “This is not the hill I’m going to die on,” she joked, referring to her husband’s inability to give gifts, and going into more detail about the five love languages. She discussed relational self-awareness. “Talk to yourself, the way you’d talk to a friend,” Dr. Solomon advised. She suggested not comparing yourself to others, to use self-compassion, to be mindful of what triggers your anger, and how to handle it. Spouses need to know that they’re valued, that they are not a disappointment. Conflict can affect immune systems. Toxic conflict patterns include criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. In closing, Dr. Solomon touched on sexuality and responsive vs. spontaneous desire, and took several questions from the audience. One comment was that all this talk about good relationships flies out the window when the cattle get out!
FWS 2019 ended with entertainer Denise Gutenschwager from Flat Rock MI in her alter-ego character, Evelyn Smallbladder, with clean, candid comedy about life’s awkward moments.
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 2019 drew to a close and the ladies returned home, renewed and ready for a busy spring on the farm.