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GAYLORD, MI -- The 29th annual Farm Women's Symposium (FWS) was held during cold weather and light snow from March 4-6, 2020 at the Treetops Resort in the hills outside Gaylord MI—the first time held in the north-central region of Michigan. Over 100 ladies representing Michigan’s diversified agriculture, including a few from other states, attended this event which is hosted by different towns since its inception in response to the apple Alar scare back in 1992.

After FWS chair Debbie Rasmussen gave the opening comments, two ladies representing Otsego County government welcomed the attendees to Gaylord. Lisa McComb, from the Chamber’s Economic Alliance, talked about her farming roots in St. Johns, where her father and brother-in-law still farm. Lisa oversees $12.7 million in public investment which is earmarked towards local manufacturing, housing, and infrastructure. Otsego County has 2600 farms; 125 which are female-operated. Rachel Frisch, Otsego County Administrator, has spent 15 years in county gov’t, with the last few years in her present position. She oversees 27 departments and 2 joint ventures. Rachel highlighted the county’s no-kill pet facility, the EMS/ambulance service, and their popular public library which has undergone a major expansion.

The keynote speaker, Jeanne Bernick, from Walcott, Iowa, is an ag consultant and business specialist at the accounting firm KCoe Isom, LLP. She has an extensive history in agriculture media, with 20 years at The Farm Journal, creating Top Producer magazine, and establishing the Executive Women in Agriculture Conference. Her morning presentation “What Women in Ag Want” contrasted generations ago when a female’s property became her husband’s upon marriage. Often outliving the husband, the widow would then farm on her own. Preceding “Rosie the Riveter” were “The Farmerettes” who in WWI were paid to harvest grains while the men were overseas. Bernick compared those roles with female farmers of today, some who left 6-figure salaries and the big city to use their business skills back home in the rural community, find a niche market, or grow their family’s farm, strengthening their towns’ economies along the way. According to Bernick, women today make up 36% of all USA farmers, and own 30% of the farmland. “GRIT is your capacity to dip deep, do whatever it takes – sacrifice, struggle – in order to achieve your most worthy goals,” Bernick said. She gave tips to be a more effective leader and communicator. Less than 10% of major ag business senior executives are women; Bernick talked about Pam Johnson, President at Nat’l Corn Growers, who has splintered the “Old Boys Network” where now 40% positions there are held by women. She gave several examples of female farmers who found success by making mistakes and learning from them, constantly adapting to new technologies, facing climate change, trying concepts that brought in the community and extra income. “Learn from women before us, and remember your roots,” Jeanne concluded. “Quit apologizing. Follow through. Look five years ahead; then plan backwards. Find work/life balance NOT daily – that’s impossible - but in the totality of life.”

The morning’s next speaker was Greenstone/Farm Credit Service’s Ryan Kratochvil, Crop Insurance Specialist from the Cadillac branch. He gave an overview of the realities of the 2019 crop year, and changes coming in 2020. Prevent Plant characterized 2019, with over 19 million acres involved in the USA, resulting in over $4 billion in payments, almost all due to flood. To keep on top of programs available and rules, Ryan advised contacting people like himself. “Call for recommendations. Take photos of your fields in question, with a time/date stamp, to explain later to adjustors,” he advised. “There will be pros and cons with each option proposed.” Included also in the 2019 USDA interventions were Top-Up Payments, assistance to plant cover crops – even corn to sell as forage, and an earlier hay/graze date. The Market Facilitation Program (MFP) purpose was to soften the impact of retaliatory tariffs and loss of traditional export markets. Ryan touched on the Dairy Revenue Protection (DRP) launched in August 2018 which provides quarterly 80-95% coverage of expected milk revenue. For 2020: a CAT policy fee increase; hemp and apple trees are now insurable, and ARC/PLC elections have supplemental coverage options. Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) he went into more details about, with deadlines for sign-up.

Diane Reed Loew, blogger “A Farm Wife” and FWS committee member, led an interactive session “I Never Knew That About You”. She asked for attendees to raise their hands if they had lost a loved one in the past year, or had family farm conflicts, become empty nesters, had a new child, loved to travel, craft, read, etc. – designed to find others with similar struggles or interests, or who have “gotten to the other side” and could now mentor others. Before lunch, all the ladies lined up from January 1 to December 31 according to birthdays, and found their “birthday buddy”. The speaker Jeanne Bernick discovered that she and Shelley Capling-Bryant were born the same day AND year.

After lunch, Jeanne Bernick returned with “Tips for Building a Personal Brand”. In her journalism years, Jeanne traveled in all 50 states and several countries, sitting down at lots of kitchen tables discussing farming and family issues. A role model is former UN ambassador Madeleine Albright who was the first female to serve as Secretary of State. In a male-dominated political world, Albright thought she should observe at first and blend in, but was inspired to battle her 4’10” way to the forefront when she realized she was the sole voice of the United States. One of her famous quotes is “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” To build one’s brand and own who you are, one must be engaging, be a negotiator, embrace the education given, and win over critical colleagues. She advised utilizing social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter, develop a website or blog, and combine with smaller details such as your email signature and developing your personal look and style to set you apart. Jeanne suggested compiling an “I love you” folder filled with kudos from colleagues and friends, to refill your cup when feeling down.

Local seed potato producers Ben and Alison Sklarczyk put on a presentation called “Seed Potato 101: Hands-On Tissue Culture Cutting and Basics”. The farm that the couple bought in 2017 from Ben’s parents, Don and Mary Kay Sklarczyk, began with his grandparents purchasing land in 1942. In 1982, Don and his wife began a tissue culture lab and opened a greenhouse. In 1997, the family started developing their current 100% hydroponic (without soil) process. In 2001, they obtained their first direct Frito-Lay contract, and in intervening years expanded the greenhouse area, lab, sprouting area, workspace, and long-term storage. The farm grows about 6 million potatoes each year and ships their potatoes all over the world. Around 60% of the potatoes are shipped domestically while the other 40 percent goes to countries such as Egypt, Thailand, Chile and Brazil. Ben revealed that 65% of potato chips sold in North America originate (in seed form) at their farm. The farm also grows potato plantlets for a variety of customers and ships about a million plants each year. Ben travels across the USA to monitor and troubleshoot with customers and emphasizes that he cares about his products AFTER the sale. Customer growth means more business to the Sklarczyks. Using hydroponics means greater sterility in the growth media, more efficient use of greenhouse space, and quality control with reverse-osmosis recycled water. Research and development continue improvement, along with pathogen testing. Alison demonstrated cutting tissue culture with audience participation. She learned her techniques from her late mother-in-law, Mary Kay, to whom Alison gives much of the credit for the farm’s success.

The last segment of Wednesday was “Mindful Laughter” presented by MSU Extension Health Educator, Tracie Abram, from St. Ignace/Mackinac County. With Tracie, attendees discovered the therapeutic benefits of laughter – it stimulates the immune system, may lessen pain, relaxes tense muscles, speeds up O2 to our bodies, helps regulate heart rate, increases endorphins, lowers BP, serum cortisol levels, and blood sugar PLUS it combats stress, provides moments of joy, and eases anxiety while lifting depression. Socially, laughter can connect and unite us with others, and break down barriers, while serving as an antidote to boredom and frustration, and clear the mind for problem solving. Tracie urged, “Be more childlike,” referring to the fact that children average 400 laughs/day and adults only manage 15. 

Sponsors and attendees had donated silent auction items which were bid on throughout the first day, with proceeds grossing over $3500, including some high-profile items that were live-auctioned off at the banquet (Kimba Clunis, chair of Silent Auction committee, stood as auctioneer) to defray expenses and launch the 2021 FWS budget. Several hundred more dollars were raised raffling off the blue patterned queen-sized quilt made by Marlene Schulte, Harbor Beach. The winner was Nina Green, Snover, MI. Wednesday night’s banquet offered a delicious dinner buffet, followed by card playing and chatting in the Hospitality Suite, or hot tub or swimming in the outdoor heated pool.

Thursday was set aside for the popular bus tour. Attendees were split among two chartered buses. Stops were: 1. Alpine Maple Farms, just down the road from Treetops, is owned by Jordan and Amanda Hunt, with right-hand man Abe Jacobs. Walking into their shop, one is overcome by the sweet smells of maple, including maple cotton candy, maple cream, bourbon-infused syrup, candles, and meat rub. They provide groomed trails for snow-shoeing, and host events throughout sap season including a Snow Sculpture Contest, a Michigan Maple Syrup Open House Weekend, and a Moonlight Hike & Bonfire. Traverse City TV 7 & 4’s Taylor Nimmo did an on-the-spot interview about FWS during the afternoon tour there. 2. The downtown Gaylord City Elk Park has around 40 elk contained on 108 acres which the City of Gaylord maintains and provides viewing areas for the public. The herd started with three elk several years ago when a local nature center closed. Ed Sole, representing the city, climbed on board the tour buses to give a short history and answer questions. 3. Gaylord’s Alpine Chocolat Haus began in 1985 by Bruce Brown “Der Chocolatmeister” and his wife Barb. Bruce credits his candy-making ability to his mentor, a sweet white-haired lady named Katie, who is featured with him in a photo in his office hallway. Besides their store in Gaylord, the Browns have expanded to stores in Boyne City, Sault Ste. Marie, and Plymouth. Currently with Easter approaching, there were many variations of “bunnies” coming down the candy assembly lines. “I use butter, never margarine,” Bruce said. Popular items are milk chocolate covered potato chips and caramel corn made from a special “mushroom” brand of popcorn. 4. Big Buck Brewery is owned by Cathy and Shawn Smalley, with Executive Chef Randy Troy and Head Brewer Doug Mehl. They began the process to revive this iconic business in May, 2018, after leaving their corporate jobs and moving back home. With a new menu, favorite and new beers, and focusing on MI-made products, Big Buck is back, better than ever. They hosted the FWS bus tour attendees for a delicious lunch and a quick tour given by Sam Hart. 5. Kitchen Farms, owned by Don and Sarah Kitchen, has been growing, bagging, and shipping potatoes since 1910. Don’s great-grandfather Robert first came to northern MI in the early 1900s to work in the timber industry, but loved the area so much that he settled down and bought land, growing his first potatoes. Kitchen Farms now owns more than 5000 acres of fine, sandy soil ideal for potatoes, using irrigation and controlled-temperature storage, offering whites, russets, reds, and yellows. In a usual year, the land – not all is in production as it is rotated with alfalfa – will produce up to 60 million pounds of potatoes. Sarah and Don led the ladies on a tour of the storage areas as well as up on the catwalks watching potatoes being rinsed, sized, landing on conveyors where they eventually were bagged and loaded. Each lady received a free 5# bag of yellow potatoes upon exiting the tour.

Thursday night entertainment provided by Treetops at Legends was musician Bill Oeming from Petoskey.

Friday’s lectures started with a legislative update from 105th House District State Rep. Triston Cole, first elected to the House in 2014. He is now Majority Floor Leader and Vice Chairman of the Gov’t Operations Committee, but will be termed out in the next election. Rep. Cole is proud of bringing the message of the working folks to Lansing, and told stories of running bear dogs up north with his urban colleagues from the House. “It really changes their perspective about the outdoors,” he commented. “It shows at the state level that we can really work across the aisle.” He is concerned about Lake MI’s high-water levels which happened before in 1986. Cole defended Nestle’s water use and said they are doing everything by the book. “Emotions run high about water,” he said. “Other crops or fruit/vegetables use likely more water and then are sold out of the state. At least this stays in the watershed.”

Kate Pigott, Intake/Outreach Coordinator of MI/FL Agricultural Mediation Programs (Lansing) had a booth with brochures explaining how the program works with farmers involved in disputes with legal or credit issues, leases, farm transitions, neighbors, compliance with farm programs, etc. Farmers work with a neutral mediator to try to resolve differences and come to a compromise that works for both sides. Kate gave a short presentation.

Ashley Messing-Kennedy, blogger/farmer/mom (Bad Axe) discussed how being honest and transparent changed how her followers connected with her. Ashley’s presentation explained how talking about the tragedies and challenges in her life actually helped her develop a support system in her listeners, with both she and her followers benefiting from the interaction. 

“A Journey in Infertility” was her top read blog, and Ashley also started #MentalHealthMonday on her Instagram. She often gets questions from her followers about food and where it comes from, so she can also inform and promote agriculture at the same time. “Humor is a way to work through trauma,” Ashley said. “Trauma makes us human. The more relatable you are, the more credible. Don’t just share the pretty pics and happy stories.”

The concluding presentation of the conference was brought by Keyona Williams, representing Rachel’s Challenge headquartered in Colorado, where the school massacre in Columbine happened on 4/20/99. Rachel Joy Scott was the first victim, and her journals led her parents to start this organization in her memory, with a mission to make schools and communities safer. Her essay “My Ethics, My Codes of Life” contained 5 challenges: Prejudice – look at character, not skin color. Give people 3 chances to create the first impression. Look for the best in others. Dream Big – write goals and keep a journal. She quoted MLK: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can. The chain reaction of evil must be broken.” Choose positive influences – choose carefully who to surround yourself with. Reach out to the vulnerable. Don’t let your character change color with the environment. Speak Kindness – words can hurt OR heal. Start a chain reaction – tell people you love them. Keyona ended with a video showing footage of how two arch rival towns on MI’s east side, Tawas and Oscoda, were impacted by Rachel’s story and healed their “War on the Shore”.

New friendships were formed and older networks solidified; farm women were inspired, educated, and entertained…for a time, forgetting their cares and responsibilities, some taking advantage of the spa and skiing. FWS 2020 is in the books now and the ladies have returned home, renewed and ready for a busy spring on the farm.

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