I’ve written a few blog posts about my recent trip to Michigan so I doubt I surprise anyone with another blog post about the trip, but it may surprise you that I saved the best for last. Granted, the snow sculptures, cherry muffins, etc were great, but the biggest benefit for me was getting to know quite a few dairy farmers and having a chance to learn about dairy. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are few times when I go to an agricultural event or meeting without a detailed agenda or a list of things I need to accomplish for work. Going to the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference was different though — I was an invited guest of the conference. The GLRDC includes an ambassador program which provides a scholarship and leadership opportunities for both high school and college students. I was there to help with that program and to provide an outsider’s perspective.
Since I love working with students, it was a no brainer when my friend Ashley Messing (Twitter, blog) asked me to help with the ambassador program. I must admit, I wasn’t sure what all I’d be doing in the 36 hours I’d be there, but I decided I would give it my all. I arrived on Thursday evening with just a bit of time to meet a few folks before calling it a night. Knowing how very little I knew about dairy, I figured I’d be fitting right in with the students, little did I know that I wouldn’t have a chance with those kids! LOL!
An Intense, Amazing Friday
Knowing I would have a long, busy day, I decided to get up earlier enough to eat a good breakfast. After going through the buffet line, I glanced around and saw a few open seats nearby and asked if I could join the couple already seated there. I introduced myself to Larry & Gloria Crandall and explained a bit of what I was doing there & how little I knew about the dairy world. They were nice enough to talk to me about their family farm near Battle Creek.
A dairy farmer named Jerry Link (his family’s blog is Dairy Discovery at Swiss Lane Farms) that I had met during the Atlanta snowpocalypse came up & he joined us. (He seemed a bit more than shocked to see me there!) It was incredible hearing the Crandalls talk about the small operation they have and the larger family operation Jerry joined when he & Annie got married. They were both talking about how the weather had been very cold this winter but at least it was consistently cold as fluctuations can be hard on the animals. I was amazed realizing I had already heard someone talk about this from another viewpoint (Read A Sad Day at Haley Farms to understand more.)
As breakfast wrapped up, I headed off to find the ambassador candidate meeting and the farmers all headed to registration and sessions about policy and marketing. We sat there getting to know the students who were candidates for the scholarships and the other people on the panel. Then it was time to get going. I found out we were going to go listen in on some of the sessions so we could discuss timely topics with the candidates later…. I wondered whether I would understand much less be able to participate in the discussion with the ambassador candidates but I was pumped to see what the GLRDC was all about!
We got to sit through most of the discussion on proposed policy changes for the dairy program and I not only was able to follow along, but I tweeted like crazy! And most of it seemed to be okay — luckily there were several other tweeps in the house to check along with. And now and then I asked Ashley, her mom Shelly or dad Greg a question. The similarities to other crops I’ve worked with made me able to follow far more than I thought I could. And the presentation on the role of alfalfa in feed was really interesting (though most of the folks in the crowd who knew me knew I was terribly disappointed that the testing programs included several components but not cottonseed!)
What really impressed me was how much the high school and college students came out of the meeting with! As we sat down talking through the possible changes to dairy policy, they were able to make real connections to farms they are most familiar with. Surely all these students were already good ambassadors for Michigan dairies!
By the time I sat down for lunch with Jerry, Annie, their kids and some good friends, I realized that dairy would permeate everything. At breakfast I had noticed pitchers of milk on every table. At break time, more milk (white, chocolate and strawberry flavors) and some string cheese. Lunch time, more milk! Seeing a soda in the room was almost like a polyester sighting at a cotton meeting!
As the afternoon went forward, we spent more intense time with the candidates both in small groups and individually. Hearing the personal connections to dairy made it clear this was far more to them than a scholarship, although the scholarship could certainly help further their goals. Each already had things they are committed to and are doing. They are excited about the future of the dairy industry and all want to be part of improving that future. It was tough deciding which students would receive scholarships but the panel of us came to unanimous decisions.
The evening closed with a dinner that included presentations of several awards and an auction to tempt me into spending a bit of cash. Although I didn’t get this udderly cool Michigan dairy set, I had to take a photo of it. I DID get a couple of “got milk?” t-shirts and a necklace with a cowbell charm from cowartandmore!
The students we had most of the day with, all had a chance to be recognized (deservedly so) and we heard from the ambassadors for the past year. It was incredible to hear how these two created projects that would draw attention to and help spread the word about Michigan dairies. I’ve already told the new ambassadors I wanted to keep up on their projects and progress. They have said they would!
But probably the biggest surprise for me, was to see the friendly couple who I visited with over breakfast receive the Michigan State Dairy Farmer of the Year award, along with their children! I mean, they certainly knew they were receiving the award earlier in the day (here’s the press release). And as I asked the most elementary questions, they never even thought about mentioning it!
The Crandalls farm is now managed by son Brad and his wife Monica, but Larry and Gloria fill a variety of roles that help make sure that government regulators and others hear directly from the farm. The press release goes through a number of those leadership roles, but the love of family and the dairy is hard to capture in simple words. A Michigan dairy website that the Crandalls have worked with does a good job combining photos from the farm with words from the Crandall Family.
What an honor to spend a couple of days meeting these folks and learning more about Michigan dairies! If you ever get a chance to go to a very different part of the industry and learn what goes on, I recommend it without reservation! I just hope the people who planned GLRDC thought my contributions were worth their sponsorship. They are incredible and I’m lucky enough to call several friends.