PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Participants at the 2017 Fusion Conference walked away with new and rekindled friendships, and a broader support system of people inspiring and challenging them to enhance their own lives.
The American Farm Bureau Federation hosted the Fusion Conference Feb. 10-13 at the David Lawrence Convention Center, Pittsburgh.
The conference brought together three AFBF groups for professional development and networking: Women’s Leadership, Young Farmers and Ranchers, and Promotion and Education.
More than 1,120 Farm Bureau members joined to discuss best practices, compete and celebrate the year’s successes.
Professional development workshops were organized around advocacy, business, communication, education, leadership, rural development/entrepreneurship, technology and a focus on the collegiate age group.
Paige Pratt, Ph.D., with the Kansas Farm Bureau Federation, discussed Family Farm Transitions: The Good, the Bad and the In-Laws. She spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the challenges and rewards of family farm transitions. Sharing her own experiences, she kept the crowd and engaged and amused.
“The first question you must ask before going back to the farm is, ‘Are they done living their own dream, so they can help you live yours?’’’ she said. “If the answer to this question isn’t yes, then you’ll be nothing more than a laborer.”
Pratt went on to discuss identifying qualified legal and accounting experts, improving communication between generations and the importance of making a plan.
Tell your story
In another session, Jean Lonie, director of student recruitment and activities at Pennsylvania State University, discussed Owning Our Story.
She asked the crowed, “Who here has heard something ridiculous while standing in the dairy section of your local grocery store?” Heads nodded in agreement as the audience raised their hands.
“We must take advantage of teachable moments,” she said, encouraging the crowd to tell the story of agriculture. “We must meet consumers where they are, not where we want them to be.”
Farm Bureau members of all ages jotted notes and shared their own stories of advocacy.
This conference occurs every other year,with the three AFBF groups sharing the conference space.
“We want these three groups to interact, collaborate and share ideas,” said Zippy Duvall, American Farm Bureau president. “The enthusiasm from young farmers is contagious.”
Duvall spend time chatting with members one-on-one.
“I recognize a good leader is a good listener,” said Duvall. “I try to make myself accessible to our grass-roots members, hear them share their stories, so I can share them in my travels with other members to make a difference.”
Harvest for All
YF&R members also made a difference in the fight against hunger this year. As part of Farm Bureau’s 2016 Harvest for All program, they raised more than $1.1 million and donated more than 28.9 million pounds of food to assist hungry Americans.
Combined, the monetary and food donations also reached a record level of the equivalent of more than 31 million meals.
The California Farm Bureau took top honors for donating the most food, 15.1 million pounds. Illinois Farm Bureau raised the most money, $978,000. Illinois Farm Bureau also tallied the most volunteer hours, 3,292.
Each of those state organizations received a $750 grant from Nationwide to donate to a local food bank of their choice or for another Harvest for All project.
Second-place winners were the New York Farm Bureau for food donated at 13.2 million pounds; Tennessee Farm Bureau for donated funds at $48,000; and Michigan Farm Bureau for volunteer time at 1,815 hours. Each of these winners received a $500 grant.
In addition, three state YF&R committees received $250 grants from Nationwide for “most innovative” programs. Those winners were from Michigan, New Hampshire and Tennessee.
Fifty-three young farmer members from across the country competed in the National Collegiate Discussion Meet.
Local contestants were Kameron Rinehart and Meghan Bruns, Ohio; Simon Itle, Pennsylvania; Carriel Schmitt, New York; Michael Mann, Kentucky.
The winner of the meet was Ryan O’Reilly, a student at Colorado State University.
Reaching members age 20-30 is a challenge for many membership organizations, and AFBF works with strategies to keep this age group engaged.
“That age group likes fun activities they can take their families to, or that are informative, so they don’t feel like they are wasting their time,” said Duvall.
In an effort to stay current, AFBF asks their interns how they would like to be communicated with and works with them to brainstorm new ideas.
“We have to ask questions and keep the conversation going and stay open to new ideas. It’s not your grandfather’s Farm Bureau,” Duvall said.
Also keeping AFBF fresh with grass-roots engagement ideas is the national YF&R Committee. The committee is comprised of 16 positions representing all regions of the U.S. Committee members are responsible for young farmer program planning, which includes the coordination of competitive events during AFBF’s annual convention and the Harvest for All program.
“One of the best parts [of serving on the committee] has been to see the growth to us professionally, in advocating, public speaking and our ability to tell our story. Being on the committee has given us the tools,” said Katie Farley of Dayton, who serves with her husband, Latham.
This is the fifth year the Farleys have attended this conference. They operate a hog and grain farm and both work off the farm.
“It has been wonderful to learn from the other members. We come from around the country, we have our differences, but also a lot of similarities. We learn from them and talk through issues we all face,” Katie said.
The Farleys are retiring from the committee this year as it welcomes another Ohioan, Brad Heimerl.
Heimerl is from Johnstown, Ohio, in Licking County. When asked why he applied for the national committee he said, “Those who show up get to drive the future. I want to make a difference.”
Heimerl works in the hog division of his family’s farm. He represented Ohio in the collegiate discussion meet in 2013, getting his feet wet and was hooked.
“With my background in 4-H, FFA and public speaking, I enjoy sharing about what we do. I am proud and willing to advocate. Serving on this committee as my next step was a no-brainer and I’m excited to see what’s next,” Heimerl said.
National committee members are nominated by their respective state Farm Bureaus. They study farm and food policy issues, participate in leadership training exercises and hone other professional skills during their two-year terms.
In 2017, AFBF is pushing engagement, from the local level to the White House, said Duvall.
AFBF is involved in advocating for issues and bills at all levels, currently focusing on issues such as taxes, trade, estate taxes, labor laws and regulatory reform.
“We, rural America, paved the road for Mr. Trump, but we have to recognize it was only half the job. Now we must get to work, confirming Gov. Perdue, working on our relationships and keeping our seat at the table,” Duvall said.
Duvall shared Sonny Perdue’s qualifications to be the next U.S. secretary of agriculture.
“As a vet, he understands sound science; as a farmer in his adult life, he knows the hours and the hard work, he owns businesses that buy and sell grain. We will continue to build on our positive relationship with him.”
Duvall’s advice for Farm Bureau members moving forward in the political arena, “Be patient, supportive and engaged.”
AFBF is currently discussing how best to communicate its policy positions with the administration, particularly on issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Donald Trump opposes. Duvall said the farm group will work to keep the positive qualities of such trade agreements, fix what’s not working and develop something even better.
“We’ve been promised a seat at the table on such issues and, on behalf of our members, we’ll be there,” Duvall said.
AFBF Fusion concluded Feb. 13 with business and industry tours in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Next year’s YF&R conference is scheduled for Feb. 16-19 in Reno, Nevada.