In a Council of Presidents panel conversation on Farm Bureau member engagement, a pair of county presidents from opposite corners of the Lower Peninsula shared some promising ideas that’ve put wind in their sails back home.
Young county president Christian Tollini shared how old-fashioned socializing is central to the strong uptick in Young Farmer activity up in Presque Isle County.
“Social connection is vital to attracting Young Farmers,” he said, explaining how the social media platform Snapchat is providing an axis for young producers across the northeastern Lower Peninsula.
Steady growth accounts for the group now numbering some 30 members from both his county Farm Bureau and its neighbor to the south: Huron Shores, comprising Alpena and Alcona counties.
The cross-county group organized a “very informal card night,” inviting people via Snapchat’s messaging capabilities — and with remarkable success. “Three quarters of those who showed up weren’t Farm Bureau members yet,” Tollini said. “We were able to use that event to add six memberships then and there.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there you can target and bring on as new members.”
Four and a half hours to the southwest, the Ottawa County Farm Bureau is finding success untangling a very different problem. Squeezed all sides by development pressure and residential sprawl, Ottawa for years struggled to reach throngs of area schoolchildren with farm-friendly outreach and education.
As county president Mark Schoenborn explained, Ottawa’s leadership chose to pursue an unconventional path few county Farm Bureaus would ever consider: “We decided we wanted to pay someone to do Ag in the Classroom.”
Their first attempt involved partnering with the county commission and MSU Extension to co-sponsor and co-fund a part-time Ag in the Classroom instructor.
“It worked so-so,” Schoenborn explained flatly, but that individual’s mid-pandemic retirement forced the county Farm Bureau back to the drawing board.
Working this time with the Michigan Foundation for Agriculture, they devised a pilot program for hiring a full-time Ag in the Classroom educator to take the gospel of farming into schools across the county.
Foundation staff helped wrangle several qualified candidates for the job, with Ottawa’s board eventually settling on one who, despite having no agricultural background, came with real-world teaching experience and the kind of engaging personality it takes to open young minds.
“We can teach her the ag portion,” Schoenborn said. “More importantly, she knows the education system.”
Reporting to Ottawa’s board monthly, their new dedicated ag educator has so far reached 1,500 students in 79 classrooms already this school year, in addition to representing the farm sector at career days and planning for a presence at all three of Ottawa’s county fairs.
While the program seems successful to date, Schoenborn admitted its heavy price tag means “this is not something that’s going to work in all counties.”
Blessed as it is with a substantial base of both regular and associate members, even Ottawa had to shuffle some priorities — and downsize its office staff — to free up the funds necessary to make the position happen.