To firm up time and place, I called new Osceola County Farm Bureau president Sandy Keller the morning before our visit to learn her part of the world was dark and cold, thanks to a wind storm that was still felling trees onto transmission lines from Stanwood to Standish.
“There’s a woodstove at the office,” I heard her husband Bob say, and by the time I got there the place was warm and cozy. Her farm straddles the same section-line road dividing Hersey and Evart townships. She gestures through the window toward a good, tan slope rising beyond a thin tree line.
“That’s my farm right there,” she waves. “That’s our hayfield. We grow about 80-90 acres hay — best hay in the county. We get 500 to 700 square bales each summer, plus some round bales. This was a good hay year.
“It’s mostly clay over here. I know: I’ve dug a lot of fence posts in that clay,” she continued. “Other side of the hill we have some strips that are pure sand. On the sandy end of the property we used to grow potatoes, pickles… There used to be a pickle factory in Hersey.
“It’s good land and being good stewards of it has paid off.”
The farm’s been in her family almost 120 years, but she and Bob only jumped in and started working it about 17 years ago when her mom’s health declined. Continuing her family’s legacy on the land eventually connected her with an ambitious venture looking to tap a valuable resource beneath it.
The Michigan Potash & Salt Company enlisted Keller to rally local support for their plan to tap a motherlode of rich potash deposits some 8,000 feet below ground.
“Potash is how I got involved in Farm Bureau,” she began. “Working with Michigan Potash, I was the only farmer in the group. They said, ‘Sandy: Rally the farmers. We need to rally the farmers somehow.’”
Rallying farmers led her to then-county Farm Bureau president Rick Johnson, who encouraged her to join and get involved, so she did — at her very first meeting.
“I wanted to learn more, but I found this Farm Bureau group a little bit lost. People weren’t engaged and didn’t really know what to do,” but the enthusiasm of then-new Regional Manager Bridget Moore fanned the embers glowing in Keller’s gut.
“Bridget was so focused on getting us engaged — and it absolutely helps that she’s local,” she said, citing Moore’s roots near Sears, on the other side of Evart.
Moore guided Osceola toward the day’s top priorities and encouraged Keller in her role as membership captain, where she promptly found more tinder and a bellows for those embers: “The farmers were my answer!”
With her furnace as lit as the office’s woodstove, Keller set out to learn all she could to fine-tune her recruitment game. At a conference for county leaders she found an inspiring opportunity to learn and network with peers from across the state.
“I went to that meeting and was blown away by everything I learned,” she said. “I was amazed by the Farm Bureau staff — they were so helpful.”
Months later at her county annual, she saw in the vacant presidency another opportunity and jumped in.
“I’ve found a voice. This group — there’s something about this group that sparked my brain. They all had this purpose — it was a cooperative…
“When I started it was because I wanted to rally farmers about potash, but as I got into it, I realized Farm Bureau was rallying me!”
With a newfound purpose, fire in her gut and an eager board, Keller is looking to set an aggressive pace through 2022, with several events already well into the planning stages.
The schedule starts with a mid-January euchre tournament open to all Osceola members. February will bring a bowling event in Evart, followed by a springtime softball tournament up in Tustin.
Yup. Keller knows her members fall into four distinct but separate quadrants, roughly: Reed City-Hersey, Evart-Sears, Tustin-LeRoy and Marion.
“We’re gonna get all four corners,” she said, gleaming.
Activities pick up again in June with a cornhole tournament in either LeRoy or Evart, then fair days in Evart and Marion. Soon after that it’ll be county-annual season again and the Farm Bureau cycle goes round ‘n’ round.
“I think this is the first time this county has ever had things scheduled out like this. It’s got everybody fired up!
“I think we will have done something really good in the center of Michigan.”
In the margins, a grassroots cookbook and calendar are in the works to engage Osceola’s more seasoned members.
“This has made… I hate to make it sound so dramatic, but this has changed my life,” Keller said. “It has changed me and how I look at my land and the people in our community.
“Farm Bureau has given me purpose back. That’s how I see my life now. The people I have met through Farm Bureau have been amazing.”
Sandy Keller is one of 18 new presidents recently elected to lead their county Farm Bureau in 2022. Keep reading Farm Gate and we’ll introduce you to the newest of the new.