The first post-pandemic Voice of Agriculture Conference shattered attendance expectations with more than 310 Farm Bureau members from across the state meeting up in Traverse City Jan. 20-21 for a packed agenda of tours, networking, informative breakout sessions and idea-sharing.
You can’t get to every breakout session or take multiple tours, but if your track started Friday afternoon with “Amplify Agriculture Through Tourism,” you started with a bus ride out to nearby Bellaire. The first two stops were right across the street from each other: popular Short’s Brewing Company and its neighbor Bee Well Meadery.
At both locations members learned how some of their favorite brewed beverages are created and got to know some of the farm-friendly personalities behind the scenes. Both operations prioritize the use of ingredients raised by on Michigan farms, largely from the immediate northwestern Lower Peninsula region.
Back on the bus it was another half hour up to Cellar 1914, the tasting room and retail face of the fourth-generation orchard run by Antrim County members Greg & Rob Shooks. Honoring the year their great grandfather founded the farm near Central Lake, Cellar 1914 is also a current-day celebration of their farm’s relentless adaptation ever since to consumer tastes and market and food trends.
After that it was back to Bellaire, where Short’s again hosted the group for dinner: a pizza buffet, their famous pretzel bites and a taste of craft beer — but not too much of it, because Saturday morning came quickly and fully loaded with the Voice of Agriculture’s real meat and potatoes.
That morning’s keynote speaker was followed by breakout sessions digging deep into various current agricultural topics.
In “Connecting Consumers to your Farm,” presenter Wendy Wieland shared an overview of the services on offer through her workplace, the MSU Product Center. For a $50 application fee, the Center provides a head-spinning menu of services, including commodity group feasibility studies, economic-impact studies, product development and food processing review, labeling assistance and access to the Food Processing Innovation Center, a pilot lab for existing manufacturers to tinker with test recipes so they’re not stopping their commercial production lines to test out new ideas.
The product center hosts “Making It in Michigan,” a food show that hosts representatives of major retailers — Meijer, Kroger, Westborn Markets — in search of authentic Michigan-made products for sale in their stores.
Another of the Product Center’s marquee offerings is its “Cultivating Local Farm Economies” workshops, bringing together aspiring farm-and-food marketers in a specific locality for a day of practical guidance and encouragement toward building a collective identity as a consumer-friendly destination.
Changing gears to more hands-on Farm Bureau programming in the afternoon, a pair of sessions geared toward new and current county Farm Bureau Promotion & Education leaders.
“P&E Back to Basics” saw state Young Farmer committee members Katelyn Thompson and Alysa Sanford welcoming new program chairs with an overview of Michigan’s role at the vanguard of its very origin.
Devised as a more inclusive and influential successor to its old-fashioned precursor, Farm Bureau Women, Promotion & Education was an innovation of Michigan county Farm Bureaus in the mid-1980s.
“Michigan has a lot to be proud of,” Thompson said, sharing observations from the recent national Farm Bureau convention in Puerto Rico. As the homegrown initiative continues to catch on nationally, our state remains at the vanguard of innovative P&E programming.
“P&E has caught on on the national stage,” she said.
In the last session of the day before attendees convened by district to sketch their plans for the new year, a “New From P&E” session introduced program volunteers to a fresh batch of tools and resources on offer from the state and national-level organizations.
Refreshed FARM Crates, AFBF’s 2023 Book of the Year and Michigan’s new Summer Library Reading Program were all on display with MFB staffers highlighting their features for an audience of eager P&E volunteer leaders.
(Look for details on our new Summer Library Reading Program in April!)