MARL Class VI graduates, including four leaders with MCGA connections

The Minnesota Agricultural and Rural Leadership (MARL) program recently graduated its sixth class of mid-career leaders with a concluding weekend seminar and graduation event held in Chaska. The year-and-a-half long seminar series, organized through Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, is considered the most prestigious and rigorous training that focuses on leadership for agriculture.

The thirty two leaders of MARL VI were drawn from across the state and from a number of different agriculture industries. They include four leaders connected to Minnesota Corn Growers Association: farmer/MCGA members Rochelle Krusemark of Trimont, Kirby Hettver of Montevideo and Ian Sandager of Hills, as well as MCGA staffer Elizabeth Tanner, director of advocacy and strategic partnerships.

The group returned from a ten day visit to Morocco earlier in March. This international experience, along with a weeklong experience in Washington, DC, form the highlights of a series of seminars that also take the leaders to locations all around the state of Minnesota, to give them in-depth exposure to the various regions and economic segments of the state.

Three hundred people, including many MARL alumni and agricultural industry leaders, attended the MARL graduation ceremony and dinner, which took place at the Oakridge Conference Center in Chaska.

“MARL has been awesome, I am so grateful for this experience,” said Tanner.

She said the leadership course included tools for self-reflection and measuring progress in areas like emotional intelligence, which is a key skill/knowledge area for any leader.

Asked about how MARL has shaped and developed his leadership abilities, Ian Sandager said: “MARL has helped me to be able to speak more knowledgeably and to be able to debate and discuss issues respectfully, to see where we can meet in the middle and where we can’t. It’s helped me develop more patience in those situations. I am more passionate about my issues, but at the same time I have been able to increase my ability to speak about them in a respectful manner.”

Sandager went on to describe how knowing yourself more fully gives you the ability to lead more successfully. Just this year he joined the local board of directors for Rock County Corn and Soybean Growers Association.

“The big thing for me about MARL is assertiveness and being self-aware about my emotions,” Sandager said. “Overall I think I have grown quite a bit. The things they have you do, looking at yourself and the different measurements and testing you go through cause you to reflect, and it helps you to improve. It’s been challenging and at times it’s not fun, but I definitely recommend this program to anyone who wants to improve their leadership skills and knowledge base.”

Rochelle Krusemark farms in Trimont with her husband, and they raise corn and soybeans, and contract-finish hogs. Their sons remain involved in farming despite one being a full-time college student and the other pursuing his career as an aerospace engineer.

She found the trip to Morocco to be everything it was advertised as an eye-opening experience of a very different culture and its agriculture industries.

“We saw both sides,” said Krusemark. “We saw the small farmer that brings his produce by donkey and markets it in the open markets in the city, and then there is the other scale where we visited farmers with thousands of acres of peaches, olives, almonds, pears, oranges and lemons. We visited a huge cooler warehouse –an individual farmer had this set up so he could box his produce for shipping.”

Kirby Hettver, 37, is a farmer and ag equipment/seed entrepreneur.

In addition to farming corn, soybeans, alfalfa and small grains with his father and two brothers, Kirby sells after-market planter parts to improve performance, and equipment to manage dust at grain storage facilities, as well as selling seed corn and soybeans.

“The value of this Morocco trip to me was the appreciation of what we have,” said Hettver who represents, with his two brothers, the fifth generation of his family to farm on their land in Montevideo. Hettver said, “The vast contrast between the micro small farms and the large ones in Morocco–it was hard to find average size farms like ours. There were so many obvious differences, from the services available to farmers there, to the social fabric of their society. I came back thankful for what we have in the US. Looking at it from a Moroccan’s perspective, the one word I would use to describe their situation is ‘opportunity.’ There are a lot of positive changes going on for them. We visited a dairy coop where they were feeding calves to harvest weight, coordinating that system and making leaps and bounds in improvements to those coop members. Improvements in technology and efficiency are coming. More products are becoming available to Moroccans, products of a higher, more consistent quality for the Moroccan marketplace…I am excited to watch their progress and see where they are ten, 15 years down the line.”

Hettver, who is involved in his local corn and soybeans association in Chippewa County, hopes to go on to involvement with the organization at the state level.

“From a leadership standpoint the international trip was a culmination of what we learned,” said Hettver. “It put us in an atmosphere very unlike the US–The contrast, the perspective, helps mold your thought process, the way you approach different subjects. I think this process has helped me become a better leader.”

Tanner said that observing the changing political landscape in Morocco at firsthand was its own lesson in leadership. She found the briefing with the US Ambassador’s economic adviser and his agriculture advisor to be incredibly interesting.

“In the Arab Spring, Morocco underwent changes last year–not as revolutionary as in some countries, but still major changes,” Tanner reported. “The constitution was amended this past summer, and one of the most important changes was that the legislature now must have a certain number of women, a certain number of youths represented in Congress. An election was held in November…the new constitution set a minimum of 60 women members and 66 women were elected to parliament–that shows that the changes there are not just superficial. And while we were there, there was a lot going on at the Moroccan embassy. That afternoon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came into town as part of an international relations event.”

It was also another sign of how deeply the world has changed in the past decade. Clinton attended a groundbreaking for new embassy building in Rabat. It has been completely redesigned and upgraded as part of the continuing security overalls that came in the wake of 9/11 and US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The final meeting in Chaska was a chance for all the MARL leaders to look back and take stock. Krusemark has noticed how her approach to leadership has changed in the past year and a half.

“I really appreciate MCGA’s support of the MARL program,” said Krusemark. “Until you participate in it, you don’t realize the benefits. My husband says he can see the change in me–personally, I have become more discerning. Many of us that are leaders tend to be analytical, and often we see things in a black and white way. I am a former educator. I was in special education, so I appreciate diversity, and I always have, but being among the MARL leaders, which is such a diverse group, I appreciate diversity even more. Everyone has something different to offer, brings up things you never would have thought of. Another side benefit that I have loved is that we get to talk specifically about ag production when we get together. What’s working and what isn’t on our own farms, whether it’s the sprayer nozzles we just started using or tile drainage set up we have.”

Sandager said it was fascinating to see in Morocco an extremely different culture and geography and yet to see past those differences to commonalities between the two countries’ agriculture systems.

“At the most basic level, they face are the same issues we do,” said Sandager. “They need to find markets for their production. They’re trying to get the most money for their buck. Water is a big issue. A couple of farms we visited were converting to drip irrigation, which is much more efficient because less water is lost in evaporation. The thing is, because the government is subsidizing the change, everyone is going that way, and that’s led to an overall increase in water use–and that’s a scarce resource for them.”

Sandager also enjoyed learning about one of Morocco’s major industries–it’s second in the world in olive oil production. Sandager enjoyed learning about how the national school of agriculture collaborates with private industry to solve problems and continue to strengthen the quality of production, the consistency of the product and the Morocco’s position in the world market.

“We did some learning before the trip in Windom about different cultures, trying to recognize the differences and yet still being able to work together,” said Sandager. “You are forced to adapt or get left behind. You realize that people are different from you and you respect that and try to understand that, understand where they are coming from when they talk about an issue.”

Sandager, whose uncle Gene “Pucky” Sandager, is a past president of MCGA, looks forward to participating in the state level of farm organizations.

“I want to get involved in voicing the issues and having an impact on the things that are affecting agriculture and our way of life,” Sandager said.

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