Our time in Austin wrapped up with Class IX coming together as a group to learn more about Croatia, spend time in our coaching groups, and have an open and honest discussion about mental health and resilience in rural America.

Several of the MARL members gave reports about our international destination.  We learned about the labor force and certain regions, even got to taste some Croatian food made by Angela Guentzel.  Pat O’Connor had some interesting news for us regarding a weather event that is unique to Croatia.  I encourage you all to look up a Bura in Croatia.  It is a strong wind system that comes up without warning in the winter months.  Winds can reach 135 mph and last for an hour and then it will be over.  It brings no rain with it, just wind. It could make things interesting.

We also spent an hour Friday morning in our EQ-I coaching groups.  We were tasked to think about and talk through with each other about items, events and occurrences in our lives that we wanted some insight from our coaching group on.  I know my time with my group has been invaluable and I look forward to their words, encouragement, and advice every time.

We finished up our time with Cynthie Christensen, a MARL Alumna who works in Mental Health.  She had an excellent presentation that opened the door to conversation around mental well-being and how folks in rural areas handle depression, stress, and anxiety.  These topics are hard to talk about and it is important that the opportunity is there to have discussions and understand more about what to look for and how to help others.

Seminar 8 in Austin was memorable for many reasons but once again it was our time together as a class, learning and participating with each other, that truly brought us greater understanding about leadership and the worlds we operate in.  Looking forward to Seminar 9 in Perham!

Submitted by Ashley Schmeling

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We started off the morning, dressed in jeans, with a tour of the Hormel Plant.  Jeff Grev, Vice President of Legislative Affairs, and Melissa Rossman, Quality & Process Control Manager, greeted us and provided us with some information about the Hormel Plant.  After frocking up, they then turned us over to our tour guides.  At this facility, they process 19,000 hogs a day and can produce 400 cans of SPAM every minute.  What a busy place, forklifts running everywhere, the processing lines where lined with employees each busily performing their job.  I think we all walked away from the tour with an appreciation for the effort that goes into processing our food.  I definitely came away with a lot more confidence in the quality of the products that Hormel produces at that plant.

After defrocking we made our way to the Hormel Research and Development Facility a few miles away.  Aaron Asmus, Director of Lab Services, Research and Development, gave us an overview of the different products Hormel works with and what they do at this facility.  One of Hormel’s longtime business philosophies is “Originate Don’t Imitate”.  Their research and development continues with that philosophy.  After Aarons presentation, we split into groups and got a tour of their fairly new facility.  This lab does all the testing for Hormel and its products, and even investigates product complaints.

After our tour of the Hormel Research and Development Facility, we made our way back to our hotel for a quick lunch and change of clothes.

We then loaded our bus and headed to the Hormel Institute.  The Hormel Institute was established in 1942 by Jay Hormel in cooperation with the University of Minnesota as a biomedical research center.  Currently the research scientists and collaborators work together in the institute’s state of the art laboratories to accelerate discoveries leading to improved health.  Their research contributes to the development of new prevention and treatment therapies for cancer and other chronic diseases.


After our tour at the Hormel Institute, we loaded the bus and crossed over the Minnesota-Iowa border for a tour of the Absolute Energy Ethanol Plant.  Rick Schwarck and his staff provided us with a lot of information about the ethanol industry and their plant.    After spending a half an hour or so hearing from the staff we toured the plant.  It was eye opening to see how much corn makes its way through the plant each day.


From the Ethanol plant, we went back to Austin and the SPAM Museum.  We were again greeted by Jeff Grev.  Hormel’s Corporate Executive Chef, Ken Alston, prepared several SPAM based hors d’oeuvres for us. For some of our group it was the first time they had tried SPAM.  I found it interesting that the museum was hosting one of their monthly community outreach programs.  Families from the community were invited in to decorate a can of SPAM as a Christmas ornament.  It was a very busy place.   I managed to pick up a few items at the SPAM gift shop for my wife’s birthday.  I hope she likes the earrings.

We ended the evening with a dinner at the Historic Hormel House.   It was interesting looking at some of the history of the Hormel family.  This one family has had a huge, long-lasting impact on the Austin area.  A Mayo Professor of Biophysics, Dr. Zeljko Bajzer joined us for dinner.  Being from Croatia, Dr. Bajzer provided us with a lot of insight about his home country and shared some food choice recommendations for us to consider on our upcoming trip there.


Submitted by Darren Newville


After just three weeks following the Itasca seminar, Class IX was back at it in the town of Austin. This seminar marked the first time the MARL program has visited the southern Minnesota city. Riverland College played host to the group on day one. Following the arrival at the college, the class was set to learn.

The first opportunity came from Extension Regional Educator Beth Kallestad, who joined Eriks Dunens in teaching the group about how strong teams are built. An activity got the creative juices flowing as teams were formed with a simple task: Build the highest structure you can in 15 minutes. The kicker was that you could only use spaghetti noodles, tape, string and a marshmallow. The winning structure came in at 26 and 1/4th inches tall.

Once the excitement of the activity was over, the class settled into learning about Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. The five stages are Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. It was fascinating to learn that even successful teams have issues moving throughout each of the five stages.

The Interim Director of the Center for Agricultural and Food Science Technology at Riverland Community College and former Executive Director of MARL, Dan Hoffman, was kind enough to spend time talking about programs at Riverland. The ag program is very new to Riverland, and exciting things are happening in the department.

Next the group had the pleasure of meeting with Roland Gentzler, treasurer of the Hormel Foundation. Roland highlighted the amazing work the Foundation is doing in the city of Austin. Arguably the most unique aspect of the Foundation’s work is that it is tasked with supporting Austin in its bylaws. As pointed out in conversations, rural communities tend to lose larger companies to bigger metropolitan areas. Hormel is committed to the city of Austin for the long-term.

To get a better sense of what the area has to offer, John Garry, president and CEO of the Development Corp. of Austin joined the class. Although Hormel is the most well-known company in town, other aspects of the city also show great promise. Gary spoke about his personal history of moving away to Minneapolis before returning. What brought him back to Austin was the increasing amount of diversity. With Hormel being an international company, people from all over the world have moved to the region.

Day one was capped off with the seminar banquet. The event was well attended by special guests and MARL alumni, coming as far away as the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area! Following testimonials by current class members, former Congressman and current President and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Tim Penny, keynoted the banquet. Tim spoke about his support for agriculture and rural initiatives while serving in Washington, D.C., and the continuing need today. In additional, he highlighted the different organizations that help keep Minnesota’s rural areas vibrant.

Submitted by Adam Ulbricht