We journeyed north out of Oklahoma City for Day 4. We started at Collier’s Custom Leatherworks in Ed-mond, OK. Bret is a third generation leather worker. His grandfather handed down the tools to his father and now he has them. He makes a relatively small variety of products, which was a suggestion for anyone wishing to start out. Find something you like to do; go to some classes and watch those that are really good at it and then pick a niche for yourself. His niche is mostly gun holsters and he markets them through a number of shows a year. He also makes check book covers and Bible covers (which he can make to order!) Nada is looking into that for adding a brand to her Bible cover; she’s pretty excited about the possibility! Bret demonstrated how to cut leather strips for belts and showed us how a number of his tools work. He also explained that leather hide is often split into several layers; the top of which is smooth. The remainder of the layers are the underside of the hide—which makes suede! Learned something we’d always wondered about! When wanting to “shape” leather, Bret will oil it and then clamp it for awhile to sort of “mold it” into a new shape. One of Bret’s specialties is a full leather notebook cover. He can usually get a dozen or so out of one hide.

Following our time with Bret, we ventured to Guthrie, OK where we met Edmond Bonjour, Director of the Oklahoma Ag Leadership Program. Edmond met us at WanderFolks Spirits, a distillery specializing in gin, whiskey, vodka and liqueur. Did you know that all bourbons are whiskey—but not all whiskeys are bourbon?? We didn’t! WanderFolks gets its name from all the folks that have “wandered in” from other ag industries. Distillery manager, Daryl Vencl, formerly with Winfield United, currently oversees a small staff that does small batch distilling using mostly corn, wheat, rye and barley. They currently have three labels that they’re selling under: Garden Club, Same Old Moses and Prairie Wolf. They have used a chef flavor database to help determine some of their botanical ingredients. They must be on the right track since they just re-turned from a major Spirits competition in San Francisco where they medaled with six of their products! Taste testing went very well and a few bottles returned to Minnesota!

Next we ventured to Stillwater where we had lunch and fine conversation with Bill and Shonna Richardson, co-owners of Persimmon Hill Farm and Bakery. We had 27 layer croissants filled with chicken salad that was incredible! Persimmon Hill grows much of their own produce on their farm and then produces end products in their commercial kitchen. They determined that people were not as willing to travel out of town to find their products, so last year they bought a building and are bringing the products into town instead. They are trellising blackberries, growing a number of fruit trees and harvesting honey as well.

Next we traveled to Oklahoma State University’s Food and Agricuture Products Center. There Chuck Willoughby gave us a great tour of the facility. Similar to Minnesota’s Agriculture Utilization and Research Institute, FAAPC helps fledgling ag businesses get a grounded start. They have put on a number of workshops detailing what all is entailed in starting an ag business. From 1500 people they’ve spoken to, approximately 10% have started a business with about a 60% success rate. Given that 50% of conventional start-ups fail in year one and 93% by year two, 60% looks great! When things were slower due to Covid, they got creative and helped back-fill for processors unable to keep up. They also worked with the Department of Corrections to make food that was consistently sized for the inmates so that fights didn’t break out over differences.

They work with companies to develop a business plan, research trademarks, explore good management practices and more. When asked what skills are in most need (other than money), Mr. Willoughby stated that people need tenacity to go the distance and to be open-minded enough to be able change direction quickly.
We rounded out the very busy day with a social with Oklahoma Ag Leaders at a nice Mexican restaurant in Stillwater. It was really nice to be able to connect with other leaders. Kim even got to visit with a previous co-worker! It’s a small world.

Submitted by Nada Carter, Deborah Mills, Kim Neumann

Servant Leadership, Southern hospitality, Farm to Table, Sugar Cane Aphids and other Lingo

Day 3 began by traveling to The Yellow Farmhouse outside Waxahatchie, TX, where we were treated to a fabulous breakfast by John Paul and Heather Dineen. John Paul and Heather run a farm to table operation where they raise beef cattle and process it into retail cuts to sell at their local farmer’s market. They partner with local farmers to also provide farm fresh eggs and milk. They have been instrumental in ag education for a number of years starting with corn mazes, pumpkin patches and hayrides. They grew into milling their own grain into flours and meals and subsequently developed baking and brownie mixes. They were also marketing their own branded beef. Once their daughters graduated, they chose to concentrate on the less labor-intensive beef retailing. They have grown that to sell a number of retail cuts out of their own refrigerated trucks. As a result of a farm accident that took their son’s life, John Paul founded the Texas Agriculture Memorial Foundation that designates a day to honor the lives and sacrifices of famers and ranches in their efforts to raise food and fiber.

We found the Dineens very forward thinking and willing to change/grow/adapt and try new things. They were very servant minded, humble and extremely passionate about their profession as they shared a personal farm tour and their story with us.

Next, we traveled to Sanger, Texas where we met Garrett Spigner, a first-generation row crop farmer who was mentored by Lewis Trietsch. It was inspiring to see the mutual admiration and respect between the younger and older generation. Garrett raises corn, milo and wheat as well as a few beef cattle. It was interesting to note that we grow the same crops but in vastly different conditions. Sugar cane aphids and feral hogs are not in Minnesota vocabulary! Garrett also travels around the state doing custom harvesting of wheat, milo, corn and cotton when his own crops don’t need attention. Engaging conversations were had among all of us throughout the day. We continued our conversation around a mid-afternoon meal at the Trail Dust Steak House in Sanger.

Texas Farm Bureau truly rolled out the red carpet for us with their amazing southern hospitality and generosity. We have gained friendships to last a lifetime. On our return trip to Oklahoma City, we spent time practicing our introductory stories and reflecting on our MARL experiences. We also got to know one another a lot better!

Submitted by Kim Neumann

While grateful that the Ecuador study tour could happen despite the uncertainties due to the pandemic, it did make it impossible for a few to travel along. As leaders do: this small group developed an alternative plan with a domestic destination, with similar goals and leadership competencies. Due to the highly unusual circumstances, the alternative trip was approved and supported by the MARL administration and Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). Read here how a few MARL Class XI participants traveled to Oklahoma City, on this special self-study tour.

Healing by Giving, Food sustainability, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Cowboy and Western community.

The Oklahoma National Memorial and Museum is a living tribute to the those that perished and those that survived or were involved in any way in the collapse of the federal Murrah building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. 168 individuals including 19 children perished in the collapse. Over 200 children lost one parent. Eight families lost more than one family member: truly a tragedy of epic proportions. While the pictures and narratives were difficult to see and hear, the unity that came out of the community, regardless of ethnicity, age or religion was inspiring. They have taken the event and have developed STEM education around engineering with different structures. We released our inner children, engaging in the interactive tables to see whether concrete, steel or wood stand up the best in different natural disasters or explosions. The have developed another lab to learn forensic science and are working on another for environmental sciences. We were also privileged to hear from Derrick Smithy, a survivor of the incident. It took him 10 years to share his powerful story. His greatest take-away; life is more satisfying and healing being a giver; do it early and often.

Our next stop was Commonwealth Urban Farms which gave us an entirely new perspective on farming and agriculture. We met with Lia, co-founder of the organization. Her goal was all about giving anyone who wanted to learn about growing food sustainably, the tools and the knowledge to do it successfully. Much of the produce grown by the farmer partners is shared with the community and most of it for free.  They use composting of area wood chips, waste from local tree farmers, and juice pulp to use as the base for their vegetable and flower beds and as the base to keep seedlings from freezing when the Oklahoma nights get cold. They are doing educational programs twice a month and are implementing “fests” this year to bring more awareness to the community. Average attendance has been good with 40-50 people per educational event. The perspective that was so different is that these urban farmers might have totaled five acres collectively and do everything by hand.

Third stop of the day was the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. We viewed beautiful paintings, sculptures and artifacts reminiscent of the burgeoning west in the late 1800s. Bailee, our knowledgeable guide shared stories of the artists like they were his best friends; truly engaging and entertaining. Impressively, they have adopted the diversity, equity and inclusion movement solidly and had displays of Hispanic cowboys, Black cowboys, Native American cowboys and cowgirls too. They have partnered with a nearby largely African American school to help facilitate more inclusion.

Submitted by Kim Neumann

While grateful that the Ecuador study tour could happen despite the uncertainties due to the pandemic, it did make it impossible for a few to travel along. As leaders do: this small group developed an alternative plan with a domestic destination, with similar goals and leadership competencies. Due to the highly unusual circumstances, the alternative trip was approved and supported by the MARL administration and Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). Read here how a few MARL Class XI participants traveled to Oklahoma City, on this special self-study tour.

Oklahoma – Farm Bureau Foundation, Women in Agriculture, Agritourism

While grateful that the Ecuador study tour could happen despite the uncertainties due to the pandemic, it did make it impossible for a few to travel along. As leaders do: this small group developed an alternative plan with a domestic destination, with similar goals and leadership competencies. Due to the highly unusual circumstances, the alternative trip was approved and supported by the MARL administration and Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). Read here how a few MARL Class XI participants traveled to Oklahoma City, on this special self-study tour.

The group met with Holly Carroll from Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture. It was interesting to learn about their pork for packs program.  One of their goals is to make sure their local food pantry always has a protein source to provide for backpacks for kids that take meals home over the weekends. They do this by partnering with the largest youth livestock show in the world, called the Oklahoma Youth Expo. (This expo has over 15,000 animals registered for the show. Many animals from the show are donated to the project. Animals unable to be processed immediately are held and later sold with the proceeds being donated to help pay for the processing. One local processor donates his work; others are paid. A great example of how to keep meat in front of kids.

Next, we met with Dr. Tammy Gray-Steele, Founder of National Women in Ag Association, and her assistant, Valontay Lindzy. Dr Steele grew up in Oklahoma on a beef farm in eastern Oklahoma. She left for a time to obtain her law degree in New York state, worked there for several years but wanted to return home. When she did, she saw a need to provide ag education for minorities. She is currently working diligently to obtain a federal charter for her organization in order to be funded as a pilot program for minorities in 4-H. She currently has 56 chapters in the US and 10 internationally. Chapters are required to host at least four educational events per year. Dr. Steele herself is providing a community garden where local youth and adults can learn about growing vegetables, flowers  and fruits. She also provides a daycare for 90 community children. The beautifully painted rooms also boast a farm theme. Her goal is to train 12 adults/youth per year to grow their own food. She was a fascinating, articulate and ambitious woman.

Micaela Danker Halverson and Whitney Wilkinson, Agritourism Coordinators with Oklahoma Agritourism took us to the Oklahoma Stockyard to meet Kelli Payne, first female Oklahoma National Stockyard President. Kelli is truly a visionary, often seeing the long -term ramifications of decisions and having to articulate them to stakeholders in whatever position she’s in. Prior to her job at the stockyards, she was in rural economic development. A big leadership take-away dealt with coming into a toxic work environment with many disgruntled workers. She LISTENED, included everyone in the discussions and has been able to turn the environment around. She was very authentic and shared how hard the pandemic was in reference to the isolation and understanding how depression could happen. She had the unique ability to communicate leadership lessons through her storytelling. She has a grand vision for taking an area of the stockyards and making an ag education venue. We also appreciated her willingness to also be open to ideas from us.

Submitted by Kim Neumann

Vanilla, horses, dairy, and final reflections

MARL Class XI started its last morning in Ecuador with COVID-19 testing at the hotel in tropical Santo Domingo dos Colorados, before departing for the nearby Vainuz vanilla farm. A negative result is currently required for returning trips to the U.S.. Fortunately, all received a negative result later that day.

Founder/owner Dr. Eduardo Uzcategui, Ph.D.  has spent time in the U.S. for his doctorate degree in Animal Science, then worked as Dean of the school of agriculture at the University of San Francisco in Quito. Has worked on/owned this vanilla farm for 23 years. The entire operation started with one vanilla plant, now spread throughout 7 greenhouses and 24 employees. They now produce 1 ton of vanilla of a Tahitian variety annually.

We first viewed the pollination greenhouse. Only women work in this greenhouse as it is a tedious task done by hand (small hands work well) and is done daily. Up to 2,500 hand pollinated plants per day per employee. Harvest will take place 9 months after pollination and flowering.

We then viewed a 1,000 sq meter greenhouse which models what one person could take care of on their own. They use this as an educational area to teach people how they could do this at their farm. Vanilla is not commonly grown in Ecuador, and Dr. Uzcategui is passionate about teaching vanilla farming to others.

The last greenhouse we walked through we were shown how the fertilizer is prepared. Dr. Uzcategui also raises quail, and uses their eggshells in the fertilizer. Finally, special vanilla products were offered for sale. The friendly welcome of Dr. Eduardo Uzcategui and his staff will not soon be forgotten.

On our way from the province of Santo Domingo dos Tsachilas to the province of Pichincha for our next tour, we were delayed about 2 hours due to a mud slide that had wiped out part of the E20 highway. We finally arrived at the Hacienda la Alegria in Aloag; a working dairy- and horse farm since 1910. Since 20 years, it has also specialized in tourism. The beautiful historical colonial Spanish style hacienda offers lodging, meals, horseback riding trips in the area, including to the famous Cotopaxi National Park; the volcano in its view. Owner Gabriel Espinosa welcomed us with a warm cooked lunch, and a brief overview of the history of his family dairy farm.

Cows have been milked at Hacienda la Alegria over 90 years. Gabriel is a prominent leader in the dairy industry, but has also broadened his operation to agro-tourism with an emphasis on horseback riding. Hacienda la Alegria owns 90 horses, and is known for its breeding. Approx. 35 animals serve for horseback riding. The dairy cows of the hacienda graze year round. Gabriel shared his desire to become certified organic soon. The farm renews its pastures every 2-5 years. Chicken manure is used in addition as fertilizer.

Espinosa has served as the president of the Ecuadorian cattle- and dairy association, representing 6,000 farmers throughout 6 provinces. The association works with the state to get milk to children in the schools, and promote dairy consumption. Due to the delay caused by the landslide, our visit to the hacienda was cut much shorter than planned. For more info about this agro-tourism destination, we can refer to its website: http://haciendalaalegria.com/web/, or its captivating video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/c2F_gklvstY.

We said our goodbyes and shared our gratitude with Gabriel Espinosa and family, and resumed our travels back to the airport in Quito. An Eco Lodge near the airport provided us with hot showers and a chance to change clothes for the return flight, as well as a place to share final reflections. Educators Toby Spanier and Christy Kallevig facilitated a brief session where we could share stories, and more.

During the farewell dinner, we said goodbye to the beautiful country and people of Ecuador, and thanked our tourguide Ivan, his assistant Mateo, and incredible bus driver Fernando.  We boarded our 11:30pm flight back to the states. Tired, but more importantly grateful for this unique opportunity to expand our horizons as leaders.

Submitted by Seminar Management Team Green: Sarah McConnell, Joel Dorn, Haley Ammann-Ekstrom and Jessica Miller. Edited by Olga Brouwer.