Day 1:

The participants of Class XI, together with educator Toby Spanier and Exec. Dir. Olga Brouwer, traveled to Washington, D.C. on Sunday evening, November 14, 2021. An uneventful flight was followed by a shared drive or metro ride to the Phoenix Park Hotel late in the evening. All were ready for a night’s sleep and diving deep into the seminar content on Monday morning. Extension educator Christy Kallevig, who planned most of the seminar, supports the seminar from Minnesota with continued planning and readjusting the seminar to our hosts and speakers. A great start!

Day 2:

MARL class XI hit the ground running in DC today, for our first day in DC! Met with American Farm Bureau Federation and learned a plethora of knowledge about working AG policy and working with ‘the hill’.

Advocacy Training

Tom Donnelly, Director, Grassroots Program Development

Welcome to Washington

Ryan Yates, Managing Director, Public Policy

Policy Briefings

Climate – Andrew Walmsley, Senior Director Congressional Relations

Taxes – Dustin Sherer, Director, Congressional Relations

Trade – Dave Salmonsen, Senior Director, Congressional Relations

Broadband and Infrastructure – Emily Buckman, Director Congressional Relations

Overview of AFBF and Office Tour

Congressional Insights Simulation

The latter was a highly interactive game, facilitated by Thom Donnelly, Director, Grassroots Program Development and colleagues. It simulated the many dilemmas and choices congress members have to navigate. A great way to quickly get a feel of “stepping into the shoes” of our legislators, in an active way. Fun!

We ended the day meeting with Senator Tina Smith, her senior agricultural staff Adam Schiff and others,  and heard about her path to Washington and her leadership style. Senator Smith shared leadership lessons and -experiences, such as: “Lead by Example”, “Have fun”, “be humble”, “admit to making mistakes”, “laugh every day”. The group particularly valued her genuine demeanor, and her priority to listening, as well as her perspective on team culture. We agreed that Sen. Smith truly created a sense of hope.

Deepest thanks to Senator Tina Smith and her staff team, as well as the leaders, facilitators and speakers at American Farm Bureau for a highly educational and inspiring first day in Washington, D.C.!


Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Submitted by Shannon Gegner, Class XI and Olga Brouwer, Exec. Dir. MARL.



Thursday brought our formal individual and class photos – FINALLY! Then we presented our Capstone ideas in a Shark Tank format. Over 25 creative ideas were shared in creative and fun ways! “Mark and Lori” (also known as Toby and Christy) were great hosts!! There was a strong emphasis on ag education, such as turnkey soil fact packs, cart with a farmer (at a grocery store) and raising awareness of ag careers to job seekers and career changers.

We concluded the morning with a tour of the Minnwest Technology Campus and Nova-Tech Engineering. MinnWest Campus has developed 37 buildings on the 110-acre historic site following the closure of the Willmar State Hospital. The Minnwest purpose is “to attract and retain business partners to an innovative, collaborative, and unique environment by providing an excellent customer experience to positively impact economic development in our region.” They’ve done an excellent job of repairing, remodeling and marketing their campus. What started as the home to 12 companies and 125 employees has blossomed to 27 companies and 777 employees. They will work with companies to develop specific space requirements and then lease to them long-term. Win-win for the campus and the company.


Nova-Tech Engineering started our tour with their purpose, core values and pillars of leadership. Their purpose is to create revolutionary solutions that advance our customers ability to feed the world. They truly “walk the talk” in that they don’t start with an established idea and improve upon it, but rather, come up with innovative solutions. That was evident in that they hold 10 US patents. What started as a two person company in 1992 has mushroomed to over 260 professionals. Their equipment can be found in 600 hatcheries in 55 countries around the world. Interesting to note was the value they place on leadership within the company. All employees take the Clifton Strengths based test (their top five strengths are on their name placard) and a leader will discuss it with them. Employees have an advocate that will help them with personal development and growth; opportunities to advance within the company are abundant.

Lunch followed with our peer circles and fellows for most of the groups to evaluate how that process is working. Golden Nuggets and an optional trip to Nada Carter’s farm rounded out the seminar.

Submittted by Nada Carter

Farm photography by Katie Knapp, The Ag Photographer (Class XI)

          After a brief welcome, our seminar in west central Minnesota began with tourism highlights by Kandiyohi County Commissioner, Roger Imdieke (Class V.) We learned that tourism is second only to agriculture in the region. It is fueled by eight state parks that include Glacial Lakes Trail with miles of trails and numerous lakes. Other draws to the area include the New London Spicer High School’s state of the art Performance Arts Center, the Mill Pond Mercantile and assorted boutiques and Prairie Pothole Day, a celebration of outdoor sports in the area.

Our first tour stop was Hemponix, where owner Kevin Ortenblad and daughter, Kara, explained their aeroponic system of growing hemp for seed. Kevin got interested in growing the crop after breaking his back twice and having to be on opioids for the pain. Hemp allowed him to get discontinue the use of the opioids. The father/daughter duo uses clones (cuttings) from only three varieties of mother plants that have passed the stringent tests for desired characteristics. Cuttings are then placed in a coconut planting medium and housed on vertical shelves under LED lights for optimum growth. There is NO soil, therefore, bugs and weeds are non-existent. By controlling the temperature and proper watering, the plants will be ready to harvest in 8-10 weeks. The process can be repeated four to five times per year. This hemp facility is harvesting seeds for the commercial hemp oil industry. Leadership lessons learned at Hemponix included having a strong purpose (the sustainability of people) and continuing education, whether it’s their own trial and error developing their varieties, or educating the public that hemp has amazing medical qualities and it isn’t the same as the “smoking weed and getting high” version. We learned that the main reason that hemp is considered “illegal” is that it was purposely made illegal in 1917 in order to be used in the war effort.

Our next stop was the BNSF railroad where Ben Griffith and Lydia Bjorge shared the very top down leadership structure that is BNSF. The Willmar hub has 450 trainmen, 12 managers and moves 60 trains/day. A strong 50% of the hauls are consumer products and another 13% is ag based such as corn syrup, biodiesel, bulk fertilizer, ethanol etc. While we may think of trucks and pipelines as direct competitors to the railroad, the railroad views both very supportively. They haul pipe and sand for the pipelines and they deliver many goods to customers (the truckers) for final deliveries. Not surprisingly, given their regimented leadership style, one in six of their employees comes from a military background. What was a little surprising was the collaboration with other train companies to most effectively utilize engines.

Louriston Dairy was the last tour stop of the day. We loved their mission of “providing a culture of opportunity for passionate people and innovative ideas. It was easy to see that Riverview practiced their core values of integrity, work ethic, spirit of humility, keep it simple and candor. The owners and managers all pitch in when there are big jobs to do such as supplying teams of people to cover the silage piles. They are intentional about giving back to the community with their Agvocate program which takes high school seniors and allows them the opportunity to educate elementary schoolchildren in the classroom or the public via social media on assorted aspects of agriculture. At the end of the program, Agvocates receive a scholarship toward their post-secondary education. The 9500-cow dairy was silent (a quiet cow is a happy cow) except for the running of necessary machines and there wasn’t a fly to be seen or heard. Amazing animal husbandry.

The first evening brought leadership round tables with the following guests, Representative Dave Baker (Class V); Achieve Results Together owner, Cheryl Glaeser (Class VII); Kandiyohi County Commissioner, Roger Imdieke (Class V); Willmar City Administrator, Leslie Valient and Mike Yost, Yost Farms. Class XI participants were able to bend their ears and ask questions. In addition we heard from Class VII participants regarding their time in Ecuador, which is also Class XI’s destination! So exciting!

Submitted by Nada Carter, Starbuck

This seminar was sponsored by Three Sisters Furnishings, Lucky Duck &  Happy Sol New London, Kandiyohi County Farm Bureau

It is hard to believe that in our roughly 26 hours our MARL class went from acquaintances to peers and friends. We shared stories, a joke or two and many laughs all while learning more about how our communities function. One thing that is apparent is that in order for any community to function it takes leaders. Leaders who can organize, leaders who can manage projects, leaders who are good at outreach, and leaders who can teach others to grow.

One important step in creating leaders is identifying, training and targeting individuals who have a desire to be a part of something greater than themselves and develop specific goals and opportunities for those individuals to prosper. Paul Hansen, Leader Development Manager for Land O’ Lakes discussed with our class ways to engage people to become advocates, strategic thinkers, communicators, and collaborators. Land O’ Lakes has a specific program designed to coach and mentor member owners and growers to engage in various leadership roles. The program is designed to help interested individuals start by being engaged as members, then leaders, and help create diversity within their corporate structure.

Our seminar concluded with the discussion and presentation of our capstone project. This project is meant to build on leadership skills that we can target towards a project in an area that is of interest to us. These projects will be presented and shared at our final seminar June 22-23rd 2022.

Steven Marsh, current MARL class member invited the group to his family farm in Gonvick, MN where they grow wild rice and soybeans. The majority of the class was able to stop by and tour the farm and experience wild rice in Minnesota.

Submitted by Brittany Ullrich

Day 2 started off with breakfast conversations, networking and of course caffeine. We dove into demographics with guest speakers Susan Brower and Brigid Tuck.

Susan Brower, Minnesota State Demographer walked us through data that is collected and analyzed to project future MN population, demographics, and also how these demographics can shape and change how our state funds and promotes different investments and projects. For example, the 2020 preliminary census data revealed that we are going into a phase in Minnesota where our population shifts from being more younger adults, to more older adults and compared to school age children. This has the potential to impact where local and MN government funding dollars will shifted. As our older generation grows, there is more budget pressure for public programs like healthcare and long term care facilities. The younger generation typically is the most expensive demographic with school, community ed, and program funding.

Brigid Tuck, Senior Economic Impact Analyst followed our discussion around demographics and presented our group with some of the economic impacts that COVID has presented within our state and our country. We took a trip down memory lane and reviewed how GDP was calculated (Capital + Government + Investment + Net Exports). Brigid explained as we moved through the pandemic, stimulus checks, unemployment and the chaos our nation was in there were huge shifts in savings vs. consumption which had a direct effect to our GDP. Durable goods like snowmobiles, boats etc.. had a 20% increase in demand, and non durable goods like groceries and gas had a huge spike in consumption and then dropped off. These extreme fluctuations in our economy created supply and demand issues that can take business years to pivot to accommodate their consumer needs. It also is an uncertain time to build or expand businesses because the ability to predict what consumers will be doing in 6 months – 3 years is so variable.

Our final speaker of the day came from Digi-Key, the largest company by far in Thief River Falls. With 4,000 employees, shipping to 180 countries and 20,000 order per day worldwide DigiKey is a well oiled machine. Their passion and dedication to their employees and their loyalty to their company is one of the things that makes Digi-Key so successful.

In talking with our group, the highlight of our second day was doing site visits with local businesses and farms in Thief River Falls. Our first stop was a newly opened rural boutique called Black Barn. Founded by Brenda and John Hamre they took a dream and made it into a reality offering a slice of rural peace along with a unique shopping experience for residents of Thief River Falls and tourists passing through. It was very apparent the pride, passion and dedication this family had of their newly opened business. We spent time visiting and all had the opportunity to tour and shop before we headed out to our next visit.

Our second stop was River Falls Ranch hosted by Neil and Nichole Peterson. This small family owned farm has capitalized selling fruit and vegetables through their local farmers market, and CSA members. As their business grew, they transitioned away from cattle and focused on building windrows, enhancing their fruit and vegetables offered as well as canned goods. You can find River Falls Ranch at the local farmers market, and also can grab pumpkins in the fall on their large trailer in town. Again, another very passionate and dedicated couple working towards their dream.

Our third and final stop was at Trinity Creek Ranch. Mikayla and Benjamin Tabert along with David Miller walked us through their unique farming operation that consisted of cattle, small grains, corn and soybeans. They also sell seed and market their cattle to local buyers and shared all kinds of ideas on how they are continually looking for new ways to maintain and build soil health and find new opportunities for revenue. We got the opportunity to go walk through their Peaola field (Canola and Peas seeded together) as well as a sunflower field. Hearing the passion and excitement as Mikayla talked about their operation and her openness to sharing their story and involvement in the community as well as their willingness to try and experiment almost anything was intriguing! The Tabert and Miller family was kind enough to host our team for dinner where we were met with several MARL alumni, and family members of our group.

Submitted by Brittany Ullrich

Including Photography by Katie Knapp, The Ag Photographer