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.

Pineapples, Plantains

The class enjoyed breakfast at the Sisakuna Lodge in Mindo, and departed for a 2.5 hour bus ride to the San Fransisco Farm (a medium sized operation) to learn about the production of pineapples. They operate 750 hectors of land of which 210 are pineapple and they also have cattle, cocoa and reforest some of their land.

The tour began at the plant where we watched employees unload trailers of the fruit. Each trailer transports 2,000 (1 MT) pineapples and the front line employees are responsible for checking the quality of the fruit and load on the belt to be disinfected. Any ripe produce that can’t be exported is sold to local markets. At San Fransisco Farm their main clients include France, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.  France is a newer client for them and they ship 2 containers a week with plans to increase to 4 containers.

Following the disinfection process the pineapple is sealed in an organic wax. They randomly select fruit to send to the lab to do quality control where they test the water, acidity and brix for sugar content before they ship the containers. The pineapples then move to the cold room to reduce the temp (7 degrees Celsius). The cold room helps kill any potential fungal infections.  Each week they completely empty and disinfect the cold rooms to prevent mushrooms.

Before any containers are sent to Chile workers are required to inspect every pineapple to look for snails. If just one snail is found they will reject the container, get a fine, lose their fruit and potentially lose their permit to ship to Chile.

Next the class moved out to the fields to better understand the growing process. All pineapple crops are planted and harvested by hand. The class learned about the sampling process and field production utilizing pesticides. The apply pesticides using a drone. The class learned about the growing process which entailed harvest 14 months from planting to first harvest. After the first harvest, they keep 40% of the mother plants which can produce two pineapples in the next harvest.

Emilio our farm tour host shared his leadership experience and that he has over 13 years experience in pineapple production and is one of the youngest technicians in the field. When asked what his biggest management challenge was he describe the trouble with change as a result of new practices.When asked what the best thing about growing pineapples he shared that he grew up surrounded by pineapples and likes the challenges of the plant. He attended school to focus on pineapple management and said it’s in his nature and he cannot be out of the fields.

Following the tour the class had the opportunity to harvest a pineapple from the field and Emilio sliced up what Class XI agreed was the freshest pineapple any of us have ever enjoyed.

After the Pineapple farm tour the class headed out to enjoy a traditional Ecuadorian lunch at a nearby restaurant.

Next, we headed to a plantain farm in El Carmen which is the largest producer of plantains in South America and visited Corpicupal. The plantains produced here make plantain chips, cakes and flour. This operation also has beef cattle.

We learned that plantains are produced all year long. There are specific size requirements as well for exports the plantain needs to have a diameter of 52mm and be 9-12 inches long. They discussed the various box and container sizes used at the facility. Depending on where the fruit is shipped, there are different weight requirements. The longer the plantain has to travel the less they pack into the boxes in the container to allow for more air. After boxing the pallet goes into cold room so it doesn’t turn black.

Some of the of the challenges they have with plantains are small beetles, so they treat the fruit with a solution that kills the insects. To ensure quality, they randomly select boxes to inspect for the insects. Another challenge they described is drug dealers that try to bribe staff and managers to smuggle drugs in the plantain boxes. They shared they had someone stop the previous day offering $10k to place drugs in a box. This is why they have strict requirements about who they let into the facility and the names of any visitors is controlled by the government.

Many plantain producers are part of the National Federation of Plantain Growers. The class had the opportunity to meet with the former president of the federation. The federation has worked with the government to help provide funding for the plantain facilities and helped provide connections with USDA for certifications and helped with GMPs. The government helped with building of roads for the farmers and put in safety technologies in place on the road as well. The federation has also worked to cut out the middle man, so essentially the farmers are directly exporting their own products and are helping in the factory to clean and maintain their own products to be exported.

As we headed into the field the class learned that the region and production of plantains uses a low level of technology and it’s a very manual process. All farmers harvest every week. And depending on the location the product is being exported, it changes the amount of time to harvest. For example, to Chile they want a plantain that was harvested between 9-10 weeks as they like a sweet fruit. While Ecuador prefers a saltier fruit. And for Europe and Japan it’s harvested between 7-8 weeks.

We learned that it’s actually a plant and not a tree. Once they bloom they cover with plastic bags and the color of bag and ribbons are a coding system for them to measure the time until harvest. The plastic bags serve as a micro climate that speeds up the process of growing and helps produce more sugars and also acts as a mosquito net. They find the quality has been much higher when wrapped vs when it isn’t. They use different plastic bags in dry and wet season. Workers use a ladder to put he bags on and on a typical day they wrap 300-500 a day. To better understand how difficult this work is, Dylan, one of the MARL classmates had the opportunity to try to wrap plantains with a plastic bag and quickly learned it’s not an easy task.

Both farms brought new perspectives to the class, as they have never had the opportunity to immerse themselves into these two fruit operations. It was an amazing experience to compare and contrast the products that we grow in Minnesota.

Fun Fact:

-Ecuador produces 60% of the worlds pineapples.

Submitted by Seminar Management Team Red: Kaelyn Rahe, Brad Schloesser, Jana Stangler

Day 7 – from Tree to Bar

Ecuador’s great variety of geographies allowed the group to stay in a true cloud forest, in the small community of Mindo. Day 7 started with a mid-point reflective session with the entire cohort at the hotel. Participants shared and discussed their personal reflections on the journey. The transformative impact of the trip quickly became apparent. To conclude the session, gratitude was shared with those at home, who allowed us to have the experience.

After this leadership session, a quick 2-block walk took the group to a local artisan chocolate factory: Yumbos Chocolate. An excursion of the garden with cocoa trees, processing of the cocoa, and a 101-class in different types of chocolate, helped to understand the Tree to Bar process. One of the tastiest tours this week.

The itinerary included an afternoon “on your own”. The cloud forest village proofed not to be a bad location for that, despite the pouring rain. A wide range of activities was offered, from hikes to zip-lining, rafting, canyoning, bird- and butterfly watching, and more. Although at their own expense, nobody hesitated to take this special opportunity to have some fun together. And in some cases, get far outside their comfort zone. Class XI is not afraid of some adventure!

I myself joined a group for a cable car/cloud forest hike. Although soaking wet, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing huge centipedes, toucans, and impressive scenery, under guidance of our Apprentice-guide Mateo. Added benefit: the driver of the pickup truck who got us to our destination, shared photos about his fishing hobby. His favorite fish is found in a local river, and called lisa. I’ve been told lisa are full of bones, and has little meat. We did not try.

Grateful for an active, reflective day with an adventurous bunch.

Submitted by Olga Brouwer, Executive Director MARL