MARL Class X wraps up two-year experience
REGIONAL — Class X of the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program has finished its two-year seminar, and four southwest Minnesota participants are ready to bring their new knowledge back to their communities.
MARL Class X traveled across the state to learn about agriculture in other areas and network with its 30 class members from varying ag backgrounds. They also took a one-week trip to Washington, D.C. to learn about how agriculture interacts with public policy, and a two-week trip to Cambodia and Taiwan for international exposure to the global food supply chain.
Local Class X members include Matt Altman, product manager at JBS Worthington and owner of Five Pine Cattle Co.; Danielle Evers, Southwest Minnesota certification specialist with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program and Pipestone Soil and Water Conservation District; Krista Kopperud, owner of Painted Prairie Vineyard in Currie; and Grant Crawford, bovine nutritionist with Merck Animal Health. The four shared what they learned from their MARL experience and how they will use it in their careers and communities.
Evers described her overall MARL experience as “more than I expected it to be.” She named personal growth as a primary benefit of the program.
“It changed how I look at myself,” she said. “It opened a lot of doors for personal development.” Evers noted that she learned to be more aware of her individual strengths and how she can use them effectively.
In Washington, MARL Class X participants spent 45 minutes with U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-Detroit Lakes, whose district includes Pipestone and Murray counties and part of Cottonwood County. Peterson chairs the House Agriculture Committee. Evers was impressed with the time Peterson took to listen to ag leaders from his state.
The group also visited the International Trade Commission and other groups that help write legislation.
“It was eye-opening to see the (legislative) process at that level,” shared Evers, who became aware of some of the challenges that arise while legislators try to get bills passed on behalf of their constituents.
The international trip was one of the last components of the MARL Class X experience, as the contingent returned to the United States on March 1.
“The trip helped push us outside of our comfort zones,” Evers recalled.
Both Cambodia and Taiwan rely mostly on totally different crops than anything found in southwest Minnesota, she explained. The group toured fields of rice and cassava, a cashew farm and a fruit tree farm of oranges, bananas and coconuts.
Some alterations to the original itinerary became necessary throughout the two-week trip, and Evers said that although that was somewhat stressful, “it helped me look at change positively.”
Overall, Evers said, she has some clear outcomes for her professional life as a result of her participation in the MARL program.
As a water quality specialist, she covers 11 counties, each with unique challenges and assets. Evers said in the future, she plans to use the strengths of each water district within her jurisdiction, rather than outlining the same conservation plan universally.
MARL also helped Evers strengthen her interpersonal skills, making her a clearer communicator and teaching her how to navigate conflict if and when it arises.
“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go through the program,” she concluded.
Kopperud summed up her MARL experience in one word: “incredible.”
The Currie vintner reflected on the last two years with consideration for how she can support others in agriculture both locally and nationally.
In Cambodia, agriculture is a much smaller scale enterprise than in the United States, she explained. Cambodians use less technology and smaller machinery in farming, making the process more labor intensive than mechanized. Kopperud compared Cambodian farming in 2020 to what the United States was doing in the 1950s, in terms of process and yield.
While some might see this disparity as discouraging, she described it as a sign of progress in the face of hardship. Cambodia is a developing country that has experienced political unrest for decades. The fact that farmers were able to develop their industry as much as they have is an encouraging sign, Kopperud said.
She wondered if a key to helping developing countries in agriculture might be sharing knowledge and/or systems that have proven effective in the United States.
When Kopperud began the MARL program, she was working for Murray County Health and Human Services. She now operates Painted Prairie Vineyard with her husband, Andy.
MARL was “the catalyst for going full-time at the vineyard,” Kopperud said. “Being in that program gave me the confidence to say, ‘OK, this is a leap of faith, but I’m going to do it.’”
Kopperud is the only one of the four local MARL Class X members who grows fruit, but she grew up in Heron Lake on a hog, soybean and corn farm.
MARL “reconnected me back to those roots,” she said. “It opened up my eyes to the diversity of agriculture in Minnesota.”
The program also ignited an interest in public policy within Kopperud.
“There was so much energy in D.C.,” she said, adding that she learned what it takes to see movement on a bill and eventually get it passed.
Visiting Washington also gave Kopperud the confidence to speak up about her passion, she said. She is an emphatic advocate for rural broadband, and now has additional skills and knowledge to fight for additional infrastructure.
“The MARL program has had short-term impact,” Kopperud said, “and I continue to see that the confidence and skills will stick with me for a long time.”
Altman said one of the most significant benefits of MARL has been networking opportunities.
“When we first showed up, you really didn’t know what to expect,” he said, admitting that when he first met his talented and driven classmates, he didn’t feel like he belonged in the MARL program.
After a few months, the group relaxed and opened up to each other, Altman said.
“You all of a sudden have 29 new members of your family,” he said.
The class members spent many hours together bouncing around ideas and sharing knowledge, and now have each other as resources for the rest of their lives.
Unlike the other local members of Class X, Altman did not go on the international trip. Cambodia has some positive cases of African Swine Fever, and since Altman works at JBS, he passed on the trip out of an abundance of caution.
Altman’s biggest personal take away from MARL is a passion for community leadership. He has been nominated to serve on the board of the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. (WREDC), and will use his term to consider how to make Worthington the best possible place to live.
“I’m really invigorated and excited,” he said. “To me, Worthington is very unique.”
As MARL took him to all corners of the state, he found that folks from other places know about Worthington.
“It’s not like other communities in rural Minnesota,” he said. “It’s growing and thriving.” Worthington has rare assets, he noted, such as Lake Okabena and numerous parks. However, Altman named the city’s people as Worthington’s best feature.
“It’s such a diverse community that’s so accepting of each other,” he said.
While Worthington is already great, Altman is excited to work with the WREDC to make the town the best it can possibly be.
Altman must have made quite an impression on his classmates and MARL organizers, as he was selected to serve on the MARL Board of Directors as the Class X representative.
“You won’t find a better leadership program,” Altman said of MARL.
He encourages anyone who is interested: “If you’re on the fence, apply.”
“A highlight for me was learning about agriculture and rural communities in the state of Minnesota,” Crawford said.
The Jasper resident in charge of beef cattle nutrition at Merck Animal Health said it was enlightening to visit places within the same state that rely on totally different agricultural foci. For example, the class trip to the Iron Range included visiting iron mines and a forestry plot, as well as a boat tour of Duluth Harbor with information about how harbor commerce impacts the state economy.
Other in-state excursions included a tour of Hormel in Austin, during which the company’s impact on the community and its efforts to retain jobs for local residents was discussed.
Travel through MARL X reinforced for Crawford that “it’s always important to consider other perspectives,” and the trip to Asia brought a few surprises.
In Cambodia, the group witnessed extreme poverty and extreme wealth, without a middle class. In the capital, Phnom Penh, these extremes were intermingled, which Crawford said he wouldn’t have expected.
The developing country structures its economy around foreigners and Americans in particular, he explained. Almost all the locals spoke enough English to communicate, and though Cambodia has its own currency, the U.S. dollar was used just as frequently, if not more.
By contrast, Taipei — other than the street signs being in Chinese — looked like it could be any major U.S. city, Crawford said. Although Taiwan is a first-world country, locals didn’t speak English, and vendors did not accept American currency.
Crawford said exposure to international agriculture made him a more aware and well-rounded leader. The MARL program taught him skills he will carry into his professional and personal life.
“There’s a lot of experiences I won’t ever forget,” he said.
Class X’s MARL graduation was originally scheduled for April 3, but due to coronavirus social distancing measures, the ceremony has been postponed to late June.
Applications for MARL Class XI are open through April 24 and can be found at marlprogram.org/application.