30 rural leaders graduate

By Janet Kubat Willette

Colleagues prodded Tom Roach to apply for the MARL program, and he's glad they did.

Roach was one of 30 members of the charter class of the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program to graduate last week.

Minnesota Pork Producers Association member encouraged him to apply, offering to pick up the $2,000 fee. After talking with his family, he decided to give it a shot.


Roach farms in partnership with his wife's parents, Tom and Linda Sammon, near Faribault. They milk 80 Holsteins, market 6,500 finished hogs annually and raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa on 1,500 acres. Tom's wife, Lisa, works off the farm.

Roach is relatively new to farming, forming a partnership with his in-laws six years ago. Prior to that, he worked in the housing industry for 12 years.

MARL offers a broad-based curriculum that helps participants understand the differences and similarities between regions, he said. Each monthly meeting was held in a different part of the state.

That was intentional, said program executive director Tim Alcorn.

"The challenges and activities in Rochester are much different than challenges and activities in Chisholm or Duluth," he said.

Participants met with businesspeople at each location. In Bemidji, they learned about logging. In Duluth, they learned about the mining authority and shipping on the St. Lawrence Seaway. They visited with people from Schwan's, ValAdCo and Golden Oval Eggs during other sessions.

Experiencing history

Roach, Mark Beedy and Nancy Bitterman will also long remember their trip to Argentina and Chile.


"We were down there experiencing history," Beedy said.

The grain exchange was closed and there was 20 percent unemployment, yet people were going about their day-to-day business, he said.

"They basically have no economy," Roach said. When they arrived the Argentine peso was valued at 2 to $1 American dollar. By the time they left, it was valued at 3.2 to 1.

Citizens have no faith that their government will help them or the economy, he said. The government is corrupt, citizens say, with tax money going to bureaucrats who spend it on themselves.

The trip made him appreciate the U.S. form of government.

"We have checks and balances to make sure the vast majority of money goes back into social welfare," he said, be it transportation, agricultural programs or security.

The similarities between the Argentine and Minnesota landscape were striking, the three said.

There were soybean fields as far as the eye could see, Bitterman said, and farmers there face many of the same struggles as their American counterparts.


"Their young people are leaving, too," Bitterman said.

In Chile, the group saw poverty. It is a mountainous country home to vineyards and fruit and vegetable ranches, Roach said.

The division between wealthy and poor is striking, he said. Property owners live in nice houses on top of hills, while workers live below them in houses that are nothing more than four walls to separate them from their neighbors.

For Roach, it was a call to be vigilant. The Argentine economy fell apart in a little more than a decade, he said. That could happen in the United States if leaders lack foresight.

All three would partake in the program again.

"I'd encourage everyone I know to apply …; it's a time commitment, but it's worth it," Bitterman said.

The most valuable thing they will take with them is the contacts they've made with other young leaders from throughout the state.

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