MARSHALL - Nearing the end of a two-year Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership (MARL) program, 30 Minnesota leaders recently received the experience of a lifetime while traveling to Morocco.
"It was an eye-opening experience," MARL executive director Dan Hoffman said.
Partnered with Southwest Minnesota State University, which administers the program, and the University of Minnesota Extension, which develops and coordinates the delivery of the curriculum, MARL has had six classes consisting of approximately 30 participants since it was founded 12 years ago.
Each two-year stint features nine three-day seminars at various locations across Minnesota, held once a month from November to March.
"We meet three days here (in Marshall), three days in St. Paul, three days in Duluth, three days in Moorhead, three days in Windom and three days in Rochester," Hoffman said. "We actually go into the community and immerse ourselves with the local industry, the local people, the local happenings, the local government. That's how we learn."
Jay Fultz, a hog farmer in the Tracy/Walnut Grove area, was a member of Class VI.
"It's a fantastic class," Fultz said. "I definitely got a lot out of it."
Fultz was nominated for the program four years ago, but decided not to do it at the time.
"I didn't have the time or the resources to put into it, but then I got nominated for Class VI," he said. "I hemmed and hawed at it again and decided that no time is really going to be a good time to do it. I knew I had a lot to learn in the ag industry and I wanted to learn better leadership and public speaking skills. My wife (Sheila) was supportive, too. It's been great."
The program also includes a five- to seven-day national study tour, in February of the first year, and a 10- to 14-day international study tour, in February of the second year.
"The students went to Colin Peterson's office and committee meeting room in D.C.," Hoffman said. "They also saw Al Franken. It's pretty impressive. MARL opens doors. It's opportunities."
On the international level, the very first MARL class toured Argentina, while subsequent classes traveled to Mexico/Costa Rica, China, South Africa and Cuba. Class VI toured Morocco.
"We learn about their culture," said Hoffman, who was part of the Class IV group. "We learn about their agriculture. We learn that most people are just trying to make a living, like us."
Hoffman said that once they get past the bureaucracy and the governments, the local people look at them favorably.
"The local people look at us as local people and say, 'wow, we like you,'" he said. "And, we look at them and say 'wow, we like you. We're trying to do what you're doing, to survive and make a living.'"
Fultz also said that Moroccans treated the group well.
"I think the biggest takeaway for me was the people and how friendly they were," Fultz said. "Never once did I feel threatened, and we walked around at night a lot. Every time we met someone, they said thank you and come again."
As far as agriculture is concerned, Fultz said, Morocco has two different worlds going on.
"They have bigger farms that rival us, with equipment that has GPS, and then there's a whole other spectrum," he said. "It's at least 10-to-1, with people using donkeys and single-bottom plow. They grow enough to survive and sell a little bit at the market so they have a little bit of money. It's very much a have and have not."
The government in Morocco, Fultz said, is pushing ag for export.
"They're putting millions of dollars into drip irrigation," Fultz said. "Morocco is a dry country. When you talk to the farmers, they're convinced about global warming because their climate has changed in the last 10 years."
Fultz learned that different cultures in Morocco treat things differently.
"We were in one of the poorest cities, but it was one of the cleanest," he said. "Our guide said it was because of the Berber mentality. Someone in that ethnic group who is in charge of cleaning streets might not be paid for three months. But it's a respect issue."
In some suburbs or other cities, like Casablanca, streets are littered with trash.
"Some of them have a love affair with plastic bags, I think," Fultz said.
As he prepares for graduation with his class on March 23, Fultz reflected on the things he'll take from the program.
"The networking resources alone make it worth the time and tuition you put in," he said. "You have 31 other contacts from all different walks of life, from different parts of the state. If I have a question now, I can call anyone in my class. It's absolutely fantastic."
Fultz said he sees things differently now, having gained a perspective on a national and international level.
"In Morocco, they don't eat pork," Fultz said. "It's a Muslim country. They eat beef, chicken, lamb, squab and camel. I see things from the pork industry and how we're being pushed by non-agriculture groups."
Self-proclaimed animal rights activists and other non-farmer groups have tried to push their agenda, which is to get rid of animal agriculture, which doesn't sit well with livestock producers like Fultz.
"A lot of animal welfare is pushed down the farmers' throats," he said. "There's a lot of misinformation out there. The stuff they're spewing isn't real. I've invited people to come down to our farm and see our farm. Our pigs are being raised humanely."
Nowadays, Fultz said, people aren't as knowledgeable about where their food comes from.
"They think milk comes from a grocery store, along with meat," he said. "They don't know it comes from a farm and what farmers really do."
Applications are currently being sought for Class VII. Nearly 250 nominations have already been received. Applications are available at www.marlprogram.org and should be sent by March 31.