By Beth Blevins

The American Farm Bureau Federation chose Mi Familia, My Family, as the theme for the annual convention 2023 held in San Juan, Puerto Rico in January. The closeness, cooperation and caring the image of family evokes was underscored by the strong theme of resiliency and hope.

Isabella Chism and Lorenda Overman were re-elected as Chair and Vice Chair of the Women’s Committee. Shawn Wood was also re-elected as the Western Region representative. The Ronald McDonald House project for San Juan was to provide toiletry kits for families staying at the house, caring for those who may not have had much time to pack or prepare to stay at the house. The Montana Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee (WLC) donated 4 men’s kits, 4 women’s kits and 1 baby kit, as well as 9 microfiber quick-dry towels.

The Montana dinner was held on the patio by the pools at the Royal Sonesta hotel where the Montana contingent was housed. The rain came down but the upper deck covered the eating area and a few Wyoming members joined the Montana group for an enjoyable evening. Sunrise service in the Coca-Cola music hall featured Zippy Duvall praying while a local Methodist pastor, their musicians and choir provided music. The new Executive Vice President of the American Farm Bureau, Joby Young, provided the message and Isabella Chism prayed as well. Being God-centered is the source of our hope and ability to persevere. 

The Ag Book of the Year, introduced at the Flapjack Breakfast, is “I LOVE Strawberries," written by Shannon Anderson, an Indiana native and Indiana School Teacher of the Year. Her book also received the Top Rated 2022 Picture Book by Good Housekeeping magazine. She is a great friend of agriculture. On the Farm STEM was also introduced at the breakfast and is a very exciting training for teachers as an immersive experience on the farm to further agriculture in the classroom as relates to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum. 

The mid-general session for the convention featured Big Kenny Alphin, the Big part of Big and Rich of country music fame. His path to stardom was convoluted at best, but he gave as he was able along the way, including buying girls in the Middle East out of slavery and providing a school for them and funding the backpack food program started by his fifth-grade teacher. Kenny’s passion is that no child goes to bed hungry. His children are the 11th generation on the family farm in western Virginia. Lord Halifax granted his family 550 acres in 1664. They have grown various crops and the latest endeavor is being a wedding venue, with more than 20 weddings taking place there last year. His message was to be resilient, hopeful, creative and above all, to have faith. The song Tim McGraw made famous “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” was written by Kenny when he was down to his last dollar in Las Vegas and wrote that song in 30 minutes. Alphin's Love Everybody Foundation continues to give to humanitarian causes. 

Joby Young interviewed The Honorable Jennifer Gonzalez-Colon, Puerto Rico’s Congressional Representative, able to participate in the House of Representatives, but not able to introduce bills. Agriculture is on the rise in Puerto Rico, despite hurricanes and shipping expenses, with coffee, tropical fruits and sugar cane in the form of rum making up the majority of products. Puerto Rico’s governor and Hector Cordero, President of Puerto Rico’s Farm Bureau also spoke. 

The legal arm of AFBF is challenging California’s Prop 12 legislation regulating animal housing in a way not conducive to good agricultural practices. The case is in the Supreme Court. The Biden administration has filed an amicus brief since Prop 12 violates free interstate commerce by trying to regulate what animals can enter the state. AFBF awaits the court’s decision.

Even the Farm Dog of the Year was an inspiration. Tough, a 14 year old Border Collie from Kansas, had worked well on the farm and even successfully competed in trials, was paralyzed for a week in an accident when she was 7. She recovered from the injury enough for on-the-farm work but was no longer competitive in trials. Montana’s Fez, owned by MFBF member Alexa Coniglione, won the Western region runner-up spot.

The Pasture Animals and Rum Tour was fantastic. Finca Pastoreo is run by a poet and musician. The chicks are Cornish cross broilers imported from Pennsylvania and the layers are red-laying brown eggs. The cattle are eared cattle to handle the heat and insects and piglets are imported, Landrace cross for long sides for bacon. The sheep are haired sheep, Caribbean breeding. The cattle graze and are fed some distiller's grains, then the chickens in movable houses graze after the cattle and scatter the feces which fertilize the ground. The pigs and sheep are similarly grazed. A lunch of pollo con arroz (chicken and rice), pork, salad and flan while being serenaded by the man in charge completed that portion of the tour. At the rum distillery Tres Clavos (Three Spikes) the owner had been big in construction until the crash of 2008. Too young to retire, he reinvented himself into the distillery business, with 25 acres of sugar cane plants, a distillation facility from Tobago and distillation vats from Cognac and Champagne, France. Before hurricane Fiona, there was more acreage. The name came from the three railroad spikes found on the property, a reminder of the days when thousands of acres of sugarcane grew and a railroad to transport it encircled the island. The Purple Princess variety of sugarcane is his principal variety, as when a hurricane topples it, it will grow along the ground 8’ and then up another 8’ so the crop is doubled. The rum tasting was a treat, with rum punch, aged rum and rums flavored with local fruits. He employed 25 people before Covid, and now he employs 3 and can’t find more people to work, so he purchased an 80’s vintage sugarcane harvester from Louisiana to help with the lack of manpower. The owner of Tres Clavos was inspired by his ability to change, adapt and be resilient.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke during the closing session of wanting to build hope and resilience into agriculturists today. More programs to help are being announced, as is another round of CFAP. Most importantly, the message is to think creatively and work toward value-added agriculture. Despite record-high grain prices, over half of the farms and ranches needed off-the-farm income to survive. The value of livestock is expected to go up and stay high longer as the drought has shrunk the American herd. The end of the drought is needed to make that happen.

The closing session speaker was Bert Jacobs, of “Life is Good”. In the 25 years since Bert and his brother John started selling T-shirts on the streets of Boston, they have grown the company from $78 to $150 million+. Their self-proclaimed mission is to spread the power of optimism. He describes himself as the Chief Executive Optimist. Ten percent of the profits go to the Life is Good Kids Foundation, helping over 1 million kids a year to combat the effects of poverty, violence and illness. Their story inspires with an attitude of realistic optimism, finding the bright side of every challenge and setback. Life may not be easy or comfortable, but life is good and making life better for those around us is what brings us to a fuller life for ourselves, the servant leadership of Jesus.

Once again, AFBF annual convention inspires and does not disappoint! Our job is to continue looking up, struggling, achieving, overcoming in the year ahead, and coming alongside as a helper to those who strive with us.