By Julie Tomascik
Associate Editor

Continuous learning. Engaging activities. New relationships.

It’s part of the Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) FarmLead V experience—an enhanced understanding of agriculture for more established producers and county leaders.

And 12 Texas farmers and ranchers took to America’s Heartland through the program in mid-September to expand their knowledge of agricultural issues, methods and opportunities.

A highlight for many on the trip? Agricultural education.

“We toured the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences,” said Warren Cude, a West Texas rancher. “It was an impressive agricultural education model and facility for urban students right in inner-city Chicago.”

The school boasts a 90 percent graduation rate with a vast majority pursuing higher education routes. That’s compared to a graduation rate of about 50 percent for the Chicago Independent School District, noted TFB Director of Staff-Leader Development Jamie Gipe.

The school raises hay, cattle, chickens, goats and sheep. They even have a farm stand supplied with fruit and vegetables grown on their farm—the last one in Chicago.

“They’ve been able to get kids inspired and enthusiastic about agriculture, which can lead to more positive voices for our industry. That’s what we need—more passionate and educated voices,” Cude, who’s the Pecos-Reeves County Farm Bureau president, said.

The group also visited Fair Oaks Farms, a large family-owned dairy in Indiana. One that implements sustainable and value-added practices.

They transform their farm’s waste into energy, running their entire facility on cow and pig manure.

“They don’t lose anything—all the way down to the manure. Those guys have it figured out,” Steven Hoelscher, a Tom Green County farmer and rancher, said. “If there’s something to be made in farming, they’re doing it. They’ve fully embraced the value-added concept.”

The 32,000-acre farm includes crops, livestock education centers for pork and dairy and a cheese factory. And welcomes the public by busloads daily.

It’s agritourism and agricultural education. The dairy birthing barn and the farrowing barn give visitors a look into modern farming. Interactive exhibits and hands-on learning spark engagement.

“They invite people to visit their farm, to see how clean their operation is and to meet the family behind the business,” Hoelscher said.

It’s proven to be a successful addition to their operation.

The four-day trip also included a stop at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME Group), where traders directly impact the farmers and ranchers who live and breathe those markets.

“FarmLead participants were exposed to the CME Group’s agricultural section and were provided an overview of the Board of Trade, agricultural markets and the events affecting those markets,” said Gipe. “Many different factors go into the pricing of commodities in a world marketplace of which producers have no control.”

Another stop brought them to the DeKalb County Farm Bureau office in Sycamore, Ill.

Rich history and progressive leaders propelled the county Farm Bureau to its current success and large membership of 6,500. For more than a century, the organization has embraced the rural lifestyle and worked on behalf of farmers and ranchers.

The group also talked with Midwest farmers and ranchers, asking questions and learning about their marketing strategies.

Another farm adding value to their products was part of the tour. Located in Chicago’s backyard, one farm family is taking their corn crop to another level with their on-farm distillery.

And a visit to Elburn Co-op showed Texas farmers and ranchers that the Midwest can really grow some grain and soybeans. The Melburn Road location, one of 13 in the area, has a 7.1-million bushel grain storage capacity, along with 5,000 tons of liquid fertilizer storage and 67 gallons of ammonia storage.

The final stop on the tour was the Case IH/New Holland tractor manufacturing facility in Racine, Wis.

“We were able to see the complex details of manufacturing a tractor—from product development to the production line,” Cude said.

But the real value of FarmLead’s Midwest trip came in gaining new perspectives, Gipe said.

Cude and Hoelscher agreed.

“To promote agriculture, we have to be familiar with the different aspects. That’s what this trip gave us, along with closer relationships with each other and with farmers and ranchers in the Midwest,” Cude said.

That’s why Farm Bureau believes programs like FarmLead are so crucial to the organization and to agriculture.

“The different visits gave us a chance to see farms that implemented value-added aspects,” said Hoelscher. “Seeing these operations gave me some ideas to bring back and share with folks in the area.”

Stepping beyond their Texas fence-rows opened up another chapter for these 12 farmers and ranchers. To learn, grow and share their experiences. Further impacting agriculture in the Lone Star State.