A recent class of MARL participants visited an ethanol plant. During their 18 months in MARL, participants hone their leadership skills by learning how a variety of businesses operate.PHOTO SUBMITTED
A recent class of MARL participants visited an ethanol plant. During their 18 months in MARL, participants hone their leadership skills by learning how a variety of businesses operate.
MARSHALL, Minn. - Olga Reuvekamp, a dairy farmer from Elkton, S.D., has been selected to serve as the executive director of Minnesota Ag and Rural Leadership (MARL). She took over the post on April 14.
Reuvekamp and her husband, Wilfried, milk 2,000 head and raise all their own replacement heifers. The Reuvekamps have three children - Els, 17, Thijs, 16 and Wim, 13.
The MARL program, which started in 2000, provides an 18-month leadership course for farmers and agribusiness people. Participants in MARL attend nine three-day in-state seminars, a six-day national study seminar and a 10- to 14-day international study seminar.
"This position is a great opportunity," Reuvekamp said, who graduated from the South Dakota Ag and Rural Leadership program three years ago and served as its program director. "I am really excited about the future of the MARL program."
Reuvekamp and her husband are natives of the Netherlands.
"We moved to the United States nine years ago," Reuvekamp said. "We wanted to grow our dairy operation, but that would have been extremely difficult in the Netherlands. It's very competitive there. Everyone wants to expand in order to bring in the next generation. And the Netherlands is densely populated, which makes it even harder to find farmland."
While Reuvekamp grew up in a rural setting, her parents didn't farm. She was working as an elementary school teacher when she first met her future husband.
"Wilfried began his own dairy operation when he was 18," Reuvekamp said. "We started milking with robots 17 years ago. When we left the Netherlands, we were milking 170 cows with three robots."
Coming to America meant facing numerous challenges, including language difficulties.
"All Dutch schoolchildren are taught English, so I knew how to speak, read and write English," Reuvekamp said. "Even so, there are some big differences in the way people talk. I am constantly working on my pronunciation and am trying my best to assimilate the Midwestern accent. It seemed like our kids absorbed the Midwestern dialect instantly. They have been a big help."
Before she participated in SDARL, Reuvekamp was part of the Midwest Dairy Association's Speak Out Program.
"I saw the speak out program as a way to learn more about our new country and make it our home," she said. "Wilfried and I want to experience everything, so I was quite interested when a friend who is an alumni of SDARL recommended the program to me."
Reuvekamp learned that the ag rural leadership program application process is quite involved.
"The selection process is like applying for a job," she said. "You have to fill out a résumé, furnish references and write an essay. That is followed by an interview by the board of directors."
While the application process may have been challenging, Reuvekamp found that participating in the program was deeply rewarding.
"I met many people whom I would not have met otherwise," she said. "We discussed numerous topics and learned a lot about each other. We learned that other people may have differing points of view about things, but that you have to be respectful of their positions. I love conversation and working with people. I need more than just cows and corn."
About 30 people are selected for each MARL class.
"We are looking for men and women aged 25-55 who want to develop their leadership skills," Reuvekamp said. "We want diversity, both geographically and by the type of operation they have. MARL graduates include dairy farmers, sheep farmers, organic operators, Christmas tree farmers, sugar beet growers and maple syrup producers. I would love to develop the program and increase its diversity even further. For example, I would like to include more minority groups such as Latino and Hmong. The more diversity we have, the more we are able to learn from each other."
Reuvekamp is working out of the MARL office on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minn. Over the past few months, she has educated herself about Minnesota's incredibly diverse agricultural economy.
"In addition to being the nation's eighth largest dairy state, Minnesota is the nation's top sugar beet producer," she said. "And some of the nation's largest food companies, such as General Mills and Land O' Lakes, are headquartered right here in Minnesota. This presents some exciting opportunities for growth in the ag economy, along with a growing need for ag leaders."
Participants in MARL must pay tuition fees which cover only about 25 percent of the program's cost.
"The rest of the funds must come from donors who see the value in developing the ag leaders of tomorrow," Reuvekamp said. "Chief among my goals is cultivating more and deeper connections with the business community. My hope is to keep the tuition affordable. I want to increase opportunities for more people to participate in MARL and not limit the program to just the wealthy."
The MARL program currently has 210 alumni. Included in this group are state legislators and business leaders. Reuvekamp wants to add to this record of success.
"We know that the program works. Many of our graduates are very active in leadership roles," she said. "I want to help the program benefit more communities across the state as we continue to develop the voice of agriculture.
"I want to build on the legacy of this program. My hope is to make MARL the Cadillac of the nation's rural leadership programs."
To learn more about the MARL Program, visit www.MARLprogram.org.