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T.J. Menn has managed to do something no Illinois farm boy has ever done before. He's turned agriculture into a Facebook trend among students at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Boston.
"Farm Trek has been the talk of the school. I'm still being asked how it went. And every day I see Facebook profile pictures changing to someone holding a duck, or bottle feeding a calf. It's like the farm has come to Harvard," said Menn.
Last month, the 32-year-old West Point graduate who grew up in Carthage, reached out through the DTN/TheProgressiveFarmer news site to ask for support for a tour he planned to take over spring break. The tour, Farm Trek 2015, was Menn's way of sharing a Midwestern view of agriculture with people from around the world who had not experienced much beyond the two coasts of America.
The response was something Menn described as "incredible". The cost of the entire tour, for 23 participants, was paid through donations. Host families for the students exceeded the need. And the weather, not always kind mid-March in the Midwest, was unusually beautiful. Menn reports 78 degrees and sunny, saying the trip added up to "the most blessings I've ever received in a one week period. I just have to say, God's blessings rained down on this trip."
A student at the Kennedy School himself, Menn had grown frustrated hearing professors state that American farmers were subsidized by the government to do nothing. That philosophy, he said, was the extent to which he felt agricultural policy was being represented at the University. He wanted something more for fellow students.
Ultimately Menn hoped for a way to help his fellow students understand the nuances of the farm bill, to learn firsthand about GMOs and to get a feel for rural America. He felt if these students could take a positive experience back with them to refer to in their own lives and their future careers, it might make a difference for the future.
The discussion on the farm bill was led by Illinois Farm Bureau policy experts Doug Yoder and Adam Neilsen. The two met with the group, explaining both farm legislation and its implementation. Menn said the students brought a lot of difficult questions, and tested some assumptions, during the farm bill discussion. The same was true of topics like GMOs and estate taxes.
"What I saw were intelligent, engaged people who were willing to challenge some of our assumptions in agriculture, and that was good. I also saw a willingness to learn new things," said Menn.
"One student came to me and said 'T.J., help me understand. All I've heard are that GMOs are bad for you, and they ruin the environment. But today I'm hearing they are good for the environment, they aren't dangerous and they help farmers. So are GMOs good?'"
Exposure to new things, noted Menn, can do a lot to change stereotypes. Not only was that true of GMOs, for example, but it applied to other activities on the tour including shooting a variety of firearms, riding four-wheelers, splitting wood, driving tractors and taking part in day-to-day farm chores.