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Ahead of the Curve – A Trip to Growmarks AGM

Ahead of the Curve – A Trip to Growmarks AGM

What does being ahead of the curve really mean? It means not getting stuck doing the same thing year after year. It means changing, adapting and developing to grow within your industry and your life. It means staying one step ahead. This is Growmark’s theme for 2015.

During the January PD meeting, I sat at the board room table listening to Warren Jibb, a FS cooperative member, speak about the opportunities Growmark could offer our members. One of the things that sparked my interest was an opportunity to attend the Growmark AGM in Chicago. It’s not an opportunity I thought I would get being in my last year of Junior Farmers. After winning the 2014 Member of the Year, I was thrilled to find out I would be that member that the board selected to go.

Janice Johnson, the Marketing and Communication Specialist at Growmark Ontario, quickly contacted me to start the planning process. I filled out a few forms so my plane ticket could be booked, and arrangements for my stay could be made. I also learned there would be two other young leaders going from Ontario and leaders representing three states including Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois attending the AGM as well.

A few weeks went by and I received an email letting me know it was Ontario’s turn to do the invocation. I was asked if I would like to write and deliver the invocation at this year’s banquet. I was honoured to be asked, although a little worried about what to write. In the end I decided that I would keep it simple, agriculturally based and incorporate the Junior Farmers Grace into it! Now I just had to get over stage fright and stand before 800 people to say it.

At the end of August I made my way to the Toronto airport to board my plane to Chicago. I also met the 4-H Ambassador Olivia Bolander. I recognized her by her 4-H jacket and introduced myself once we boarded the plane. We had an uneventful flight to Chicago and found a shuttle to take us to the Hilton Chicago. We walked in the doors and it was amazing on the inside with high ceilings, marble every where and a hallway that seemed like it went on forever.

We checked into our rooms and got settled in before we met up with Janice Johnson, the Ontario young leader coordinator from Growmark and her husband John. At this point we also met up with the third Ontario young leader Caitlyn Rongits who represented the Cooperative Young Leaders Camp. Janice took us out to tour the twin cities; our first stop was the Navy Peir where we took in a 75 minute river boat architectural tour of down town Chicago. The structures and the history were amazing. We were able to see the newly constructed river walk, where people can walk along the river and enjoy the view or perhaps some entertainment, or sit on the stairs leading down to the water. We also enjoyed leaning about the myths leading to the great Chicago fire, saw buildings such as the Willis Tower (which is formerly the Sears tower and held the title for the world’s tallest building for 25 years), the Trump tower, and the Boeing Headquarters which has an interesting story about how the tower was built. It is constructed hovering over very active rail lines running in and out of Amtrak’s Union Station. The developers leased so-called “air rights” to create their building. In essence, they are renting the air above the rail lines for $1,300,000 a year for 99 years. To accomplish such a thing, a large portion of the skyscraper is built on a platform that actually hangs in the air, suspended above the tracks in part by a truss visible on the roof, and the Marnia city building aka the corn cob towers which was built in the sixties and was the first building that contained both residential housing and office space. In the sixties 80 percent of those living in the buildings also worked there.

We had supper at Bubba Gumps, which was really neat as I had never been to one! They had great service and we were tested on our Forrest Gump trivia. I found out that I need to watch the movie again before returning so I can brush up on my Gump knowledge!

We continued to tour the Navy Pier which serves as a local attraction for boats, entertainment and shopping as well as amusement rides. We took the 150 foot ferris wheel to the top to get an amazing view of the city!

The following day we took in some more sights including the Chicago Board of Trade, Sears Tower and a tour of the Hilton Chicago. The Chicago Board of Trade was established in 1848, and is the world’s oldest futures and options exchange. We were lucky enough to be one of the last people to see the grain pits in action. On the following Monday they would close down the grain room pits, as so much has become electronic trading. The pits are raised octagonal structure where the trading takes place. There are steps in the octagon allowing hundreds of traders to see and hear each other during trading. Trades are made in the pits by bidding or offering a price and quantity of contracts, depending on the intention to buy or sell. Allan Bush, our tour guide, showed and explained to us several of the hand signals used to buy and sell. It seemed like a lot to remember, especially being as a lot of the signals were similar, but the meaning was completely different depending on whether your palm was facing or away from you. He also explained how everyone had a unique badge, and coloured jacket depending on who they represented. Allan also explained what futures and options were. We thought we were getting the hang of it, but it seemed pretty complex. An options contract is an agreement between a buyer and seller that gives the purchaser of the option the right to buy or sell a particular asset at a later date at an agreed upon price. A futures contract is an agreement, to buy or sell a particular commodity or financial instrument at a pre-determined price in the future. Overall it was a very interesting tour, and Allan was a great tour guide, but it was sad to see that an historic trade will soon be extinct and anyone who can’t adapt to electronic trading will lose or have already lost their job. Allan told us the major benefit to the trading floor was all the knowledge and information you learned while you were down there, just by talking to other traders. You had a better sense of what was going on, and now with electronic trading, trades could be more secretive.

Next we ventured up 103 stories to the top of the Willis Tower formerly known as the Sears Tower. Although the building is 110 stories high plus the antennas, the elevator takes you to the 103rd floor. Traveling at approximately 18 mph, it takes about 60 seconds for you to get to the top where you can walk around the viewing deck and enjoy the view of the city. There, you are able to see approximately 50 miles in each direction on a clear day! We decided to face our fears by stepping out on to the sky walk, a glass box suspended from the side of the building. This building was known as the World’s tallest building for 25 years. To give you an idea of its true height, it is 5 football fields high, 282 Michael Jordan’s or 313 Oprah Winfrey’s tall.

After enjoying some delicious Chicago style deep dish pizza, it was off to work.

We met up with the fifteen FFA (Future Farmers of America) young leaders for the first time, who were from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin and got our flags ready for the AGM. I would carry JFAO’s flag, Olivia carried the Canadian flag and Caitlyn carried the Ontario flag. We did a dress rehearsal where we practiced getting our flags to the front of the room, and Caitlyn and three FFA members (one from each state) ran through the speeches they prepared for the following days AGM.

The hotel tour was next. The Hilton Chicago was built in 1927 for $30,000,000 and was known as the largest hotel in the world and at the time it was called the Steven’s Hotel. When the depression hit the Steven family went bankrupt and the hotel was sold for just $6,000,000 to the US Army. They used it as housing and a classroom for the Air force during WWII. Conrad Hilton purchased the building in 1945, and in the 70’s it was being considered for demolition. But in 1984 the hotel closed for one year and went under a $185,000,000 renovation and restoration. In 2012 it went under another $150,000,000 renovations adding a new restaurant and upgrading rooms. The Hilton Chicago has 1544 hotel rooms and several thousand square feet of meeting and event space. In fact it is the third largest hotel in Chicago in terms of hotel rooms but has the largest meeting and event space in Chicago. The most impressive room was the Grand Ball Room; this room has decorative art work near the ceiling, large chandeliers and a high ceiling. We learned that it cost $30,000 to rent this room for one day! During the tour we also had a demonstration of how to make fruit art. The chef started out by showing us a project we could all do at home. It was a bunny and flowers made out of cantaloupe, but we all agreed it seemed way too difficult for us to attempt ourselves!! He continued on to make beautiful works of art out of honeydew melons and watermelons making swans, flowers and doves! Our last stop on the tour was the Conrad Suite which is on two floors and is 5000 square feet. To stay in this room for one night it would cost you $7000. They said they don’t often rent it out, they use it more to treat their special guests. You may recognize some of the rooms in the hotel from several movies, including Home Alone 2, which shoots its end scene in the Conrad Suite where the family has Christmas. The hit TV show ER used the helicopter pad to shoot many scenes and The Fugitive, My Best Friends Wedding and Little Fockers all used the Grand Ball Room to name a few.

That evening about 800 people joined together before the banquet. It gave the young leaders a chance to meet and chat with other young leaders as well as some of the Growmark team members. It was a great networking opportunity. I met several people from Ontario, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois and got to chat a little more with the other young leaders. They also had some interesting entertainment… a close up magic magician, which was neat to see and I still have no idea how he did his tricks! I also learned a lot more about the FFA or Future Farmers of America! The FFA is part of an agriculture program based right in their school. The programs differed depending on the state. Some of the executive members we met actually took a year off of their college to focus strictly on FFA. Their organization is similar to ours in they have local clubs and state executives and, that they do not need to be from a farming background, their main goal is to build leaders. My roommate for example was not from a farming background but was interested in agriculture; she was the President of her state.

When it was time to sit down to the banquet, we were all mixed up so we could meet some more people! I sat between Karen Jones, who was one of the main organizers of the youth, and a young farmer from Wisconsin who was a dairy farmer as well, so we had lots to talk about! This also meant this was the time I needed to get over my stage fright and deliver the invocation. The good news was the lights were so bright I couldn’t see anyone in the audience and it went off without a hitch (I have included the invocation at the end of my report)! At the end of the dinner we enjoyed a performance by the Piano Men! It was an outstanding performance of a tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel, which happens to be some of my favourite music! The lead singer went on to tell us a story about a girl he used to like in grade school, and when he went to a school dance he got the courage to ask her to dance only to be interrupted by the DJ calling out SNOW BALL. The crowed went silent and seemed confused! There was only a few of us laughing at this! When I asked the others at the table if they knew what he meant, they had no idea, so I ended up explaining a snow ball dance to my table! He went on to explain he was from Canada, so it must be a Canadian thing!

After dinner a few of the young leaders got together to walk down to see the bean! I had no idea what this was, but was up to seeing some sights! The bean is a sculpture made of several highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect Chicago’s famous skyline and the clouds above. It was pretty neat to see as I had never seen anything like it!

The next day, was the big day, Growmark’s AGM. We started off the morning with the young leader’s breakfast where we formally introduced ourselves to the group, each having a few moments to talk about ourselves, our background and our organization. Our guest speaker that morning was General Manager of the Hilton Chicago John Wells. He told us the story of how he started out his career cleaning hotel rooms to management. He inspired us to keep going no matter what, and to believe in ourselves. John was a fantastic speaker. Shortly after breakfast we headed back down to the official AGM where the youth leaders were piped in as we carried our flags down the aisle for the opening ceremony. We welcomed John Reifsteck the President of Growmark, who was our MC for the morning. John showed us how Growmark was ahead of the curve in their industry with their unique co-operative approach, announced the new board of directors, followed by a short video of each of the directors in their hometown. The youth were introduced and each state or province had a youth representative speak on a topic related to agriculture. Caitlyn from Ontario’s topic was sustainable agriculture! All four of the youth did a really good job, and each topic was really interesting to listen to!

Fitting to this year’s theme, Ahead of the Curve, our key note speaker was Kat Cole. Kat told us her inspiring story of growing up in an abusive home with her father, but her mother changed their lives for the better when she picked up and moved her and her sisters away from the abuse. Her family lived off $10 a week for food for years until Kat was old enough to start working. She started working as a hostess at Hooters and moved up to waitressing and eventually almost every position in the restaurant! Upon her manager’s recommendation she was sent to Sydney to train and motivate the new owners and employees at the opening of the first Hooters in Australia. She continued to travel overseas and all over the states in order to start up new restaurants and train employees. This eventually led to her having to drop out of college, which to say the least her family was not to happy considering she was the first one in her family to attend college. By the age of 26 she became the Vice President of Hooters and oversaw the growth from approximately 100 locations and $300 million in revenue to 500 locations in 33 countries and $1 billion in revenue. Kat has worked her way up to the President and Chief Operating Officer of Cinnabon, where during the recession she saved a business in distress! She did all of this before the age of 35.

After the morning AGM was wrapped up we rushed to the airport only to discover our flight would be delayed a couple of hours! We made good use of the time, by grabbing lunch with a Growmark board member from New Liskeard, and a couple of the Kitchener representatives! This allowed us to get to know some more individuals we hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet, and learn even more about the their agricultural background, the co-operative system and Growmark.

I felt this was an amazing opportunity I was given, and highly recommend it to any Junior Farmer member looking for a unique opportunity! I would like to give a huge thank you to the Junior Farmers Association of Ontario and everyone at Growmark who made this experience possible, especially Janice Johnson of Growmark!


Jen van der Meulen is a Wellington Junior Farmer, and the 2014 Top JFAO Member


Growmark Invocation – By Jen van der Meulen

We pray today, Lord, for our roots in agriculture; for the food we are able to provide the world, and for the food we will receive tonight.
We pray for the way we were raised; in the county where we can appreciate and respect our land and where we were able to develop a good work ethic.
We pray we can educate our consumers to learn about life on our farms and where their food comes from.
We pray for our young farmers, aging farmers and those involved in agriculture. That they can work together to ensure the planets wealth and beauty will remain for future generations.
We pray that we may teach and see our youth not only as followers, but as future rural leaders, and allow them to reach their dreams so they can make a difference now and in the future.
We thank you Lord for giving us the strength and opportunity to live our lives in a way that helps others and gives us a sense of fulfillment at the end of every day. To wake up every day knowing we are proud of the life we live.
I would like to share the Junior Farmer Association of Ontario’s Grace, an organization that has shaped many future rural leaders through self-help and community betterment.
For Junior Farmers, friends and food,
We give thee thanks, O Lord.
And ask you help throughout our lives,
To teach us all much more.



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