By Victoria G. Myers
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
T.J. Menn knows what it feels like to plow a field of soybeans, put up fresh hay, raise a pig or deliver a calf. That is the stuff this Illinois farm kid thinks of when he thinks of home. Those are the memories he's carried with him to West Point, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and now to Harvard University.
Menn, a student at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, grew frustrated when he continued to hear professors repeat the line: "Farmers in America are simply subsidized to do nothing."
"That was the extent to which I felt agricultural policy was being represented here," he said. "I wanted to organize a trip to show people what rural America really is.
"I want my fellow students to understand the nuances of the farm bill and recognize how complicated the piece of legislation really is. I want them to learn the facts about GMOs. I want these future world leaders to meet American farmers and livestock producers, and see the hard work and love of the land for themselves. I want them to see how people where I come from live."
Only 32 years old, Menn has done a lot of living. When he graduated high school in the small town of Carthage, Ill., his ticket to college was acceptance in the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2001. He graduated in 2005, with a major in political science, and commissioned as an aviation officer in the Army. His was "The Class of 9-11," he said, adding that in 2001, the world changed. He was soon deployed overseas, and decided when he came back he wanted to teach.
In preparation for a return to West Point, where he will teach economics, Menn enrolled at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He will graduate in May with a Masters in Public Policy degree.
Before he leaves Boston, Menn wants to take some of his fellow students on a tour of farm country. He plans for them to experience small-town America, meet farmers both big and small, visit agricultural research and industry facilities, and learn there is more to this country than two coasts. He believes he can change hearts and open minds.
"The Kennedy School has a lot of diversity. There are 90 to 100 countries represented here by the student body. Because there is a mid-career program, there are accomplished people from both the private and public sectors. But as talented as many of these people are, few have experienced rural life in the Midwest. Few know about agricultural issues, past what they've read in a newspaper. I want to change that."
Students will arrive in Galesburg, Ill., on March 15. From there the small band will trek across parts of Iowa and Illinois, sharing meals and meeting families along the way. Menn's goal for the trip is to expose everyone to the great diversity of American agriculture. He has planned visits to an Amish farm, his own family's farm, a large grain farm, a hog operation, a winery, a dairy, a cattle auction, a honey processing plant, a GMO lab and the Kinze factory. The tour will end at the John Deere plant in Moline, Ill.
Menn says 16 students have committed to the trip so far, at a cost of about $1,200 each. He is seeking sponsors for students, to help offset the costs. Menn says the group to date includes seven students from other nations, including the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and India; and nine students from the U.S.
"You know, when people ask me where I'm from, I say 'God's country'," Menn quips. "I love the Midwest, and I love rural areas. I want to show people what there is to be proud of and to love in our country. More than that, I want to do something to show them the effort and the struggle that goes into producing the food they see at the grocery store or order at a restaurant. I want to find a way to connect them to the people and the land, which makes the Midwest one of the greatest places on Earth."
Editor's Note: T.J. Menn hopes to secure sponsors for all 16 students taking the farm tour. Any company or individual interested in helping can reach Menn at TJ_Menn@hks15.harvard.edu
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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