Many farmers recognize that consumers don’t know where their food comes from today. For Riverview, a diversified agribusiness based out of Morris, Minnesota, the question: “What are we doing about it?” weighed on their minds so much, they added an ag educator position to their staff.
“This really isn’t a choice any longer. The majority of consumers, that do not have a connection with a farm, are searching the web for their information. I would ask that all agriculturists get online and search some of the hot button topics in agriculture and see what comes up in the images, videos, and articles. Many of the results will likely concern you. This is what consumers find, and without any background and opportunity to visit a farm or talk with a farmer, they will believe what they read,” said Natasha Mortenson, who has served as the Community Outreach and Social Licensing Specialist at Riverview for the past two years. “We can’t expect people to understand our industry unless we are out there, in full force, helping tell the story.”
Mortenson has quite the story to tell for Riverview. An LLP, Riverview is 70 percent employee owned. The remaining 30 percent are neighbors of the farm sites and many are involved as growers or support of the farm.
With farms spread across Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Arizona, Riverview employs more than 1,000 people. They currently operate 10 dairy farms milking 65,000 cows. They also raise beef cattle through the Wulf Cattle brand and raise Purebred Limousin, Angus, and also beef/dairy crosses on cow/calf operations and feedlots in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota.
Riverview also grows crops in all five states and purchases crops from local farmers around many of their farms for silage and haylage. Their grown feed accounts for 15 percent of the feed they need for livestock and the remainder is purchased.
“The goal is to get into as many classrooms as I can and get as many kids on the farm as well. This commitment to agriculture and education was too much to pass up,” Mortenson said. “What a fabulous opportunity to impact students from five different states and help ag teachers bring in real world examples of agriculture.”
It’s also a job Mortenson is more than qualified to tackle. The ag educator taught at Morris High School and advised FFA for 14 years before the opportunity came about with Riverview.
“Teaching agriculture is crazy and amazing all at the same time. Ag teachers are the ‘jack of all trades!’ Mortenson said. “It was so much fun to open the eyes of my students and get them excited about the industry. Plus, the impact of giving students hands-on experiences with livestock is immeasurable. Nothing will replace hands-on experience in creating excitement and career awareness for students.”
Mortenson, herself didn’t have that excitement for agriculture until her freshman year of high school. Growing up on a corn and soybean farm south of Benson, Minnesota, Mortenson was an active 4-H and FFA member, but it took a special mentor to help her realize that agriculture is ‘cool.’
“I honestly never felt good about being from a farm until I was in ag class with my teacher, Charles Erickson, who we were told to call ‘Chuck.’ Chuck introduced me to a new world,” Mortenson said. “We traveled for FFA and learned about agriculture and manufacturing all around the country, taking summer trips each summer to a different part of the U.S. My eyes were opened wide by these experiences. I decided as a ninth grader to be an ag teacher. I wanted to help others be proud of their agricultural life, and more so, wanted to help the kids who didn’t understand the importance of agriculture in their life.”
So what’s a typical day for Riverview’s ag educator? Mortenson said there really isn’t a typical day and that’s the best part.
Most of her time is spent in K-12 classrooms teaching everything from soil, seeds, pigs, cattle, food science, breeding techniques, and nutrition. She also trains high school students, college students, and adults how to advocate for agriculture and create dialogue and discussion in a classroom setting surrounding hot topics such as GMOs, food labels, antibiotics in agriculture, and other topics people are concerned about in the industry.
Riverview also invites students to the barns for tours, to learn and practice breeding techniques, to formulate rations, and even milk cows. Last summer, the agribusiness operation leased dairy calves to 4H’ers to show at the county fair … a program they plan to continue to offer this year and have extended on the beef side as well.
“Riverview wants to create an opportunity for young people to learn production practices in agriculture and give opportunities for hands-on experiences on the farm,” Mortenson said. “We realize that many kids do not get to have farm experiences as farms get larger and fewer families farm. If we in agriculture do not provide more opportunities we will have a hard time recruiting future employees.”
Mortenson also conducts inside AGvocacy training for Riverview employees. These trainings help the team talk about production practices utilized at Riverview.
“Since we are a large farm many people can specialize and work in their specific areas of passion. This also creates a disconnect to what may be happening in other areas of the farm. Some work in construction, some agronomy, and others in the livestock areas,” Mortenson said. “We have training each year to teach about the different areas of Riverview surrounding our people, our animals, and our environment. This allows all employees to answer questions when people have them in the community and helps everyone feel like a part of the efforts.”
Mortenson said first, and foremost, her position at Riverview is purely for educational purposes.
“My job description entails advocating for agriculture first, then the beef and dairy industry, and last is Riverview. Even though we use our farm examples as we teach, we are teaching about agriculture as a whole,” Mortenson said. “Promotion of all agriculture practices is important for all farmers to consider. We have many different types of farmers, and no two farms are the same. We must support each other and avoid creating silos in our industry. We are all on the same team.”
Mortenson said her position at Riverview also helps fill a growing need at schools.
“Agriculture teachers are in short supply. There are positions closing each year because there are no teachers to fill them. It is easy to look at the educational system and blame them,” Mortenson said. “But, it is our job as agriculturists to provide opportunity and create support for schools. No matter what size the farm is, we all play an important part in helping people learn about our passion for raising crops and livestock for a quality and wholesome food supply.”
Mortenson said she hopes others in the industry follow Riverview’s example and see the important opportunity they have to impact others, not by promotion, but by educating.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a farmer, processor, ingredient manufacturer, grocery store, etc. — we all need to be a part of the farm education movement,” Mortenson said. “Educating a nation is a big task that will take many hands. People always feel better after visiting our farms. Other farms’ neighbors will likely feel the same after visiting their farms.”