A full room of farmers and agribusiness professionals gathered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Feb. 15, but unlike most meetings and conferences, they were not there to hear about milk price projections or the latest trends in transition cows.
This was a day dedicated to filling their hearts and souls with hope, joy and gratitude.
The first-ever Faith Family Farming Interfaith Conference offered a refreshing reprieve from the dull days of winter with a full slate of inspiring guest speakers, accompanied by uplifting live worship music performed by Christian singer and songwriter Danen Kane.
Event organizer Tom Wall was the impetus behind this unique celebration of rural life. Known to dairy producers as the “Dairy Coach,” he connected with his clients on a deeper level since he started writing Catholic prayer books for kids a few years ago.
“It was as if writing these books revealed a hidden door to conversations about God that so many dairy producers wanted to open. By identifying myself as a ‘faith guy,’ it seems more and more people were finding the key to this door and began sharing their beliefs, struggles and hopes for their families and their own lives,” Wall said.
“The more this occurred, the more I realized that we, as an industry, were ready for a day where we could really connect and reflect on what matters most.”
Wall called upon close friends and highly regarded presenters to complete a lineup of seven motivating speakers to share messages of faith, joy, leadership and love.
Creating a vision for a life of joy
Pastor Aaron Martell from New Life Community Church in Plymouth, Wisconsin, kicked off the day with the message of setting a vision. “Without vision, the people will perish,” he said, quoting Proverbs 29:18.
He likened living life without a vision to driving down the road blindfolded with no foresight as to where you are going or how you will get there. Martell suggested forming a vision for your marriage and your farm based on how you want life to look 20, 30 and 40 years from now, and then choose five words to describe that.
A rancher’s daughter, Sonny Hennessy, executive pastor at Life Church in De Pere, Wisconsin, related her experience of farm life, acknowledging the busy seasons and constant stresses of caring for the land and animals.
Yet she finds consistent joy in grounding herself with five priorities daily: God, self, spouse, children and extended family. “I need to keep those priorities in order so I can experience joy,” she proclaimed, noting, “Consistent joy doesn’t come naturally; we have to fight for it.”
“Fun is seizing the opportunity to find joy in the moment,” Father Dave Pleier, St. Francis of Assisi in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, added. “Engaging in the joys of life and the goodness of God.”
The dollar value of dignity
Joe Kiedinger, owner of Prophit Marketing, shared how his faith directed him to develop a system to encourage employee retention, and that same solution can be applied to the challenges dairy producers face in keeping workers.
Based on the national average for a $10-per-hour job, Kiedinger said it is a $3,700 cost to the business to have a person quit; when a supervisor quits, the cost is equivalent to that individual’s salary. “But it doesn’t need to be that way,” he assured.
His solution: making the mental shift from “management to mentorship.” Kiedinger has developed a tool for identifying an employee’s top five “dignity traits,” which can then be used to provide motivating and engaging mentorship that keeps employees around. “Dignity reveals a person’s intention,” he explained. “Then I know what to do and where to place a person based on their dignity traits.”
Kiedinger described that there are 56 different traits. Some examples are “curiosity,” “loves other people,” “goal-oriented” and “serious.” By honing in on individual dignity traits, Kiedinger sees employers enjoying higher retention levels and more satisfied workers, particularly those in the millennial age group.
Stewardship, leadership and love
Farmers often identify themselves as stewards of the land and the animals, but Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau encouraged them to think beyond that realm and open their minds to the other ways in which they are stewards. As “entrusted gardeners,” he defined each of us as stewards to our bodies, family and friends, emotions, community and more.
Morneau described stewardship as receiving God’s gifts gratefully, nurturing them responsibly, sharing them justly and returning them abundantly. Those purpose-driven actions are something Tom Thibodeau sees playing out across the heartland.
“Faith, family and farming are the foundation of our rural communities,” Thibodeau, distinguished professor in servant leadership at Viterbo University, explained. “In the center of those healthy communities are people of faith who love God and love one another.”
“If you want to know a good servant leader, know a farmer,” Thibodeau stated, basing his claim on his own experience growing up in a rural area and having witnessed farmers go above and beyond to help their neighbors in times of need.
Monsignor Jim Lisante from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Long Island, New York, provided his own testimony, reflecting on how his urban congregation came together during a traumatic and trying time. Thirty-one parishioners from his church died as a result of the 9-11 attacks. “Communities come together when people are hurting,” he said.
Lisante went on the emphasize the importance of living out an attitude of love, not just in the community, but in your own home. “There is no love in the world as great as the love you have in your families,” he said. “The ability to say ‘I love you’ is a wonderful thing that binds families.”
Married couples can be the best examples of love to their children by not only saying the words to them but also demonstrating it. “To make marriage work, it can’t be about feelings,” he said. “It’s a decision to love.”
In a powerful demonstration of love, Lisante invited all married couples in attendance to stand up, join hands and renew their wedding vows together. For Wall, this was one of the most meaningful points of the entire day because his own parents were among the couples there.
“After my dad’s botched heart surgery a few years ago, the roles of their relationship have reversed 180 degrees. As my dad continues to struggle to walk, my mom has consistently been his rock … demonstrating that she truly meant what she promised over 40 years ago,” Wall reflected. “To get to see them renew the words that established the actions they’ve been demonstrating was the highlight of the day for me.”
Wall is already working on plans for a second Faith Family Farming Conference. He noted, “The focus will continue to be to bring in a mixed group of dynamic interfaith speakers that engage and challenge the hearts and minds of everyone who attends.”
PHOTO 1: Tom Wall, who organized the conference, helps dairy owners and managers lead, train and coach employees, and he also finds time to deepen his own faith while sharing his love of God with others.
PHOTO 2: Christian singer and songwriter Danen Kane filled the hall with the sound of worship music.
PHOTO 3: “Faith, family and farming are the foundation of our rural communities,” Tom Thibodeau said, Viterbo University’s distinguished professor of servant leadership.
PHOTO 4: Monsignor Jim Lisante, a regular contributor to the Fox News Channel and ABC Eyewitness News, brought a message about love.
PHOTO 5: A full room of dairy producers and industry representatives gathered for the event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in February. Photos by Ron Tupper.
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