WILLMAR — As a pharmacist, mother of six and cheerleader for her "dreamer" husband whose goal was to create a family-oriented business that would help farmers succeed, Kami Anez knew about hard work and overcoming challenges.
But that resolve has been put to the test ever since her husband, Jared, died unexpectedly six months ago and Kami stepped into the role of president of Anez Consulting.
The 20-year-old Willmar company had hit its stride in becoming a one-stop shop for farmers needing agronomy, precision ag, engineering and feedlot permitting and manure management services when her "big picture" husband died.
"I strive daily to live out Jared's vision and his mission," Anez told a rapt audience Tuesday at the annual Ag and Animal Science Conference on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.
Anez was one of four "storytellers" featured at the seventh annual conference, which brings agricultural business leaders, educators and advocates together for a day-long exchange of information and inspiration.
"Everyone has a story," said Joanna Schrupp, business development director on the MinnWest campus who organized the conference.
"We want to be there for them," Schrupp said. "We all need the support of each other."
Anez told the audience of about 120 people that the death of Jared was a "horrible" and "devastating" tragedy that her family, friends and company employees are still "trying to wrap our heads around."
She's been buoyed by comments from employees that Jared "advocated for every single farmer every single time" and comments from clients who not only admired Jared's dedication to his company and customers but his top priority — his family.
At the time of his death, Jared was chairman of the Willmar School Board, involved with other school, church and community activities, was the family comedian and "all-around great guy," Kami Anez said.
"The company doesn't look the same as it did in March," she said, and neither does her family or the community.
While Anez's story was especially heart-wrenching, Schrupp said it's important for all ag-oriented businesses to be supportive of each other.
"A lot of times we're fighting the same battles but within different industries," Schrupp said.
"So if we can support each other and become that network of support, that's really what we're here for. We're the catalysts," she said.
Alise Sjostrom, from the Redhead Creamery in rural Brooten, was another storyteller at the conference who talked about the challenges of taking her parent's 200-head dairy farm into a craft cheese production business that is growing faster than expected.
Besides making a variety of cheeses that live up to their motto of "ridiculously good cheese," Sjostrom said the four-year-old family business conducts tours to about 100 people every week who are "starving" to learn about agriculture and create a connection with the food they eat.
The creamery makes cheese in a pristine facility just a few yards away from where the cows are milked.
During the tours, people see the cows, see how they are taken care of, watch how cheese is made and then get to eat the cheese on-site.
The tours provide a unique perspective between agricultural production and food consumption, she said.
"Our story is non-ending," Sjostrom said, disclosing that a new business connection with a Chicago distributor has the potential to double production.
But she said local support for their business has been key to their faster-than-expected growth. "I'm humbled by the community support we've had," she said
Wanda Patsche, who writes a blog based on her experiences on her family's southern Minnesota pork farm, said there is a "disconnect" between farmers and consumers, which can lead to misunderstandings about issues such as genetically modified organisms and hormone-free foods.
Patsche, who calls herself an introverted "grandma who lives in rural Minnesota," started writing her blog, Minnesota Farm Living, five years ago because of the "frustration I was seeing about the untruths about agriculture" and food.
The internet can "spread that misinformation" and "scare tactics" that can pit consumers against agriculture, so she used the internet to try to correct misinformation and "show what a modern farm was," she said.
Patsche said it's important for farmers to be "genuine and truthful" when they talk to consumers about farming. Most importantly, she said, farmers need to show they have shared values with consumers — like disgust and anger over any animal abuse.
"We just really need to talk with each other," she said. "It's all about relationships. It would solve a lot of these issues."
Assoud Kazemzadeh, the CEO of Kay's Naturals, spoke about his Clara City business that makes high-protein, high-fiber, gluten-free, plant-based snacks and cereals that are targeted for the diabetic, weight-loss and sports nutrition market,
Kazemzadeh said he believes a renewable plant-based diet is "the best way to feed the world" that also leaves a smaller environmental footprint than an animal-based diet.
He said 80 percent of Americans "are on some sort of a diet" and the foods Kay's Naturals produces can help provide healthy, affordable and accessible snacks.
Because of the growth pattern in healthy foods, Kazemzadeh said he expects Kay's Naturals to continue to grow and could eventually have a place on the shelves in large grocery markets.