September 15, 2015 was a proud day for American sugarbeet growers. Rita Herford, 26, a fifth generation sugarbeet grower from Harbor Beach, Michigan, was recognized as a “White House Champion of Change.”
The Champions of Change program was created by the White House as an opportunity to feature women doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire their communities. Over 1,000 individuals including educators, advocates, peer mentors, artists and entrepreneurs were nominated. Herford was one of only 11 women to receive this recognition and the only farmer and representative of American agriculture in the group.
“It was truly an honor. I am working with the Kelloggs company and their Great Lakes Wheat Origins project, and they nominated me for the award,” said Herford. “We supply our wheat to Star of the West Milling Company and they then supply Kelloggs with flour. The Great Lakes Origin Project is a sustainability project to track the continuous progress of farmers’ sustainability.”
“Ag needs voices that tell our story. We need to tell of the tough times and of the great times, and how agricultural biotechnology has made the tough times a little easier. Our farm would not last if we took away genetically engineered crops and the science that has gotten us this far.”
Herford was honored for promoting modern day agriculture by speaking with groups and organizations, and actively using Facebook to show consumers what everyday life is like on a farm.
At the White House, Herford and the other honorees heard various women speak about how they have made a positive impact in their communities. Herford also participated in a television interview and panel discussions where she shared what she is doing in her community and how she will help other young women become leaders in their communities. The discussions were broadcast live on the White House webpage.
While in Washington, Herford also had the opportunity to meet U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krista Harden.
“Being able to sit in the office with one of the most powerful people in agriculture and tell her my story was beyond words,” Herford said. “She told me how good it is to see young women doing great things in agriculture. This made me feel like I’m making a real difference in the things that I’m doing.”
Farming is a lifelong passion for Herford, who farms in the thumb of Michigan with her parents and brother. Her husband, Luke Herford, farms with his family who grow row crops and have a beef cattle operation.
(Herford with her family: Parents Allen and Debbie Bischer and brother Eric Gentner.)
“I’ve been working on our family farm ever since I can remember,” she said. “We grow 4,400 acres of sugar beets, corn, dry edible beans, soybeans and soft white winter wheat. When my father passed away in 1996, my mom quite her day job as a dental assistant and started farming full time. She later remarried, and with my stepfather continued the farm and built it into what it is today.”
Herford graduated from Michigan State University in 2011. She holds a Bachelors degree in Crop and Soil Science, with a specialization in Agribusiness Management and a certificate in Agricultural Industries. While in college, she worked at the USDA sugarbeet research farm on the MSU campus. Rita joined the family farm after graduation. Her daily duties include everything from office work and crop record keeping to planting corn and loading beets with a Maus sugarbeet loader.
“My favorite part of farming is knowing that all the seeds I plant in the spring will grow into a crop that will be harvested and used to feed someone,” Herford said. “However, what I’m most passionate and concerned about is teaching the public about today’s farming practices.”
Herford is a member of the Huron County Farm Bureau board of directors, and also serves on the Promotion and Education committee, the Young Farmers committee and the Michigan Farm Bureau Sugarbeet and Dry Bean committee.
“Most people have no idea what it takes to grow their food,” she said. “It’s scary how much misinformation is floating around the internet and how much people believe it. The public is so far removed from the farm that they have no idea what is false information and what is true.”
The Herfords are excited to welcome their first child in early December, and their main goal is to make sure that their children have the opportunity to farm if they choose to.
“I want to have a farm that is able to invite the next generation to join,” she said. “We want to have our land be productive enough to outlast the bad market years and to be able to grow the biotech crops I know are safe for others to eat and can yield enough to feed a growing world.”
Herford will also continue to advocate for American agriculture and the sugarbeet industry is grateful for her strong, active voice.
“Ag needs voices that tell our story. We need to tell of the tough times and of the great times, and how agriculture biotechnology has made the tough times a little easier. Our farm would not last if we took away genetically engineered crops and the science that has gotten us this far,” she said. “It’s a shame that there are people attacking the science that we have been using for so long and that has been proven safe. Every industry is allowed to progress, and farming must be allowed to progress, too. What would our healthcare look like if we didn’t allow doctors to use technology?”