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Lighting up the town

As the sun started to set on a cold December afternoon, trucks, wagons and tractors filled the MFA Agri Services parking lot in Centralia, Mo. These com­mon, everyday vehicles and implements were soon transformed into a collection of illuminated wonders as local farmers hooked up twinkling Christmas lights to generators.

Tractors became Thomas the Tank Engine. Hay wagons transported elves on the Polar Express. A Grinch-inspired John Deere, covered in green lights, pulled a sleigh full of toys stolen from the kids of Whoville.

For the 14th year in a row, Centralia will host its annual lighted tractor parade on Dec. 18, 2020, pending any COVID restrictions. Sponsored by the Centralia Young Farmers association, the event is now a cherished community tradition. Lo­cal farmer Brian Schnarre, one of the parade’s founders, had seen something similar in another small town and suggested it to the group.

“I think we had 26 floats the first year,” Schnarre said. “They thought it was a great idea, and it’s just been growing ever since.”

The parade is open to anyone who wants to enter. And while coronavirus con­cerns cause some uncertainty surrounding this year’s event, challenges aren’t new to those who have participated previously.

“I remember the very first year, it was pretty foggy,” said Darren Reynolds, another farmer and parade participant, who was 35 years old at the time. “It was almost questionable whether you should even drive a tractor to town or not, but for as small as it was, there were a lot of people watching. The fog in the air really made the lights glow. It was neat. It was probably one of my favorite years.”

What started as a small group of participants now encompasses more than 75 exhibits every year. In fact, it’s so large now that the parade loops around the entire downtown, the front often returning to the MFA parking lot before the last vehicles have left.

Many farmers start working on their entries after the crops come out of the field. In some years, that allows only a short window between harvest and the parade. Local farmer and vol­unteer firefighter Adam Brown helped decorate a fire truck the first year, and in later years pulled a float resembling a candy cane, made out of an auger and PVC pipe wrapped in ribbon and lights.

“It’s a lot of work,” Brown said. “A couple of years we were still busy in the field, so we had to stop participating, but so many people are involved now.”

Like many parades, the floats range in complexity. Brian Vance, who raises row crops and cattle, recalled one of his favorite entries from previous years.

“One year, a friend of mine pulled a camper covered in lights with the movie Christmas Vacation playing through the win­dows,” Vance said. “He was out in front of it in a white bathrobe and hat dressed like Cousin Eddie. At that point, it was the coldest year we had ever had. He had to be freezing, but he said it was worth the cold just to get the laugh.”

Every year gets just a little bit better, Schnarre said.

“We just do it to have fun,” he said. “When you see all the kids waving at you and smiling, it’s worth it.”

As an added bonus, the parade also brings tourists into the community, Schnarre said. The event has expanded beyond just the parade itself. Restaurants and shops stay open late. On the square, food trucks set up for the event, and there are reindeer exhibits for kids to pet.

At MFA, the parade’s staging grounds, Manager Jim Gesling and MFA employees serve hot chocolate, chili and homemade ice cream.

“It’s become something that in previous years has brought some of the largest crowds we see in this commu­nity all year,” Reynolds said, adding that now, instead of building a float, he’s content to take his 9-year-old twins to watch. “I just don’t feel like there’s anything else in our community that brings as many people out.”

Visit Centralia, MO Lighted Tractor Parade on Facebook for more informa­tion. Note that there is another Cen­tralia lighted tractor parade in Wash­ington state, so be sure to put “MO” in your search. This year the parade will look a little different due to COVID-19. There will be a reverse parade on December 18th. Tractors will be parked in the fields along Route CC between Centralia and Sturgeon. Spectators are welcome to drive the route anytime between 7 PM and 9 PM. For route information click here

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Old friends, new beginnings

In the early morning hours of Feb. 23, 2019, Noel King stood across the street from MFA Agri Services in Lebanon, Mo., as sky-high flames engulfed the farm-supply store that three generations of his family had patronized.

The cattle producer and the cooperative’s board president admits he was overwhelmed by emotion as he huddled helplessly with other farmers and MFA employees, all stunned by the nightmarish scene.

“We hugged each other and watched it burn,” King said. “A hundred years of history. Gone. My family has been members here since the word go. I couldn’t help but think, ‘What’s going to happen to us now?’”

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle, said Max Stephans, Leba­non location manager. In the fall of 2020—only 18 months since the old store was reduced to smoldering rubble—MFA opened a brand-new facility in the same familiar spot on Jefferson Street, the bustling main route through town.

“Looking back at where we were then and where we are now, this is miraculous stuff,” Stephans said. “We built this store and filled it up debt-free, thanks to the diligence of the management and board over the years to make sure we were fully insured. No one lost a job. No one was laid off. We just kept operating through it all.”

More than 1,000 guests attended a two-day grand opening celebration Oct. 30-31, during which the cooperative, a local affiliate of MFA Incorporated, also commemorated its 100th anniversary. Darrell Pollock, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, led a ceremonial ribbon-cutting on Friday morning to officially welcome MFA back to the community.

“In a year of mixed-up, terrible things, this is something positive that has risen up, literally, out of the ashes,” Pollock said. “After the fire, there really was a sense of loss for us all. MFA has been a good community partner. You don’t stay in business for 100 years without being that kind of company. And if the turnout at this grand opening is any kind of idea of what the future holds, they’re going to be here for the long haul.”

On hand for the grand opening was Phyllis Bishop, wife of the late Roscoe Bishop, who served on the local MFA board for 33 years. The couple raised cattle together and were mar­ried for nearly 60 years before his death on Feb. 8, 2020.

“My husband was still living when the store burned, but he didn’t live long enough to see it built,” she said. “I think it’s marvelous, and he would, too. He’d be really proud, because his whole life was about working for the farmers. He really wanted MFA to succeed.”

General Manager John Percival, who oversees operations at the cooperative’s Lebanon, Conway, Grovespring and Richland loca­tions, said the new store’s completion felt like a “lifelong journey.”

“I’ve been with this co-op 31 years, and I never dreamed that one day we’d have everything wiped out and have to start over,” Percival said. “Our mission statement is to ‘provide our farmer-members with cost-effective goods and services.’ The old store served that purpose, but this new facility will allow us to fulfill that mission even better. The fire was a tragedy, but it’s turned out to be a tremendous blessing.”

Stephans said the cooperative’s triumph over that tragedy can be attributed to the dedication of its employees, loyalty of its customers and support from the MFA system and the Lebanon community. During the rebuilding process, the co-op conducted business from a makeshift office and storefront assembled in an adjacent vacant building owned by MFA Incorporated. Fortu­nately, the feed mill was unharmed by the fire and never ceased operation.

“The building burned Friday night, and MFA had people here on Saturday morning,” Stephans said. “They gave us the keys to that building and told us to do what we needed to do. It was a godsend. By that afternoon, MFA had an IT trailer set up with all the computers and equipment we needed to run the business. Our employees were here, figuring out what equipment we had left and calling plumbers and electricians. Vendors and other businesses in town offered their help. Everybody did what they could do to get us back in business. By Monday morning, we had our first sales ticket. It was unbe­lievable.”

Rebuilding was an opportunity for reinventing the business, Stephans said. Although the new facility generally follows the same footprint as the original, the 11,000-square-foot showroom is about 2,000 square feet larger than the old one. The expansion mostly came from incorporating space that for­merly served as a greenhouse.

“In the transition to the new facility, we really had to ask some hard questions about what we wanted to do,” Stephans said. “We had a blank slate. It’s a terrible way to get there, but it really gave us a chance to look at what’s critical and what’s just fluff. That was one of our biggest challenges. Take the greenhouse, for ex­ample. Truth is, it was only profitable a few weeks each year. We decided to let the nurseries in town have that business. We want to ‘own’ what we do and be the best at it instead of trying to be everything to everybody.”

This introspective reflection led to a renewed focus on core farm-supply areas such as feed, animal health and hardware for both full-time and part-time producers. To appeal to the growing number of rural lifestyle consumers, however, Stephans said the new store also offers expanded lines of products such as wild bird feeding and outdoor living.

“The rural lifestyle is one our biggest driving forces here,” he said. “We intentionally built the store to focus on that segment of the market. At the old store, people used to come in, pick up what they needed and take off. Now, with this new layout, people come in, get a cart and wander around. From the very beginning, we knew we wanted it to be bright, open and inviting. I feel like we got that accomplished.”

Indeed, Pollock said, the product mix inside the reimagined MFA store reflects the customer base of the Lebanon community.

“This is a place where farming and town come together,” Pol­lock said. “Lebanon is a traditional agricultural community, even though when you drive through town, it doesn’t necessarily look like that. We have a lot of trade and traffic. But, at the end of the day, we’re rural Missouri. We embrace those rural roots.”

Despite some uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the fire, a cause for which has never been determined, at no time was there a ques­tion about whether MFA would rebuild, said Board President King. Yes, there were challenges and difficulties, he said, but everyone involved learned a valuable lesson along the way—fire may destroy structures, but it can’t destroy the human spirit.

“Everything just turned out far greater than I could have ever dreamed,” King said. “MFA is everything to the ag community. It’s been serving generations of our families, and we’re all just thrilled to see the store back in business. Long live MFA.”

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Journey to the ring

On a Wednesday night in November 2019, Timothy Hudson bought a bred Yorkshire gilt from an online auction. The $1,100 purchase wasn’t an easy or cheap decision for the 15-year-old to make on his own. But it was an investment that, along with some hard work, would pay.

The Cassville High School sophomore was empowered by the support of his parents, Tracy and David, and his FFA advisors, John Littlefield and Jimmy Hinson. The ag teachers had even helped Timothy acquire a grant to purchase the gilt for his FFA career development experience.

Timothy would soon need more assistance from his FFA advisors. The pig named Penelope was due to give birth around Jan. 1, and it would be the first farrowing experience for the Hudson family. They found themselves huddled around Penelope in the barn early one cold Saturday morning as the piglets started arriving. The first one was dead.

“The first baby wasn’t fully formed,” Tracy said. “We didn’t know what we were doing and thought something was really wrong. We called Mr. Littlefield at 3 a.m., and he came right over. She labored for a long time, but the rest were okay.”

Penelope gave birth to 19 piglets over the course of two days and ended up raising 12 of them. Timothy and his younger brother, Lucas, 11, are now competing in show rings across the state with her offspring, earning numerous awards that included a grand champion boar and two grand champion gilts this past year.

“How well the pigs do depends on you,” Tim­othy said. “If you do poorly in the ring, that’s not their fault. If you don’t go out and walk them every day, that’s on you. You have to be able to control them. To do that, you have to have a relationship with them where they listen because they know you respect them. Since we’ve raised these from piglets, we definitely have that relationship.”

When he saw big brother Timothy competing and winning with his show pigs, Lucas wanted to get in on the action. His love for animals is clearly evident.

“All year, I watched him show pigs,” Lucas said. “I decided I want to do this, too.”

Timothy knows he’s setting the example for his little brother. Every day, Timothy wakes up earlier than he wants to and checks on the pigs. Neither he nor Lucas will eat breakfast until the pigs do. Before heading off to school, the brothers make sure the animals have water and food and haven’t injured themselves or gotten scratched up during the night. After school, Timothy attends basketball practice, and then it’s back home to check on the pigs again.

“I just do whatever needs to be done,” he said. “I came home the other day, and one of the pigs snapped the entire wall. She ripped the whole fence off, so I had to fix it, just things like that. It’s a job.”

After the pigs are taken care of and his schoolwork is finished, Timothy might have free time to hang out with friends.

“It’s definitely taught me responsibility,” he said. “But I couldn’t have done any of this without help. My teachers and everyone around me have always pushed me to do my best.”

Timothy is part of the Cassville FFA program, which has roughly 150 members and a variety of program opportunities. Hinson and Littlefield advise nearly 200 students district-wide when they incorporate middle-schoolers into that mix.

Both teachers attend numerous livestock shows with their chap­ter members.

“We help them manage their projects throughout the year,” Hinson said at the Missouri State Fair in August. “Then, this is the culmination, the result of all their work. It’s awesome to help kids learn responsibility and management and put the things we learn in class to use in a hands-on application.”

Back at home, the advisors practice what they preach. Hinson has a son and a daughter who exhibit pigs of their own, and both men help house animals for students who don’t have their own facilities. They also work with MFA Livestock Specialist Greg Davis to ensure all the ani­mals are getting proper nutrition.

Davis wholeheartedly rec­ommends Ring Leader for that proper nutrition. Ring Leader is MFA’s branded show feed, which is formulated with Shield Technology, MFA’s proprietary blend of essential oils and other additives designed to improve animal health and performance without the use of antibiotics. Shield also helps reduce stress in show animals, Davis said.

“Ring Leader is a top-notch feed, based on MFA’s Evolution swine feeds,” he said. “We have taken those formulations to the next level with specialized proteins and quality products added for performance to get the extra shape and bloom on the pigs while still protecting their immunity with our Shield Technology. We wanted to develop a feed that would take these kids’ projects from just being in FFA or ag class to getting that champion ribbon.”

Hinson said he fed another brand of feed for years, but when the manager at the local MFA asked him to try Ring Leader, he took the opportunity and hasn’t looked back.

“Greg has been very helpful,” Hinson said. “He’s the first feed rep that I’ve experienced who has actually made the effort to come out and do projects with us. He’s been out to all of the farms of our students who are raising pigs and offered advice and moral support to the kids.” The relationship makes a big difference for the busy ag teachers, Littlefield added.

“The customer service we get with MFA is bar none, the best we’ve ever had with any feed dealership,” he said. “That means a ton when you’ve got an issue or an animal that’s not feeding out quite right. I can call, text or email Greg, and he gets back to me instantly with an answer or guid­ance. That’s huge for us.”

That service is one reason why Littlefield and Hinson recommend Ring Leader to their students, and it’s also why Missouri State Fair Swine Show Judge Brandon Spears uses the MFA feed on his own farm in Hartshorne, Okla.

“We farrow 20-25 sows, and my three children show the pigs raised at Spears Farms,” he said. “We have had great results with the MFA Ring Leader feed line.”

To name a few highlights, in the past two years, his son, Braylon, exhibited the Champion Poland Gilt and fourth overall gilt at the Team Purebred Southwest Regional in Chickasha, Okla. Spears’ daughter, Railey, showed the Re­serve Champion Poland barrow at the same show. They also took home champion honors in the Oklahoma Youth Expo, including fifth overall cross barrow. At the Arkansas- Oklahoma State Fair in Fort Smith, Ark., the Spears family showed the Reserve Grand Champion. All of these pigs were fed Ring Leader.

Spears, who also teaches agriculture at Wilburton FFA in Oklahoma, grew up raising pigs and competing in swine shows with his family from a young age. In August 2020, he made the six-hour drive to Sedalia, Mo., to judge the youth swine show at the Missouri State Fair. The Cassville FFA chapter sent 15 of their own students, including Timothy, to show at the event.

“I was honored when I was asked to judge for the Missouri State Fair,” Spears said. “I enjoy working with kids, and any time I get to share my advice and meet good people and good families, I’m happy to do it. The livestock industry is very family-oriented and teaches young people many life skills.”

When judging, Spears said he looks for overall balance in the animal.

“First and foremost, I am looking for pigs that are structurally correct and functional on their feet and legs. It starts there,” he said. “I want to see pigs that have the right kind of proportion­al muscle shape, width and rib shape, those that are stout in terms of bone and foot size, and those that maintain look and extension. The overall freshness of the animal’s presentation is very important to me as well. Our winners are the ones that put as many of those positive traits together.”

Nutrition and daily care are big factors in gaining that com­petitive edge, Spears said. He was introduced to Ring Leader in 2018 through friend and MFA’s national livestock sales manager, Tom Lattimore.

“The reason I started feeding MFA Ring Leader at Spears Farms was the confidence I have in Tom,” Spears said. “Genetically, show pigs have different backgrounds and different needs when feeding and preparing for show day. The MFA Ring Leader line offers diversity for each pig’s needs based on what you are trying to accomplish.”

Performance and palatability of the feeds have been consistently good, he added.

“We first see the palatability of the feed when we introduce the Ring Leader Starter 1 Micro Pellet to our 21-day-old baby pigs,” Spears said. “Then, as those pigs started to transition and develop, Ring Leader offers different stages of feed for that growth.”

Timothy said he also understands the importance of good nutrition for his show pigs. Based on his teach­ers’ recommendation, he also feeds Ring Leader.

“If you don’t give the pigs what they need, they’re not up to standard, and right now the standard at shows is pretty high,” Timothy said. “The first thing you notice when you go into the ring is the pig that looks the best and the pig that looks the worst. The pig that looks the worst is always too fat or too skinny. You can just see the difference good nutrition makes.”

Penelope wasn’t Timothy’s first pig. He began his show career with one he purchased a year earlier at a sale held in the meat barn at the state fair. But his latest sow has set him on a path toward a future in and out of the show ring. Now 16, Timothy aspires to grow what started as a simple FFA project.

“I’d like to go to the College of the Ozarks for genetic engineering,” Timothy said. “They have a giant swine barn, and the program is hands-on. I’d like to eventu­ally expand on what we’ve started here, breeding show animals.”

He and his parents are talking about how to bol­ster his project and prepare for that future. Timothy has formed a business and sold several pigs. He’s also talking about selling pork at farmer’s markets in addi­tion to his breeding program.

“I think it would be cool if I could make a big name of myself, like some of the other well-known breed­ers,” he said. “But if not, I’m fine with operating a little hometown farm, raising good pigs.”

Timothy shuffles through his box of almost innu­merable show ribbons, evidence that he knows what it takes to be successful.

“I think I’m definitely competitive,” he said. “I play sports too, so I know what it takes to be good at something. You have to practice. You have to put in the work. You have to be at home working with your animals, and they have to trust you.”

To reiterate that point, Davis offered up a simple life lesson.

“Champions aren’t made in the ring. They’re made right here,” Davis said, paraphrasing a quote by former boxer Joe Frazier. “They just prove themselves in the ring, and sometimes that champion isn’t always the animal you show. It’s you.”

For more information on Ring Leader Feeds, contact your local MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location to be put in touch with a livestock specialist or visit online at www.mfa-inc.com/feed.

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