So you may have heard, the President came to Wyffels Hybrids this week. The President. Of the United States. I have said it before, but no matter your politics, it was just cool.
As I drove across I-80 and neared Geneseo, I began to see IDOT dump trucks strategically parked across median turn-arounds. At each overpass were two uniformed officers. Armed, I'm sure.
MIDWEST SWING: President Barack Obama wrapped up his three-day swing through the Upper Midwest with a stop at Wyffels Hybrids.
I exited at Geneseo, to avoid potential traffic snafus at the Atkinson exit. This drive took me across lovely countryside and through downtown Atkinson, population 1,000. I've hardly been more proud of rural America; the streets were lined with a couple hundred flags, and folks were gathering in lawn chairs on their front yards, waiting for the president. This was at 9 a.m., and he wasn't set to arrive at Wyffels until after 11 a.m. And I'm certain not everyone was a rabid Obama supporter. At some point, you just have to say, he's the president and this is a once-in-a-lifetime gig.
And so, because it's late and because my mind is still swimming from it all, the day's observations in bullets:
**Once inside the Wyffels warehouse, we were sorted according national media and local/ag media, the main difference being food and drinks. In other words, they had them; we didn't. But we weren't bitter.
**Martin Ross (Farmweek) showed them. He finagled himself a nice lunch. And he had a good time doing it.
We ag media types waited together, catching up. We're friendly like that. We also fielded questions from AP reporters like, "What's in all the white bags?" Um, that would be seed corn.
**As we stood there talking about important agricultural topics like crop conditions and market outlooks (Not really. Try, telling old stories about highly-beveraged soybean train trips. And complaining about the national press and their fancy food. That's right. There's truth in journalism, right there.), representing such publications as Prairie Farmer, Farm Futures, High Plains Journal, DTN, Farmweek and even the entire American Ag Editors Association, a very nice man walked past, paused and leaned into our circle. "You know it's Wyffels and not Wie-fulls, right? For broadcast?" I smiled, nodded and told him thank you and that, yes, we were aware.
**Clearly this information didn't make it to the President. When he first took the stage, he made sure to thank "the Waffles family" for hosting. Ack! Amid calls from the crowd – "Wyffels! Wyffels!" – he corrected and poked fun at himself, saying he hadn't had lunch yet. So it turns out, everybody's human, even the president. But seriously, do you know how many pallets of seed corn these people just moved for you?
**Speaking of seed corn, Bill Wyffels told me that someone on the White House staff, upon hearing they were going to Wyffels Hybrids, thought it was some kind of a green auto manufacturing plant. Not exactly.
**Speaking of Bill Wyffels, when he got the original voice mail from the White House, asking him to host this shindig, he thought it was a prank call. For real. After the second message, they decided maybe not so much. Also, Bill Wyffels is one of the nicest people I've met.
**The Wyffels team agreed to host the town hall meeting on Friday afternoon. I got an email at 5:30 that afternoon. I had to RSVP to the White House by 11 a.m. Saturday. By Monday, pallets of corn were being shuffled about the warehouse. By Wednesday, the president was there. Dude.
**The whole thing started with the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer by a local Catholic priest and introduction of the president, who strode energetically from a carefully constructed maze of seed corn. It ended with "Hail to the Chief" and much hand shaking. If I had a bucket list, it would have "Hear 'Hail to the Chief' played in the president's presence" and I could check it off.
**The President spoke for 10 or 15 minutes and then opened it up for questions. Farmer Rock Katschnig got the first question – score! He was awesome. He asked the question I would've asked, if I'd gotten to ask a question. "Mr. President, I enjoy growing corn and soybeans. The weather has challenged us this year. Please don't challenge us further with more rules and regulations in Washington, D.C., that hinder us from doing that. We would prefer to start our day in the tractor cab or combine cab, rather than filling out forms and permits." Obama responded by asking what concerned him, in particular. Rock replied that regulations concerning pollution and runoff concerned him most. "Common sense is the best approach," he added, "and we are good at using it."
**One of the last folks Obama called on was Alex McAvoy, age 11. (Poor guy. He first said he was 10, then remembered his birthday was the day before and corrected himself. The pressure!) Alex spoke into the mic: "My grandpa is a farmer and he owns part of a local ethanol plant. What will you do to keep the ethanol plant running?" The President laughed and told him he was an excellent representative for his grandpa. He went on to say that although he's a strong supporter of ethanol, he wants to see more diversity in biofuels, and then spoke for several minutes about cellulosic biofuels sources, and other sources that don't come from the food supply.
This is getting long, so I'll wrap it up with a final thought. I have heard much criticism about the cost and practicality of this trip. I totally get that, as one colleague counted 50 cars in the motorcade. But at the same time, it was an amazing chance to bring national (consumer) media to the countryside. You just wouldn't believe the numbers of national media who were there. One of the Wyffels folks got to explain seed corn to the aforementioned AP reporter. The CNN guys were fascinated with the detasseling machine. CBS Morning News did an in-depth interview with a handful of Wyffels employees. And maybe – just maybe – the President was able to reconnect with what rural Illinois is all about. Perhaps I'm being naïve there, but a girl can only hope that hundreds of good, hard-working people can make an impression. I saw definite benefits. Was it worth the price tag? I don't know.
But my hat is off to the Wyffels folks for setting aside whatever political leanings they may or may not have and stepping up to host this event for rural Illinois. There was nothing in this for the company; they weren't paid or compensated for their time. Rumor has it that some farmers wanted to cancel their seed orders, in protest. Honestly, I think that's just silly. The Wyffels family set aside politics and flat-out made this happen, for agriculture and for their little town. Regardless of your politics, Barack Obama is the President of the United States of America, and he stood in the middle of a seed corn warehouse and answered questions from the people of rural Illinois. That's just plain awesome.