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ABOVE: Haley Ammann-Ekstrom pictured during her recent trip to Ecuador as part of an agricultural leadership program.

FAIRMONT– Local woman Haley Ammann-Ekstrom recently returned from a trip to Ecuador as part of a two-year program with Minnesota Agricultural Rural Leadership.

Ammann, who graduated from Fairmont High School in 2012, is also a 6th generation cattle rancher. Having a strong passion for the agricultural industry, she applied to the MARL program as part of her work with the Nu-Way-K&H cooperative. She said 30 people across the state have been accepted into the program.

“It is intended to develop your public speaking and leadership skills so that it can help you be a leader within your community or county,” Ammann said of the program.

She shared that this was the first group in the program that had more women than men.

Throughout the two years of the program, the group traveled to different parts of the state, including St. Paul, to meet with senators from their section.

“I met Julie Rosen, which was awesome. She’s awesome,” Amman said.

They also made an inland destination, which was Washington, DC, where they went in November.

Ammann said the program always ends with an international trip to allow the group to learn about agriculture in a different country. This year, the group traveled to Ecuador for 10 days.

The program is linked to the University of Minnesota Extension Office. In addition to the 30 members from across the state, the program director and two leaders from the U of M Extension were also on the trip.

“We moved to different cities. We started in Otavalo and moved to Quito, which is the capital. Then we moved to Mindo and ended up in Santo Domingo,” Amman said.

A tour guide and bus driver stayed with the group for the duration of the trip and took them to various different farms.

“Ecuador is best known for its roses. We went to a rose farm and we visited an avocado farm. They were so good and fresh,” Amman said.

They also went to a few markets, which she says are similar to farmers’ markets here, except it’s common for all the stalls to sell the same produce or seasoning.

“They settle down and are there all day selling to local people,” Amman said.

One fact Ammann was interested in learning is that even though fuel is cheaper there, most people don’t have vehicles or drive vehicles, but rather walk.

“Most of the farms we visited have one thing in common. Everything was planted and harvested by hand. They don’t have big tractors to do the work for them. It is very laborious, but they are very proud of it. It was quite humbling to see all these farms and to think how labor intensive it must be,” Amman said.

Other farms they visited included a pineapple farm and a plantain farm, the latter resembling bananas but quite starchy. Ammann said that in Ecuador they use plantains as potatoes and usually serve them fried.

The group also visited a guinea pig farm, which Ammann said was an interesting experience.

“We eat turkey for Thanksgiving and maybe ham for Christmas or Easter, but they eat guinea pig for all of those events,” Amman said.

She said they were told that each Ecuadorian would eat about three or four guinea pigs a year. A guinea pig is usually one serving and is served whole and fried.

Ammann said most of the group were good sportsmen and had at least eaten a bite or two.

“They kept saying the meat looked like rabbit. It was tender but stringy. He definitely had his own taste. I wouldn’t eat it again, I prefer a juicy steak,” laughed Ammann.

Of his trip, Ammann said, “It was very enlightening, humbling and eye-opening.”

She said that while Ecuadorian farmers focus on different crops, they share the same challenges as farmers here.

“We all struggle with government, markets, prices and weather. We all struggle the same, it’s just that we grow different cultures to sell and earn a living,” Amman said.

The international trip was the last big event of the two-year program. Ammann said there will be a graduation in June where they will receive a certificate that they have completed the program.

Ammann said MARL is seeking candidates for the 2022-2024 program. The deadline to apply is April 29.

In addition to MARL, Ammann is a member of the Minnesota Cattlemen Association and the Trailblazers group within the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which has 10 members nationwide. She is also a board member of Minnesota Ag in the Classroom.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the special section of Sentinel’s April 2022 Farming Update.

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