Minnesota town keeps up 49 years of FFA exchanges with Alabama

Mikkel Pates
Forum News Service

LITCHFIELD, Minn. — FFA is about learning a rural and agricultural culture, and two “sister cities” in Minnesota and Alabama have taken that to an unusual level.

For nearly five decades, a group of FFA members and adults from the Hartford/Dothan area of Alabama have trekked to Minnesota every February for Litchfield’s “Peanut Butter and Milk” Festival, which was designed for the purpose.

And then every November, a group of FFAers from Litchfield travels to the Hartford/Dothan area to attend the National Peanut Festival — a multi-state event kind of like a state fair.

The cultural/agricultural exchange has been going on for 49 years with at least three generations of participants.

From Feb. 15 to 22, the Alabama group of six came to Minnesota. Two boys had to cancel at the last minute because they had to stay home with the basketball team to “carry us on to — hopefully a state championship,” said Kelli Brannon, president of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce. Kelli was part of the trip with her husband, Todd, and their step-daughter, Skyler.

Fresh, cold faces

The Alabamans stay with host families. First days included such local highlights as broom/boot hockey, a trip to the local county museum, featuring its famous “Darwin Twine Ball.” They learned it took 29 years to make the object.

They attended church with host families and went snowmobiling and near the Roger Huhn farm, down by Lake Manuella. The Meeker County Search and Rescue team showed up to give rides on their airboat.

“You can’t even find this in Alabama,” said Skyler Brannon, 18, a senior and president for the FFA chapter, dismantling an outfit for an interview that the Minnesotans said make her look like the abominable snowman. She half-joked, “I left 80-degree weather to come here!”

Jaxon Hess, 17, a junior in high school at Hartford, and an FFA member, said it was his first trip on a plane, first significant travel, and first experience with snow or frozen lakes. “Pretty cool,” he said.

On Monday, Feb. 17, they had breakfast at the “Muddy Cow” restaurant and went on local agribusiness tours. In the afternoon, they toured farms. The rest of the week included stops at the Minnesota State Capitol and the world-famous Mall of America, skiing at Powder Ridge at Kimball, Minn., and an egg-laying enterprise. The week always ends with a banquet and social.

Youth boosters

The beginnings of the event are a legend in small-town boosterism.

As the story goes, Bruce Cottington, owner of a Super Valu grocery in Litchfield, in January 1971 ginned up a sales gimmick to get people into his store. He and his produce manager Lloyd Kuehl went on local KLFD radio show to explain how often they consumed peanut butter in the same sitting that they drank milk.

Successful with the promotion, Cottington decided to carry the gimmick even farther.

He contacted Auburn University, a land grant institution in Alabama, to as to where would be the state’s best FFA chapter and was told Hartford. Cottington and his family traveled to Alabama to research the peanut industry.

Cottington and his family drove a Chevrolet “painted in two-tone peanut butter-brown and milk-white.” He arranged to talk to state officials most notably four-term Gov. George Wallace. Cottington gave Wallace some dairy products from the dairy area of Minnesota’s Meeker County. In turn, Wallace, who ran for president four times, signed a proclamation, making all Meeker County residents honorary residents of Alabama.

On that first trip, the Cottingtons attended the National Peanut Festival in Dothan, which is near Hartford. Cottington and Hartford’s FFA adviser Paul Dean and his students broached the idea of a north-south exchange, which has lasted for decades.

In February 1972, Dean led the first group of FFA students on a visit to Litchfield. In November 1972, the first group of four Litchfield FFA members traveled to Alabama.

Learning local

Rob Cole has been the Litchfield High School ag instructor and FFA adviser for 14 years. The chapter has 51 members. Most members are rural, but most don’t come from farms. Some of his former students have told him the trip was their favorite experience in their high school careers. Most years, Litchfield has sent six to eight to Alabama, but on special anniversaries they’ll send up to 10.

Most exchange programs don’t last very long, Cole said. It’s the only one he knows like it in the state or even nationwide. “It’s a rarity and an oddity for sure,” Cole said. “It’s a highlight for me, and for FFA members during the year,” he said.

Terri Anderson, a Litchfield certified public accountant, for 12 years has served on the Peanut Butter and Milk Sister City Exchange committee. In addition to learning about Alabama, she said the most important thing about working with the event is meeting people at home in Meeker County that she would not have met otherwise, even though her practice deals with some farmers and ethanol companies.

Her daughter went to Alabama when she was a senior in high school. The group raises funds with a brat feed and by serving ice cream at the dairy booth of the Meeker County Fair, taking a shift when the dairy farmers are home milking. They also are supported by “boosters” —businesses in the community.

“I’ve gotten to meet young people, students, get to know them, gotten to watch them grow. We’ve sent students to Alabama that are so shy. When they come back, they’re different.”

She has dairy in her background, but has been able to learn about robotic dairying and other changes.

Social media has helped students that have hosted each other stay in touch all throughout the year, even attending family events like weddings. Abagayle Shoutz, 15, a sophomore and Litchfield FFA chapter vice president, said her older sisters Laura and Sara and her father, Jon Shoutz, all have been to Alabama. The family has about 150 head of black Angus and British white beef cattle breeds. She had her own “personal girl,” — Gracie Brock — as a guest last year. “We still talk on a daily basis now, even though it’s been a year,” she said.

Huhn, who raises corn and soybeans, as well as some canning corn and peas for the Seneca (“Green Giant” brand), has run the lake activities. “It’s really about the kids,” He said he’s been part of the delegation to Alabama, learning about peanuts and cotton.

How peanuts grow

Jason Saunders, an electric co-op executive from Alabama, was in the group this year. He called it “experience of a lifetime” and said there is enough momentum and pride in the local organizations to keep it going for the foreseeable future.

Unwrapping her head for a brief interview on the ice, Skyler Brannon, 18, said most valuable part of the exchange is the relationships, but also the understanding of agriculture here versus there. She said her community has only one, small dairy farm.

When they come south, Skyler said, most youth from Minnesota are “kind of shocked” to learn that that peanuts grow underground. “First you have to plow the peanuts up with a plow, and then you come back with a picker and it sucks them all up,” she said. Similarly, FFA members from here are surprised to see how cotton is picked, baled, taken to a cotton gin and made into shirts or other clothing.

Skyler has made lifelong friends, such including this year’s host, Maddie Kelm who jetted her across the lake on a Yamaha snowmobile. It was fun, but Skyler didn’t hesitate when asked whether she’d like to live here.

“Too cold,” she said, flatly, and disappeared somewhere behind her scarf, hat and goggles.

Alabama guests give a thumbs-up after taking a ride Feb. 16 on the Meeker County Sheriff’s Department airboat rescue vehicle, which is used both in summer and winter. It is part of the annual Peanut Butter and Milk Festival and FFA exchange.
Maddie Kelm, left, an FFA member and senior at Litchfield (Minn.) High School, takes a bundled-up Skyler Brannon, of Hartford, Ala., on a snowmobile ride near Litchfield on Feb. 16, the second day of a weeklong Peanut Butter and Milk Festival exchange.