Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Tribute to a “Make a Difference” Rice Farmer

By John Owen
Louisiana Rice Promotion Board chairman

In 1972, a prior generation of Louisiana rice farmers had the foresight to initiate a grower-directed rice promotion check-off program to ensure a viable industry for years to come.  They envisioned a program that would generate demand for our crops worldwide, and do so with complete openness and accountability, all while representing the interests of every grower in the state.  I greatly admire their forward thinking and I, along with every other grower in the state, am reaping the benefits of that vision today.

Yet initiation of the check off system was not an end in itself.  To be effective it required, and continues to require, committed volunteer servants to direct the use of the funds generated through the grower-paid check-off program.  Fortunately, agriculture in general and rice specifically has always been blessed with such individuals –  men and women who volunteer their time and talents for the greater good without any compensation.  They are simply committed to ensuring that the Louisiana rice industry remains healthy for years to come.  John Maxwell, American author, speaker and pastor, calls such folks “Make-A-Difference People” and notes that they are committed to service.

Last June I was asked to chair the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board and I accepted knowing that I had some big boots to fill.  The outgoing chairman had served in that capacity for 10 years.  He was more than dedicated, he was out-and-out committed to ensuring that grower check off assessments were used in the most effective manner possible to increase the awareness and use of Louisiana-grown rice here in the U.S. and around the world.

By now you probably realize that I am speaking of Kevin Berken from Thornwell, . Louisiana.

Kevin was not only committed, he was innovative, especially when it came to activities designed to raise awareness of rice here in the state, efforts designed that complement national and international promotion efforts. I’d like to share just a few examples.

Left to right: Louisiana Rice Council President Eric Unkel;

Kevin Berken, past chairman of the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board, and  

Jimmy Hoppe, vice chairman of the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board.

Under Kevin’s leadership the promotion board joined USA Rice’s Domestic Promotion team in 2009 in a project called “New Orleans Restaurant & Chef Recognition.”  The program involved identifying New Orleans restaurants that use and promote U.S.-grown rice.

As a result of that effort, rice producers and other industry representatives were invited to participate in the “Chefs for Louisiana Cookery” for 500 attendees and the media.  Celebrated chefs of New Orleans came together for a fundraiser benefiting the James Beard Foundation whose mission is to celebrate, nurture and honor chefs and other leaders making America's food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.

Also during Kevin’s service as chairman the board launched a project entitled “Louisiana Rice – Awesome,” a fun-filled workbook packed with exercises designed to help Louisiana’s elementary students prepare for the their annual standardized examinations.  The activity used rice industry scenarios to train students in mathematics, language arts and social studies and as a result reached them and their parents with the rice message.

The promotion board’s involvement with the television program “Holly Clegg’s Trim & Terrific Kitchen,“ started under Kevin’s leadership.  Today the series has morphed into a new program titled "Feasting On Agriculture With A.J. Sabine, "which takes viewers across state, where the unique flavors of Louisiana's food and agriculture are highlighted.

While chairman, Kevin also became the voice of the promotion board’s National Rice Month radio campaign designed to leverage promotion funds with other commodity groups or brands, such as the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association and Camellia Beans, to conduct a state-wide radio campaign highlighting the Louisiana rice industry each September.

The board’s latest project adopted under Kevin’s leadership is the Louisiana Rice Report that airs over thirteen weeks on the Louisiana Farm Bureau Agri-News Radio Network.  Through this medium last year more than 78,000 Louisiana residents were educated on the benefits of the rice industry to the state and its economy and to their lives.

Kevin is truly a “Make a Difference” person and our industry is better off because of his leadership.  Although I was was pleased that Kevin was recognized for his dedicated service and I join all that were there as well as rice farmers throughout the state in applauding him for a job well-done.

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