Oct 24, 2011
President’s visit a boost for Illinois farm market

Bruce was knee-deep in vines, picking watermelons, when his cellphone rang.

“Is this Bruce Curry?” a voice asked.

“Yes,” Bruce affirmed.

“Mr. Curry, I’m calling from the White House.”

“You mean the one in Washington, D.C.?”

Bruce Curry owns Country Corner Farm and Farm Market, an 80-acre farm in Alpha, Ill., near the Iowa border. The caller went on to identify himself as a representative of the president of the United States. He said they had been looking at the farm’s website, and wanted to know if President Obama could visit his farm and hold a town hall meeting on his property. Bruce asked them to send him an email, and he’d look at it after he finished picking his watermelons.

How would you respond if someone called and asked if the president could visit your farm next week? Once Bruce Curry verified that the caller, and his email, were authentic, he accepted the honor – and a golden marketing opportunity.
In case you’re curious, Bruce said no one ever asked his political affiliation. The president’s team made it clear that Obama was coming to Alpha to hear from and talk with the people. Bruce was told that he would be the host, and the guests would be of his choosing. Of the approximately 400 guests, only about 70, primarily government representatives, were invited by the president’s team. (That number does not include approximately 250 members of the press, and a large contingent of security.)

The morning after Bruce responded to the email, representatives came to the farm and Bruce put his marketing plan to work.

“I had a good idea of what needed to be done, so I told them not to eat breakfast before they came out,” he said. “We had a big breakfast with lots of farm-fresh cantaloupe, watermelon and peaches waiting for them. I also took them on a hayrack ride of the farm so they could see the entire operation and have a little fun while they were at it. They had said they’d be there about an hour, as they might want to look at some other farms that morning, but they remained till noon.

“They were extremely polite and down to earth. They explained that I would be the host, the guests would be my guests and they would take care of the president and his needs for security, sound equipment and so forth. By the next morning, they confirmed that they would be coming to Country Corner, although I couldn’t tell anyone until it was announced by the White House on Thursday night.

“They tried to keep the expenses down. Gators were loaned to them free of charge by John Deere, and they used a lot of volunteers. For my part, I was not reimbursed for my expenses, but thanks to a wonderful staff and lot of friends, I only spent about $7,000, putting in new rock on the lot, getting new hats and shirts for the staff, buying some paint … that sort stuff. Actually, I didn’t spend anything I wouldn’t normally spend getting ready for October, we just did it earlier. The president’s team took care of the expenses that were not related to the farm itself, such as the generators, a large tent that was set up in case it rained and that sort of thing.”

While the White House invited a small list of local, state and federal dignitaries, most of the guests attending the Town Hall Meeting were people chosen by Bruce. After inviting his family, staff and close friends, Bruce thought about people who were making a difference in the community – especially the teachers, business and civic leaders in Alpha and in Henry County.

“The toughest thing I had to do was to decide who would sit in the VIP section. I got to choose about 40 people, and knew they would get to shake hands with the president,” he said.

On the day of the event, security was a prime factor. There had been a security presence from the beginning, but this morning people were stationed in a perimeter around the 80-acre farm, maintaining a line-of-site vigilance. At 11 a.m., the farm was closed and absolutely everyone was taken off the property. Bomb-sniffing dogs and bloodhounds searched the entire property, including the corn maze. By 1 p.m., scanners were set up and the guests began entering. They were restricted to a special, secure area surrounded by fencing and secret service agents, where they waited for the president to arrive. Bruce, as the host, provided them with lots of local produce, along with his own “Magic Popcorn” he sells on the farm and through his website. Generous farm friends also helped feed the guests, bringing apple pie, apple cider donuts, blueberries, tomatoes and melons.

“When the president arrived, he was extremely friendly and personable. He was still 30 feet away when he called out, ‘Hi Bruce. How are you doing?’ – just like an old friend. Then I introduced him to my mom and dad, and we talked about five minutes before he went to prepare for the town hall meeting.
“The president used my office to get ready, and I know that he had some of the best watermelon in whole world. I left it there for him, and after he left, there were a couple of watermelon seeds on the table. I kept those!

“In his speech, he told the group present, and the world audience listening to the farm visit on the major radio and television networks, just exactly what I do here on this farm and how proud he was.”

“I’m sure they studied our website, because he explained our market, our corn maze, our school tours and all we do, almost word for word.

“He then spoke more about what we do here in America, and how he is trying to change the politics in Washington, D.C. He was quite genuine in asking for the folks in the audience to help get the politicians working together for the good of the country.”

(There is a link to a video of the meeting on the home page and a second video where the president conducted his weekly address to the public right from the Country Corner Farm Market.)

Would he do it again?

“For 38 years, I have grown and sold fresh fruit and vegetables. And frankly, there are times I wonder, is it worth all that work? Well, when the president decides to visit my farm and tell my friends and the world that what I do is important – yes, that makes it all worth it.

“There are a lot of great farms in our area, but I’m guessing that when people are trying to decide where to go this fall, this visit will make a difference. They’ll want to come see the chair where the president sat in the middle of my market to deliver his weekly address. They’ll want to see why the president’s team chose Country Corner.

“It has also made a big difference in how I view my life and my business. I’ve learned to appreciate my staff more – I only have six full-time people. But I learned that I just need to ask for their help and they’ll get it done. They don’t need me to micro-manage them, they need my trust and faith in their abilities. I also had lots of friends, especially those in the produce area, that literally dropped what they were doing to come and help us spruce up the farm. I know now that what I do is important, and it has empowered me to do better and to appreciate all those who help to feed America.”

By Jane Eckert, VGN correspondent

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