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Tackling tough farm issues

Farm Bureau President Hirsch sees many challenges, changes ahead for Ohio farmers

First Posted: 4:36 pm - March 4th, 2016 Updated: 4:42 pm - March 4th, 2016. - Views

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Ohio Farm Bureau President Steve Hirsch talks about the value of the Farm Bureau to farmers.

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By Gary Brock

gbrock@civitasmedia.com

CHILLICOTHE — When Ross County farmer Steve Hirsch enrolled in college nearly 30 years ago, he was clear in his mind what he did not what to be after he graduated — a farmer.

And for five years after he graduated with a degree in business from the University of Dayton, Hirsch remained away from his family’s farm in Huntington Township, forging a successful career with several Fortune 500 companies.

But when in 1992 his parents asked him to return to their family fruit farm and help them operate it, he did so quickly and without regrets. He has remained at the Hirsch family farm ever since, making farming both his life and his love.

In December, Hirsch was elected to his fifth term as president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

It has been an unexpected but satisfying journey for the head of the state’s largest agriculture and farming organization.

Fourth-generation farmer

Hirsch said his great-great grandfather bought the first piece of property in Ross County in 1872, on February 29 at a Leap Day Sheriff’s Sale. His great grandfather started planting about 10-12 acres of peaches in about 1890.

“I am a fourth-generation fruit grower. We grow tree fruits and vegetables,” he said. Hirsch runs the farm with his father and brother. The farm has a cider making facility, an off-farm and on-farm market, they do four farmers markets throughout the summer and fall, and also some wholesale. About 85 percent of their business is retail.

As a fourth-generation farmer, Hirsch was asked if he ever considered, while growing up, doing something other than farming.

“Actually, I wasn’t going to be a farmer. I loved growing up on the farm. I was in 4-H for 10 years. I took part in fairs and was in the Farm Bureau youth groups and state camps. But when I went to college I was not going to be a farmer. It was not a very good time in agriculture, so I decided I was going to do something else, where I wouldn’t have to struggle to make money,” Hirsch said.

In 1983, he went to the University of Dayton, which doesn’t have an ag program. and received a Bachelor of Science degree in business in 1987 with a double major in marketing and management. He then spent about five years after college in sales with several Fortune 500 companies. During this time he lived in Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Holland, Michigan.

How did the family feel about this? “Actually, they felt very good, because they, my grandfather and his five siblings all went to college. Two sisters were teachers, one was a nurse, one was veterinarian, one was a dentist. Going to college was what they did. They believed in giving us our wings. There was no pressure on us,” Hirsch said.

“Then in 1992, my mom and dad were looking for some help.” He said his parents were in their 50s and they needed help on the farm. “The farm needed to grow and do something different. My wife and I talked about it, and we thought that if it didn’t work out, we were still young enough to do something else. Twenty some years later we are still here,” he said.

Making changes

Was it a tough decision to leave a successful career in business and return to the farm? “It was. We were making pretty good money in the corporate world. On the farm it is a more austere lifestyle. My wife was a little reticent, but she very much enjoys the pace and the friends she has and the community.”

Did the change in the pace take time to get used to? “I was fine because I grew up here, but it was an adjustment for my wife. She is great with this pace now,” he said.

Hirsch said the farm had been about 90 percent wholesale during his grandfather’s days. “They started expanding the farm market in the 1970s and 1980s. They started a ‘pick your own’ which grew in popularity in the 1970s,” he said.

When Hirsch returned to the farm in 1992, he said, “We needed to do something different. We went to about 75 percent retail by the 1980s and now have changed completely to almost all retail.”

When he returned, he did a little bit of everything on the farm to learn more about the fruit growing business. Not long after, he took over the bookkeeping and accounting. They added more small fruit, expanding into strawberries and blackberries.

“We adjusted our tree fruit, our apple variety. There were apple varieties that made great money in the 1970s and 80s that no longer were in favor in the 1990s. As consumers changed over time – we used to sell bushels of apples to people to make pies – not too many people make pies or sauce anymore,” Hirsch pointed out.

He said that today, most people want apples to eat. “So we had to go from growing a lot of baking and cooking use apples to growing more eating apples. In an orchard, that is not an overnight thing. It’s not like corn and beans where you can plant a new variety the next year. Changing is very time consuming, and there is a lag,” he said.

What are the best eating apples that he carries?

Hirsch said they grow almost 30 varieties today. “The most popular variety is Honeycrisp, then Fuji, and we grow a Golden Delicious with a very nice flavor. We are always looking at the varieties and what is popular and adjust accordingly.”

Hirsch is one of the farm’s owners, along with his father, brother and cousin. He is in charge of the day-to-day operations.

In total, the farm is about 480 acres; 275-300 in hardwood forest. About 120 acres is in fruit, vegetables and hay, a little in pasture and a little in fallow ground.

Does he have any regrets about returning to the farm? “No, not at all.”

The Farm Bureau and the Hirschs

Hirsch said there had been someone from his family involved in the Ohio Farm Bureau since its beginning.

His father told him when he returned to the farm in 1992, “Join and become involved in the Farm Bureau.” Hirsch said that in the 1990s, there was a product labeling issue in Ohio and the Farm Bureau became involved in it and as a result he became active in the Farm Bureau.

“I became involved in the Ross County Farm Bureau, became its president, then a district trustee on the state FB board, that was in October, 2001,” he said. In 2011, he became president of the Ohio Farm Bureau.

Why run for president? “I was encouraged to run for state treasurer about 12 years ago. Then I ran and became vice president. It was my turn to then step up and become president. By then you have a pretty good grasp of what is going on. But there are always things you can’t be prepared for.”

Has it been a tough five years as president? “There are always going to be issues. We need to always be looking at the issues and evolve and change. If you don’t evolve, you become like the organizations that don’t exist any more or are just a shell.”

Hirsch was asked about the changing demographics of farmers and variety of farmers. In the future, how can the Farm Bureau represent all these diverse types of farmers and farming methods?

“It’s not impossible. We do it now. We represent everyone from the farmer who has a few horses to someone with 5,000 acres of grain crops. It is hard as an organization to have that singular focus as some groups can have, such as the Soybean Association with its singular focus. We have a very broad focus as a general farm organization,” he said.

Farmers and common issues

“But there are issues that each and every one of these farmers have, so we want to be there to help them with their issues. As we look to the future, it isn’t just farmers who have these issues but those who support the farmers. Feed and seed providers, processors, equipment dealers … what issues do they have also? We want to invite them to be members, as well. If we have this many people advocating for an issue, it is better than a smaller number,” Hirsch pointed out.

Hirsch said the Farm Bureau wants to have a big tent and welcome more people into the organization. “We are working on business climate and water quality issues. These folks (in farm support) care about it, too. We want to build a community of people who find these issues important to them.”

Hirsch was asked when the Farm Bureau takes a position, does he worry that this position will not make some Farm Bureau members happy, such as the GMO labeling issue? How does he reconcile this with his own membership?

“That’s one of the challenges of a general farm organization. You have so many members, and you will have those who will not be happy and some who will. We have to look at what is best for the farming community as a whole and try to do what is best in the long run. We are not looking for short-term victories; we are looking for what is sustainable in the long run,” he said.

“And are we having a good conversation about the issue so we get both sides of the issue?” he asked. “That way we can come to a position or find a common ground. There are some issues we can’t find common ground on and some we can.

“The one issue we probably can’t find common ground with is ethanol and livestock. That’s one that plays out all the time. We are in the middle of that one. It’s not a big issue now with the price of corn under $4 a bushel. Livestock farmers are happy, ethanol plants are happy, but corn farmers are not. It is all about building demand outside of certain areas and that’s another side to that,” he said.

Hirsch said there are some “one issue” farmers. “And if someone doesn’t want to join because of one issue, then that’s a shame. Because there are so many things that we can do to help farmers in a number of areas. This does frustrate me a bit. Hopefully people take a little broader view, and can agree to disagree on one issue, but there are many other issues that are important.”

He said there is a frustration about farmers who don’t come to the meetings but complain. “Come to the meetings, take part and speak up,” he urged.

Is one of the main purposes of the Farm Bureau to help farmers find ways to be profitable? “I think that is one of the original ideas for starting the Farm Bureau. Farmers getting together to make purchases to lower costs, to get together to speak as a voice in the community.

The OFB’s pressing issues

What are the top issues he sees that the Farm Bureau needs to address in the future?

“We definitely need to prioritize the issues because there are so many of them,” he said.

“Water quality probably tops the list because it is important to everyone in Ohio. We as farmers are trying to do what we can do. We can’t do it alone, so we are encouraging others to step up, too. We are doing research and things on the ground.”

Taxes and business climate is a priority issue, he said.

Will competition overseas be an issue in the future? “We are already in a world market, especially in grain and livestock. That’s why we need to have trade agreements to keep us competitive. That’s why it’s important to have the Trade Promotion Authority for Asian countries. Half of what we grow in Ohio goes to the export market and a lot of it goes to the Asian markets.”

Hirsch said he has found local Ohio leaders for the most part are very supportive of the agriculture community. “Many of the things we do are to encourage that discussion between farmers and their local officials, such as township trustees and county auditors. We encourage these conversations.”

He said getting together for events such as the President’s Trip to Washington is very important. “We should always be sharing information across counties, sharing programs. Sharing what works on our farms.”

The Farm Bureau as an advocacy group – how big a role should the Farm Bureau play in being an advocate for issues?

“When you ask someone why they join the Farm Bureau, they generally give you three reasons. The first is public policy such as taxes and water; this is a big part of our trips to Washington, that advocacy. Farmers meeting with their elected officials, putting a face on that issue and what effect it has on a farmer’s operation. Hopefully this creates a relationship between the officials and local farmers. We want that relationship, whether local, state or national so that you can advocate for the issues that are important,” Hirsch said.

The role of young farmers

Each County Farm Bureau has its own president, and Hirsch was asked if he is happy with the present mix. He said he is, and added, “We are in the time frame when there is a lot of changeover, with Baby Boomers retiring. Some counties are shifting faster than others. A lot of counties have the tradition of being president for two years, then someone else becomes president.”

Does he like that? “I do. It allows someone else to come along and get experience. There could be great future leaders out there for the Farm Bureau, and you don’t want to do a disservice by staying on too long.”

There is a growing number of younger Farm Bureau presidents. Was this a change urged on by the state Farm Bureau? No, said Hirsch. “This has happened from the county level. As we try to get more young people involved in the Farm Bureau, and as the demographics have shifted, Farm Bureaus have taken it upon themselves to get younger members involved. That shift is happening. The counties have taken it upon themselves to get new members involved and have done a good job of that,” he said.

“We have a good mix of young and older Farm Bureau presidents.

“I think this generational transfer of farms and getting new folks involved in agriculture will be an issue in the future. I also think there will be continued consolidation of farms. There will be larger large farms and smaller small farms. That is going to be a challenge to represent all that for the Farm Bureau,” Hirsch pointed out.

He also said a challenge is that people are getting farther and farther away from the farm. “Many people are now four generations removed from farming, and many do not understand what farmers do or how we do it. We must continue to be good communicators, and it is the younger farmers who are really good at that. We need to share with the public things such as farm tours and information on blogs.”

He said the Bureau’s Young Ag Professionals is very important in this effort. “We need to develop the next generation of leaders. Who will be taking my place, who will be moving up?” he wondered.

What has being a Farm Bureau member meant to you? “Farm Bureau is the farm organization in Ohio that gets things done. Starting out in the early to mid-90s the issue of labeling was important to us, and the Farm Bureau has taken a lead on issues like this. It is important for our farm and farms across Ohio all the things that the Farm Bureau does to advocate for agriculture in Ohio, and the American Farm Bureau nationally. We need that voice.

Does he see the Farm Bureau as an advocate for farmers working on farms of all sizes and types? “Definitely. We have members of all sizes. As a general farm organization, we work on issues affecting farms and farm businesses no matter what size you are. We work on a broad spectrum of issues that affect all Ohioans and hopefully if we are working on an issue it will have a positive impact on your farm and that issue.”

He said very high on the Farm Bureau’s priority list is hiring a new executive vice president to replace Jack Fisher, who is retiring.

“I have really enjoyed my time so far as president. I’ve been working with some of the greatest people in the world — farmers. We have a great staff with agriculture in their background, so they understand the issues. When you are working with such down to earth folks it makes it easy. Our very professional staff makes my job a lot easier. It has been a great opportunity. I have learned a lot, met a lot of great people and built many great relationships,” Hirsch said.

Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.

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Farm Bureau President Hirsch sees many challenges, changes ahead for Ohio farmers

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