A dairy farmer first, and a commissioner second

January 24, 2011
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Many of us take our cell phones for granted. But in this instance, that often underappreciated communication tool allowed the Business Journal to conduct an Inside Track interview with someone who was working in a barn instead of an office.

Kent County Commissioner Bill Hirsch was cleaning his milking machines on his dairy farm in Caledonia when we spoke with him. He had to stop several times to change the cycle on the milkers, the hum of which was barely audible in the background.

Another odd fact came up during that interview. Hirsch said his birthplace can’t be found on a map today. “I’m not sure what year it changed, but I like to tell people I was born in a place that doesn’t exist anymore, and that was Paris Township. Today, it’s actually the city of Kentwood,” he said.

Although Hirsch feels he is a dairy farmer first and a county commissioner second, he ran for and won a second term to the county board in November. When asked what the biggest break in his career was, Hirsch first tried to separate his farming from his political life. But then he decided that the answer to that question could easily be applied to both.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of good people who see things in me that I don’t always see in myself. It’s a very true statement: I’ve been very blessed. I have a lot of very good people around me,” he said.

Contrary to most of today’s farmers, Hirsch’s parents were not farmers; they were both in sales. His maternal grandfather, however, owned land near Fremont and was a dairy farmer. As a youngster, Hirsch visited him on holidays and during summer vacations; he said those trips made him want to emulate his grandfather’s way of life.

“I decided that was the direction I wanted to go in my life and my career. I decided at a very young age that I was going to pursue this lifestyle and do everything I could to make it happen,” he said. “When I turned 16 and got a driver’s license, I drove south from Kentwood to the first dairy farm I came to and knocked on the door and told them I’d like to work for them.”

Amazingly, he was hired and worked on the farm through high school and college. When he turned 20, he decided it was time for him to go into business. He had been able to put away a few dollars by then, so he bought a couple of calves and some small equipment, and then rented a barn and a piece of land in Kentwood. In 1991, he began farming in earnest at his current location in Caledonia.

“I started actually milking cows by myself when I was 22, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years now. That’s hard to believe,” he said. “I started by milking about eight or 10 cows and I slowly built the herd over the past 20 years, and we’re now milking close to 50 cows. All totaled, with our young heifers and dry cows, there probably are 135 head that I care for every day.”

Hirsch chose dairy over crop farming because of his grandfather, his self-professed love for animals, and for what the dairy industry offers. “This year would be an exception, with crop prices so high. But with dairy you have a steady income year round and you don’t have to sell your animals to make a living. In other words, if you had a beef or pig operation, you constantly have to turn over the animals you have,” he said.

“I truly like everything about dairy farming: I like being outside. I like animals. But there is a downside to it. It is seven days a week, twice a day, every day: Christmas, your birthday, New Year’s Eve, spring break, summer vacation. You don’t get away from it. But it’s a good life. It’s a good way to raise a family.”

Bill and Dawn have been married for 17 years. “I had to go to Battle Creek to meet a woman who would put up with a dairy farmer,” he said. The Cereal City is Dawn’s hometown. She was employed at Kellogg’s, went to Kellogg Community College and graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in environmental science and communications. The two met through a mutual friend and dated for a little more than a year before they got married. Dawn is in her 14th year as a bus driver for Kentwood Public Schools. They have three children.

“Their biggest thing is 4-H. They absolutely love the Kent County Youth Fair. They plan their whole summer around the fair and getting their animals ready for the fair. With Dawn’s help — and she deserves all the credit for this — they usually make a pretty decent amount of money selling feeder steers and pigs at the fair every year. That enabled my oldest son, Nicholas, to buy his first car. He paid cash for it at 14 years old,” he said.

Old MGs are the cars of choice for the Hirsch family. Bill owns a 1953 MGTD and a 1959 MGA. The car Nicholas bought last year is a 1977 MGB. Hirsch said he repairs the cars, but “I wouldn’t say ‘restore.’ … My goal is to make sure they’re mechanically sound and enjoy them the way they are,” Hirsch said. “I feel a car is a piece of history and I don’t want to tamper with it.”

Hirsch earned a Master Citizen Planner degree from the Michigan State University Extension. He began his higher education journey at MSU in the agriculture sciences school. He is active with the Kent County Farm Bureau and a past member of the Kent County Agriculture Preservation Board. “I still attend the meetings and am involved in what’s going on, of course,” he said.

Kendra Wills, a land-use educator with the Kent/MSU Extension, said she has known Hirsch since he was on the preservation board. She said he was a very active member who often attended more meetings and seminars than were required.

“Bill traveled to Pennsylvania to learn more about how farmland preservation programs work. He also completed the seven-session Citizen Planner Program to better understand land-use planning, zoning laws and best practices. Bill completed a community phone survey, in addition to an online exam, to earn his Master Citizen Planner status,” said Wills.

“In 2009, he was awarded the Distinguished Citizen Planner Award by Michigan State University’s Citizen Planner Program for his leadership on land-use issues as a citizen and a county commissioner,” she added.

Hirsch was appointed as an agriculture representative to the board in 2003 and also served on the Moline Cooperative Board before he threw his hat into the commission race in 2008. Although he said he hadn’t seen himself pursuing a career in politics, he changed his mind because he wasn’t certain the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program was going to succeed. What raised that concern was that the commissioners who approved the program also stipulated that county tax dollars couldn’t be used to buy commercial development rights from landowners. The ordinance went into effect the year Hirsch joined the preservation board.

Hirsch said he spent the next several years trying to convince commissioners of the program’s value and that the county should fund the purchases, but he felt he was getting nowhere. Then, on the return trip from Lancaster County, Penn., where he and other local residents toured preserved farmland, two members of the contingent asked him to run for the commission.

“I looked at them and thought to myself, ‘I’m not sure they know who they’re talking to because I’m just a regular guy. I’m not a politician,’” he said. “I think what everyone out there is looking for at all levels of government is just someone who represents people, their problems and their perspectives. And I promised everyone and myself that no matter what the issue, no matter what the problem, I would be open minded, I would listen and I would do my very best,” he said.

“I think that’s what has gotten me to where I am. I am very grateful for it and I’m certainly not going to forget it. I’m not somebody to sit idle. I really want to make a difference; I want to have an impact. I want to change things for the better and, believe it or not, the easy part is getting elected. The hard part is actually accomplishing something, or affecting something.”

Hirsch was part of a group that was able to make a sizeable change: In late 2009, the board agreed to fund the PDR program. Over the last two budgets including this year’s, $550,000 has gone into that effort.

Although he said he is “a Republican to his core,” Hirsch also said he is concerned that his party’s current 15-to-4 majority on the commission will erase some of the bipartisan gains that nudged the board into a different operating direction over the past two years. “With what I call all these ‘old-guard guys’ coming back, I think that the board may be going a little bit back to the old way of doing things,” he said.

“Most people felt getting funding for farmland protection was my main focus, but it really was changing the way the board operates. That was even more important and was even a bigger accomplishment to me,” he said.

Still, the PDR program remains on his front burner. “I think the greatest contribution I could make would be to educate other commissioners on the importance of farmland preservation and the economic impact of agriculture in the county.”

As for his immediate future, Hirsch sees quality topping quantity.

“I’ve always been driven to really accomplish a lot. But when you get into your 40s, you realize maybe you’re not going to accomplish everything you thought you would. I’ve been hit a little bit with that. So I guess I’m at a point where I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “But I see the next step for me is I’m just going to do the very best job I can.”

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