Inside Track: Family and faith drive Herbruck
President of family poultry farm wants to use his resources to help those around the world.
Greg Herbruck said family and faith are the epicenters of his life.
He is the fourth son who was born into the family business, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch Inc., founded by Harry Herbruck Jr. and Marilyn Herbruck in 1958.
Sixty years later, the Saranac-based business continues to run, now at the hands of Greg Herbruck, who is the president, and his siblings.
Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch is the largest egg producer in the state of Michigan, the 11th largest in the country and the largest U.S. organic farm. The business has over 9 million laying hens in Michigan and in Indiana. Herbruck said the company currently is housing 7.5 million hens in Ionia County. That is a far cry from the 3,000 hens Herbruck’s parents had in 1958.
Herbruck attributes the growth of the business to his family.
“We network and feed off each other’s ideas,” he said. “There is a synergism of ideas. If it was just me, I would make a lot more mistakes, but we talk about it. In (this) family, there are some interesting discussions (like), ‘That’s a crappy idea, it is not going to work,’ but if it was someone under me, they may not say, ‘That’s a crappy idea.’ All of us have that creative license to air things out and call it out when we think it is a dumb idea or compliment it if it is a good idea.”
While Herbruck and his siblings help to move the family business forward, he never envisioned himself as the president of Herbruck’s. Despite spending his childhood on the farm gathering eggs by hand and putting them in trays for packaging, he had another career interest.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian from when I was 5 because I just love animals,” Herbruck said. “I didn’t know what it was back then, but as a child growing up, my dad would take animals and we would go to a veterinarian at MSU or in Indiana and I would say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, that guy is diagnosing what is wrong with that animal.’ That was what was of interest to me.”
“The birds will tell you something, and you have to be a chicken whisperer to understand what their symptoms are,” he added. “If they are quiet and have puffy heads, they don’t feel good, or if they are really hyper, something is scaring them, or they could be getting an electrical shock or they could be low on nutrition. Those are the things you learn with time; what is happening, what is this bird telling me?”
That childhood experience drove Herbruck to attend Michigan State University with the end goal of becoming a veterinarian and working at the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. However, after spending some time in the MSU vet lab, he said he realized diagnosing the health problems of animals was not a suitable career for him.
After graduating from MSU with a degree in nutrition, Herbruck went to Grand Valley State University to pursue his MBA in leadership and management. He came close but didn’t quite complete the credits necessary for his MBA.
“I got nine-tenths of the way through, and I said that is enough,” Herbruck said. “My philosophy is ‘I don’t need the (degree), I just need the information,’ and that’s why I stopped.”
When Herbruck left GVSU, he returned to his father’s farm to work, but he said the position wasn’t ideal. Similar to his siblings, Herbruck had to work his way up the ladder. He started in 1979 when Herbruck’s was beginning to take off.
“I thought I was going to be the general manager,” Herbruck said, laughing. “The first thing Dad said was, ‘We can’t grow if we don’t figure out what to do with the manure.’ We had 100,000 birds then. So, it was a big problem because of the flies and the smell.”
Herbruck worked with his siblings to figure out a solution. He said, in the late 1980s, they came up with an idea of presenting wet manure in the exhaust system to dry the manure with the air that ventilates the henhouses, which he said resulted in a healthier environment and more production. The manure ventilating system allows the farm to reuse its waste and turn it into organic fertilizer.
After solving the issue with the manure, Herbruck helped the business make other successful strides in the poultry industry, including supplying eggs to restaurants and retailers across the country. One of the most recent decisions was becoming cage-free.
“We switched to cage-free because our customers asked us to,” Herbruck said. “They wanted a source of cage-free eggs, and we had a lot of cages — about 5 million hens in cages max and we have 9.5 million hens.”
He became the president of Herbruck’s in 2017, and since then, the farm announced plans to build a new cage-free facility in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. The facility is expected to house 100 percent cage-free and organic laying eggs. The barns also will include the manure ventilating system and create 275 new jobs.
Last year, Herbruck’s built a new feed mill and a truck depot in Topeka, Indiana, and added 10 new jobs. The farm contracts with 80 small family farms in Indiana to produce cage-free eggs.
The business decision to go cage-free has satisfied Herbruck personally. He said he is a man of faith and he believes he should use his resources to help others.
“I am a Christian believer, but I am also a business guy, too,” Herbruck said. “I can hoard it all and keep it or I can connect and find a way to benefit others. There is a proverb, Proverbs 11:10, that talks about when a righteous man is successful, the community rejoices. What that means is if a righteous man is successful in his business life or whatever it is, he is out benefiting others, and for me, it is through the Christian faith.”
After going on numerous mission trips to Africa with his church, Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Herbruck said he felt compelled to help others on the continent.
As a result of that inspiration, he partnered with a fellow church member who is a financial expert and an egg producer in Zimbabwe with hopes of contracting 1,000 to 2,000 farmers who will be building a farming facility.
Herbruck said the company will be leasing cages along with other equipment to the farmers and also will provide the chickens and chicken feeds. The farmers will work on the farm, collecting the eggs, and Herbruck’s will pay the farmers. Local retailers in Zimbabwe will then sell the eggs.
“Instead of throwing the cages away as we are switching to cage-free, we will just send them over there because they still have a lot of life in them and are valuable,” Herbruck said.
Herbruck and his partners have started a K-12 school in Zambia, and he said they intend to start a two-year tech college that specializes in agricultural training and develop an apprenticeship program.
“I feel totally blessed,” Herbruck said. “My mission field is business, to help people in Grand Rapids. And I have been blessed with the opportunity to go further than that. The command to the disciples was to go to all parts of the world. So, that is what I am doing with all of these projects.”