IONIA - As a boy, Josh First made up his mind to follow in his father's footsteps.
He tagged along everywhere Dan First, a fourth-generation farmer, went while tending to the herd of milking cows and overseeing the planting and harvesting of alfalfa, corn, hay, soybeans and other feed crops.
It seemed pre-destined Josh would become the fifth generation to help run the Ionia County family farm.
"I always thought I'd be farming with him," Josh said during a break from first-cutting haylage work.
His childhood dream of a father-son partnership, however, was shattered when Dan suffered a brain aneurysm and spent six months in a coma. At the time, Josh was just 15 years old, but, in the blink of eye, he faced all sorts of adult responsibilities with helping manage the family farm and protecting his father's legacy.
Josh First is actively involved in every aspect of his 800-acre farming operation in Ionia County.
"It was very important," Josh, now 25, said of upholding the proud tradition of First Dairy Farms and everything his father had established. "I thought we would've made one hell of a team together (while I was growing up).
"It was just one of those fluke things that can happen to anybody," he said of his father's illness. "He's still in a wheelchair, but he's back at home. He's still there for me. I'm just making the best of a (difficult) situation."
Initially, Margie First, Dan's wife, assumed a leadership role in the farming operation. It wasn't long, though, before Josh showed he had the leadership skills and determination to take charge of the day-to-day business.
Ten years later, Josh, who purchased the farm from his parents at age 21, has expanded the operation, which features 320 Holsteins on 800 acres where alfalfa, corn, soybeans and triticale (wheat-rye hybrid) are grown.
He has been chosen as Michigan Farm Bureau's (MFB) 2016 State Young Farmer Award winner for agricultural achievement due to his outstanding efforts in getting the most out of his cows despite depressed milk prices. If anyone understands how to make the very best of a difficult situation, it's Josh.
Josh First purchased the family farm from his parents at age 21.
"He's been doing it full-time since he was 15," Margie said. "Josh planned to go to Michigan State for four years off the farm before returning to work on the farm. He and his dad always planned on farming together. I think he has done a fantastic job. We're both very proud of what he has accomplished. I think he's amazing."
Josh completed the two-year Institute of Agricultural Technology program at Michigan State University and had an internship at a nearby Belding farm—all while maintaining a leadership role on his father's farm.
Since purchasing the farm, he has added a free stall barn and a self-feeding calf barn. He is building a shop on site, has refurbished other buildings into commodity sheds and has more than doubled the size of the milking herd.
"Dan is very proud of him. He thinks Josh is doing a great job," Margie said. "He is doing many things better than we ever did. The production he's getting from the cows is better than we ever got. He's just producing a very high-quality product."
Josh manages a staff of five full-time employees and four full-time millers.
He gets some help from Margie, 56, who still is involved in the bookkeeping at First Dairy Farms, and Dan, 57, who remains a source of encouragement despite not being able to be actively involved in the farm.
"Obviously, he'll never farm again," Margie said of her husband. "He's in a wheelchair, but he's doing well. He has quality of life, he just isn't able to do the things he used to do. It means a lot to both of us that Josh has been successful."
A pair of nearby farmers who were Dan's fraternity brothers at Michigan State also have been Josh's surrogate uncles. Anytime he needs it, Josh can reach out to Gary Powell, an MSU crop specialist and cash crop farmer, and Tom Read, who raises beef cattle and cash crops and is a former dairy farmer, for advice.
Alfalfa is one of several crops raised to help feed a herd of 320 dairy cattle.
"He researches things, networks with a lot of people and he isn't afraid to ask questions," Margie said of her son.
Josh's older sister, Lyndsey Martin, 30, also is part of the Michigan agricultural scene. She works as a Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Josh takes pride in making sure everyone on his farm feels like part of the family.
"The employees mean a lot to me. We try to do as much as we can to make them feel comfortable and make them want to work for us" he said. "A lot of our labor is Hispanic and we do a lot of stuff to try and break that cultural barrier. My mom does a lot. She takes the guys grocery shopping or takes them to get their tires changed and stuff like that. She helps me out a lot. If we have to get an interpreter in to help them break a language barrier, we do that. We just do whatever we can to help make them feel as close to that as home."
His greatest source of pride, though, has been following in his father's footsteps.
"I guess I love being a farmer because it's a different task every day. It's never the same. It could be cows one day—breeding a bunch of cows—the next day it could working fields and planting corn," Josh said. "I just have an appreciation for the ground and the property we own and seeing it flourish. Seeing the crops out there. Seeing that next level of production. Being more efficient and producing top-quality milk."
Unfortunately, his farming life hasn't matched the same dream he had as a child.
Yet, through all of the hardships, Josh has gained a full decade of experience in farming and has earned a reputation as an outstanding leader in Michigan agriculture because of the important lessons he learned at his father's side.
Now, it is Dan who sometimes follows his son around the farm with the aid of a Gator. He sees that his farming legacy has been upheld.
"He had just followed his dad around the farm since he was little," Margie said of the special bond between Dan and Josh. "It was hard for him (after his father's illness). He and I had some ups and downs. I remember when Josh was bopping back and forth from the farm in Belding, where he did his internship, and he was still trying to run our farm. It was very stressful for him. He gave up his childhood.
"He works night and day on that farm," she added while getting choked up. "We couldn't be more proud of him."