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Ernie’s Journey: It’s About the People

The Three Amigos between sessions at the 2014 Midwest Commodity Conference (from left): Ken Nye, You Know Who, and Bob Boehm.
Date Posted: April 11, 2024

Those who came before us carved a path for this incredible organization and laid a strong foundation for its success. Farm Bureau’s volunteer leaders will always be the organization’s truest and most important leaders. It’s through their dedication, commitment, knowledge, leadership and guidance that our organization has endured and prospered 105 years.

My journey began with a team of staff members who helped shape my career and set me on a path of organizational understanding, discipline and guidance, some of which I didn’t truly understand until later in my career.

I’d like to call them “old dogs,” but they’re more like my Mt. Rushmore of Michigan Farm Bureau. It’d be hard to write Farm Bureau’s history without mentioning people like Chuck Burkett, who was chief operating officer when I started; John Vander Molen, then director of field operations; Mike Kovacic, director of information and public relations; and Public Policy Director Al Almy.

They led the organization through incredible growth years, and sometimes I felt like I was just along for the ride!

The team of Almy, Howard Kelly, Bob Smith and Ron Nelson, along with policy assistant Vickie Pontz-Teachout, walked the halls of Lansing and Washington D.C. with a level of respect that was admired by many. That’s the team that helped craft and pass legislation leading to PA-116, the Right to Farm Act, Animal Industry Initiative, Project GREEEN, vet diagnostic lab funding, farm bills, WTO negotiations, NAFTA, Proposal A, and Right to Farm amendments like the siting GAAMP that helps prevent township ordinances from being overly restrictive. 

It was incredible how much they accomplished.

From a leadership-development perspective, who can forget the larger-than-life personality of Vic Verchereau? Fortunately it’s never been determined if Vic was in charge of training me. I don’t know if I learned more from his Farm Bureau lessons, life lessons or entertaining antics at the MFB annual meeting. Let’s just say I Iearned and leave it at that.

Farm Bureau communications were under the steady guidance of Mike Kovacic, a real visionary who not only oversaw our news and promotion efforts, but who also made creative changes to our annual meeting and was part of the brain trust behind ProFILE, which I was fortunate to help him with.

It was during this time Promotion & Education was started and flourishing — the first of its kind in the nation — under the guidance of Julie Chamberlain. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great writer and Farm Bureau historian Donna Wilber, who wound down her storied career writing the updated In the Service of the Farmer book.

People change but they leave a legacy. Newcomers get opportunities and write their own story. Part of growing up in the Farm Bureau family means just that: Family! 

The current staff leadership — Matt Smego, Sarah Black, Deb Schmucker, Nika Degg, Tom Nugent and many others — are true builders and believers of Farm Bureau, and I’ve been fortunate to work alongside of them on this journey.

Dennis Rudat is a true advocate for agriculture, and while he hides behind his computer every day, he’s shared your story and concerns with the masses. My good friend Craig Knudson, hired just a few months after me, is known as Mr. Farm Bureau in the Upper Peninsula, and Kim Kerr has spent 40 years working with members in the south region. They’re true legends.

Finally, this wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the Three Amigos: Bob Boehm, Ken Nye and myself. The three of us spent over 20 years together in what was then the Commodity and Marketing Department, supported by Nancy Ristow and Andrena Reid.

The adventures the three of us had deserve their own book: farm bill listening sessions and implementation, policy development, international trade, media interviews, agriculture disasters, ethanol feed-versus-fuel debates, commodity sales versus feeding-and-baiting, plant and animal health issues… And all with a dose of reality and laughter! I was truly blessed to work with such a great team, and an incredible family.

If you have time, get to know your Farm Bureau staff team. They’re incredible people with at least one important thing in common: They love serving you and Michigan agriculture.

Sometimes young pups grow into old dogs — if they’re lucky. As I look around the building today, somehow I became one of those old dogs.

MFB’s longtime livestock & dairy specialist, Ernie Birchmeier retires later this year after 35 years of service to Michigan farmers.

Ernie Birchmeier headshot

Ernie Birchmeier

Senior Industry Relations Specialist
517-679-5335 [email protected]

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