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Ernie’s Journey: A long farewell begins

Vintage Ernie photos aren’t commonplace, but here he is back in his time managing the Young Farmer program.
Date Posted: February 15, 2024

Stay in any one place long enough and little packages of wisdom and good guidance inevitably pile up. One example:

Those impacted by a problem will find the best solution. 
The members will get it right.

They pile up and eventually become words to live by — little philosophies and signposts to guide your way. (More to come.)

My way began 35 years ago: I walked through the doors of home office for my first day on the job, July 17, 1989. Attired in a new suit, shirt, tie and dress shoes, I was ready for this new adventure called Michigan Farm Bureau.

My first week on the job consisted of two days of orientation followed by Summerfest, a cookout on the home office lawn for about 2,500 members, followed by a day of working Ag Expo and then another day of meetings. 

By week’s end I thought this was going to be the best job in the world; half the week was parties and farm show. Little did I know just how wrong — and how correct — I was. 

Here’s another good one:

The good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth 
for a reason. Use them accordingly.

The real work began soon enough, but 35 years later I can say it’s provided me with the most rewarding career I could’ve wished for — working for people I admire in an industry I love, all of us working together to build, grow, enhance and protect Michigan agriculture. 

Before I knew it I was headed up to the northeast region with a box of plat books (no GPS back then; we actually learned to read maps), a binder for each of “my” county Farm Bureaus and a list of leaders. These early days laid the groundwork for my career. 

My time working with members in the northeast and west regions imprinted upon me the value of working directly with Farm Bureau members to build programs that would strengthen their county organizations and form the backbone of a community. 

I can’t thank enough those members who welcomed me onto their farms to discuss the issues of the day. 

One of my fondest memories was sitting on the front porch of former MFB President Elton Smith, with him and his wife Lyndee, discussing the organization and looking out over his Caledonia dairy, big red Holstein on the barn. The foundation they helped build would serve me well over the many years to come.

Give them the tools they need, 
then step back and let the leaders lead.

After almost three years in the field came an opportunity to manage the Young Farmer program. The following eight+ years would be a whirlwind. 

Building leadership from the ground up is the foundation of long-term organizational endurance, and our county Farm Bureaus were primed for success. With help from the state Young Farmer committee, we strengthened activities statewide, sometimes pushing, pulling and dragging people to activities.

In the end we saw participation hit record levels, with discussion meets in every region and high interest in achievement awards. Our Outstanding Young Farm Woman contest grew so popular it was only a matter of time until they said, “We want to compete with the men.” And that’s how that category evolved into our Outstanding Young Ag Leader Award. (AFBF soon followed suit.)

Another innovation from the same era was the Outstanding Young Farmer Employee contest, born from the increasing reality of Young Farmers active in the organization not yet owning their own operations. 

MFB’s annual Young Farmer Leaders’ Conference grew every year and our state committee truly owned the program. Many of the Young Farmers who surfaced during this time eventually took prominent leadership roles on the state board of directors and with other Michigan ag groups.

The world is run by those who show up.

Digging deeper into leadership development, we started discussion meets at the collegiate and FFA levels. At that time a now-familiar name was serving as MSU’s first Collegiate Farm Bureau President: Deb Schmucker, now director of field operations for MFB. 

We built relationships with MSU’s ag-tech program and took on the administrative director role for the FFA alumni. During that time we also brought a young Matt Smego into the Farm Bureau fold, not yet knowing the impact he would have on the organization and Michigan agriculture. 

(Funny story about Matt: Back in college he rented a spare room in my house. One winter day his car got stuck in my driveway. We shoveled and rocked it back and forth, and after finally breaking free he sped off down the driveway, leaving me flat on my face buried in the snow!)

It was around that time the ProFILE program started. Mike Kovacic ran the first program, then I took the reins for the next four classes. The opportunity to coach a group of 25 young leaders through an in-depth leadership program every two years would prove valuable for Farm Bureau at both the county and state levels. The skills obtained and the relationships built were incredible.

It’s amazing what can happen 
when we all work together and 
no one cares who gets the credit.

A new chapter in my Farm Bureau career began in 1999 when I moved to the Public Policy Division as the livestock and dairy specialist. From animal-health issues to international trade; policy development and execution; media interviews and meetings, and meetings, and so many more meetings; the next 25 years have been an adventure.

(Almost forgot the time my company vehicle died on the Mackinaw Bridge. Fortunately I was on the downhill slide and literally coasted into Mackinaw City.)

A non-stop parade of disease threats to food animals have marked my time years working with Michigan livestock producers — Bovine Tuberculosis, BSE (“Mad Cow”), Avian Influenza, Epizootic Hemorrhage Disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Pseudorabies, Rabies, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, Scrapie — we’ve dealt with them all. At times I’ve felt like I should’ve earned my honorary DVM by now.

I’m not sure who had it tougher when it came to dealing with those diseases, but I did outlast six different state veterinarians! It seemed like every time we turned around we were training a new one. 

I’ll never forget Dec. 23, 2003, and “the cow that stole Christmas.” Bovine spongiform encephalopathy — “Mad Cow” disease — sent the beef industry into a short-term tailspin and our media friends into a real frenzy. 

If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.

I’d done plenty of interviews by that point, but when the home phone rings at 6:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, and it’s Paul W. Smith from WJR in Detroit asking you to go on live in 20 minutes, you wake up in a hurry, put on your big-boy pants and put your media savvy to the test!

We discussed everything from disease issues to international trade and impacts to the cattle market and consumer perception. 

“What do you tell consumers about the beef supply?” he asked at one point, and my answer was simple: “We have the safest food supply in the world, Paul W. And for New Year’s I’ll be eating beef — hopefully prime rib!”

Over time I developed a love-hate relationship with the media. Fortunately our media staff at MFB are very good at what they do. We collaborated to share our story — your story — to a variety of audiences in messages they could understand. 

During the pandemic I must’ve done three to five interviews every day for months. For Independence Day and Thanksgiving we discussed food prices from one year to the next. 

When changes were made to Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, we shared your story and why those changes were necessary. We discussed international markets, federal farm bills, avian influenza’s impact on egg prices, why rabies in wildlife was such a big a problem, how TB spreads and why we need to attack it in both wildlife and cattle populations.

We shared the stories of how regulatory burdens hurt our industry with unnecessary costs and limitations for farmers. We applauded victories and scolded those who caused us setbacks — positive stories and negative stories alike.

We told the story of Michigan agriculture, and we did it together! 

And I learned I had a face for radio…

Ernie retires later this year after 35 years with Farm Bureau. Keep reading Farm Gate for more of his stories and experiences, ups and downs since that first day in 1989.

Ernie Birchmeier headshot

Ernie Birchmeier

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