An old saying holds that anyone, no matter what their background, can grow up to be President. They’re usually talking about President of the United States—and perhaps last year’s election is proof—but the saying also applies to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. Consider Gary Voogt, of Marne, Mich. “My father was a factory worker—a tool and die worker,” reflects Voogt, who became head of the NCBA at this year’s annual convention in Phoenix. “My mother was in charge of the house. She never worked; she raised five kids.” And they didn’t live on a farm. It wasn’t until after Voogt graduated from Michigan Tech with a B.S. in Civil Engineering that he got involved in production agriculture, although he’d had some exposure to farming.
“I helped two different old farmers with their dairy cows as I went to college on a part-time basis,” he explains, “and apparently got the smell in my hair, and haven’t been able to wash it out ever since.”
After a year of renting a house, Voogt and his wife, Shirley, bought a farm; he says it began as a hobby, and a way to help make ends meet as they raised their own five children. “We started out with three milk-fed, week-old calves, and leased our whole farm out to a neighbor who ran summer cows here. Then when my son, who was our fourth child, turned one year old, I bought three registered Polled Hereford heifers for him, and gradually built up a Polled Hereford herd.” The kids showed the cattle in 4H and county fairs; as they grew older, Voogt participated increasingly in bull tests, and gradually switched to the Angus breed. Now, they have the second largest registered Angus herd in the state of Michigan. “A long, long time ago,” he says, “I came to the conclusion this is no longer a hobby farm; this is my second job. And now that I’m retired from my first job, this is what we do.”
His first job was with the Grand Rapids, Mich. consulting engineering firm Moore & Bruggink, and it lasted 41 years, the last four as CEO; he retired in 2007. Those years of juggling an engineering career and a cattle farm were hectic. “My clients were basically municipal governments, like townships, villages, cities and counties,” he says. “All of those clients met in the evening; the mayor, and the city councilmen, all had other jobs. So, I spent many, many nights away from home while my kids were small, and my wife raised them on her own.”
But he wasn’t traveling away from home; nearly all of the company’s clients were nearby. For twenty years, Voogt’s routine consisted of coming home from work for chores and supper, then heading back out to meet with the local officials “When we were artificially breeding cows,” he recalls, “I would come home at five o’clock, take off the white shirt and tie, slip on the overalls, put on the sleeve, breed the cow…go back in the house, wash up a little bit, and put that tie back on and go to the meeting.”
But Voogt says his engineering background served him well on the ranch. An engineer, he says, learns “the steps for solving problems. Analyze the situation, figure the alternatives and then, pick the best solution to go forward. That’s how all engineering problems are solved; it’s a basic thing that gets to be part of just the way you think.” He says it has also helped him in his ascension through cattle industry leadership, starting with his local Farm Bureau, followed by several terms as president of NCBA’s Michigan affiliate, and of regional and state Hereford associations.
“Eventually,” he says, “I got to be a delegate to NCBA, perhaps 20 years ago, and enjoyed that kind of work; and got to be a Region I Vice President, finally, on the Federation side, and then a couple years as the chair of the Federation half of NCBA.” It’s hard, he concedes, for farm organizations to find leaders able to make that sort of commitment; his term as NCBA President-elect last year and now as president has completely filled the gap left by retirement from his engineering business. “All the traveling,” he says. “And even when I’m home, there’s a lot of meetings and e-mails and decisions to be made.” But some cattlemen are able to volunteer at least some of their time, he adds, “so in addition to the office, there’s a great wealth of knowledge and experience and willingness to help on all the committee work.”
Almost as unusual as Voogt’s background for an NCBA president is his home state; most leaders of the venerable producer group have been from the major cattle states of the West. Michigan’s cattle herd of 1.07 million head ranks 30th in the U.S. He says his own clientele have remained steady, because he also serves the more traditional cow/calf areas of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. In Michigan, “the market is changing. The feeding sector used to be very big in the eastern part of the state around the Thumb area; some of that’s sliding away as that generation retires. The Upper Peninsula was a great grazing area, and some of that same thing—kids move to the big city.”
Voogt says in the eastern part of the U.S., almost all farmers—as opposed to “ranchers”—have a second source of income. Some have day jobs; or, their spouses get a job that can provide health insurance for the family. Still, he says, “Those small operators add up to very big numbers. Just look at the Southeast, for example—all the cows that come out of there that go to the Central Plains for feeding. Small farmers, all together, make up a really big cow producing machine.”
The Voogts’ farm—170 acres of their own land, and another 130 they farm for hay and summer pasture—is also just 12 miles from Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city, and he feels the pressure from urban growth. “Yeah, I’ve got that all around me,” he says. “There’s new houses next door, down the street, across the road, and we just have learned to be really good neighbors. We hold a summer picnic with our neighbors; we do things like that. If I see a car in a ditch, I always pull him out, if I’ve got a tractor handy.” And, he says, they don’t spread manure on a holiday, or when the neighbors have pitched a graduation tent across the road.
The challenging times, Voogt says, have also affected the way he runs his operation. “We are very careful on our input costs,” he says, “but when everything doubles and fertilizer triples, and the price of beef has gone the other direction, there’s an absolute squeeze. Some of that’s good—it teaches you the old ways aren’t the best ways, and we find ourselves taking bids on mineral, for example; using more and more hay and less and less grain.” They also use manure management, and intensive grazing to make sure the manure is spread across the field, instead of being concentrated around the water hole.
But he says not every cattle producer in Michigan will be able to stay in business. “Some of them that didn’t cash flow in the first place, as the people in Michigan lose their jobs or their benefits, then they’re going to have to give up some of this. But people are very resilient; I’ve found all over the country, cattlemen are resilient, and life wouldn’t be the same without the cows. They’re going to make it work.”
Voogt says he’s sure his farm will pass on to the next generation. Three of his five kids are active in the farm, although they also have outside jobs. One daughter, Michele, lives at the farm headquaters; she has an Animal Science degree, and works at an animal hospital. A son, Zachary, lives with his own family on the grounds, and serves on the board of Moore & Bruggink; the family of Voogt’s daughter Kelly lives nearby. “I think those three have adopted a lifestyle,” says Voogt. “They were born on a farm, so they’ve been farm kids, as opposed to me.”
And Voogt has plenty of advice for the next young person who, as he did, is seeking a new career in agriculture. “Turn off the television. Get outside and work hard, and listen to folks that have done this before. Get the best advice you can…Get involved; you’ve got to get educated on the new ways to farm. You’ve got to be politically involved, so that the government doesn’t find new ways to stop animal agriculture in this country; you can’t let animal rights people get the ear of the government. So, stand up for what you believe in, but be prepared to work harder than probably many other careers.”