Jack Fisher had a small problem. In the hotel lobby on his cell phone with a call from then Gov. Ted Strickland, a second call buzzed in from then Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Fisher laughed when reminded about dodging what could have been an uncomfortable predicament. The mini-crisis was averted when the governor wrapped up before Boehner hung up. Most of the time though, during his soon-to-end tenure at Ohio Farm Bureau, favorable outcomes had little to do with luck.
“When people think about leadership in Ohio agriculture, they think of Jack Fisher,” said Bruce McPheron, executive vice president and provost of Ohio State University.
For Fisher, who retires in early August after 20 years as Farm Bureau’s executive vice president, leadership is all about relationships.
Influencial politicians, curious consumers, business leaders and inquisitive journalists are among those who regularly ask for or offer advice. Listening, responding and explaining the views of farmers, Fisher said, has been a big part of his job. “The number of learning opportunities continues to go up.” But the people he’s most enjoyed are the farmers who guide Farm Bureau.
“Their passion and commitment” is what Fisher said he admires about his extended farm family. “They believe in their way of life. When you see these people, and you get to work with them over time, it makes you want to come to work every day.”
Agriculture was always Fisher’s intended career. He grew up on a small family farm near Bucyrus, spent 10 years showing 4-H steers and lambs, and a week before enrolling at Pennsylvania State University where his family had strong ties, followed his heart and headed off to Ohio State University.
As his abundance of Ohio State shirts, sweaters and jackets attest, “I’m proud to be a Buckeye,” said Fisher, who later served on the Ohio State board of trustees. The allegiance was aided by having met his wife of nearly 47 years, Judy, while at the university.
After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture from Ohio State and a master’s in counseling from Ball State University, he served in the U.S. Air Force and was awarded the Meritorious Service Award, a rare honor for someone not serving in combat.
After his service Fisher wasn’t sure what was next. While considering his options, including farming, the opportunity came along that set the path for 43 years of service to agriculture.
Politics of food and farming
As a young person, “I was not very politically savvy, didn’t pay that much attention,” Fisher recalled. Later, his first conversation about politics with his parents yielded the surprise that “Mom was a Democrat and Dad was a Republican,” a revelation that likely helped develop a principle Fisher seems to treasure: People can get along in spite of differing political beliefs.
His first job in the political world came when his friend and then Farm Bureau employee Mike Wagner helped him land a position at the Ohio Department of Agriculture as Director Gene Abercrombie’s liaison with the office of Democratic Gov. John Gilligan. He also occasionally served as the governor’s advance man and driver. Years later, Fisher held several top-level roles on the staff for Ohio Department of Agriculture Director John Stackhouse during the terms of Republican Gov. James Rhodes.
Fisher believes that because the agricultural industry often works across party lines it helped him land political appointments with both Democratic and Republican governors.
“If you watch over the years, bipartisanship generally takes place in ag issues. Democrats and Republicans, if there’s a time when they work together, it’s on farm and food issues,” he said.
Other career stops in agriculture and politics included serving as director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association and Marketing Board, executive director of governmental affairs and commodities for Illinois Farm Bureau and manager of the popcorn division of Wyandot Incorporated in Marion.
Permission to farm
When long-time Ohio Farm Bureau Executive Vice President C. William Swank announced he was retiring in 1996, Fisher’s college buddy Irv Bell, then the president of Ohio Farm Bureau, reached out to Fisher, who eventually landed the job from among an impressive group of candidates. “I guess they believed I was prepared,” Fisher humbly said.
Fisher’s experiences convinced him that in a world with very few farmers and very few consumers with farming knowledge, the opportunities for one group to disappoint the other were extensive. If farmers and agribusiness were to maintain their social license, what Fisher calls “our permission to farm,” they needed to better connect with their customers.
Of that farmer-customer dialogue, Fisher said, “I can’t see how we can provide what you need, the services you would like, the quality of life you would like, if we don’t consider every person’s view.”
To that end, under Fisher’s term, Ohio Farm Bureau members adopted a mission statement that speaks to building “a partnership between farmers and consumers.”
Our Ohio was developed to showcase food producers and allow nonfarmers to experience the values inherent among farm families. A historic approach to setting animal care standards was conceived and adopted overwhelmingly by Ohio voters and an ambitious initiative engaged the public and farmers on water quality. The very makeup of Farm Bureau membership has become more inclusive.
Bell calls Fisher’s leadership “visionary” and “courageous.” Said McPheron, “Jack has worked to connect farmers with consumers, and to position Ohio Farm Bureau, and with it, Ohio agriculture, as a responsive partner to today’s consumers.”
When prompted to talk about special achievements, he starts with the eight Ohio Farm Bureau presidents he’s served, and while he won’t say it, was instrumental in their development. Of the seven retired presidents, five went on to serve on the Nationwide board of directors, one is a state senator and another is a U. S. congressman.
Current Farm Bureau President Frank Burkett III, who was elected in April, considers himself fortunate to have benefited from Fisher’s guidance. “Jack’s emphasized succession planning since I came on the board. Thanks to him I feel prepared to help lead this organization that he and I care so much about,” he said.
Fisher also mentions the impactfulness Farm Bureau has earned. “Political engagement for the whole organization, helping Farm Bureau be at the table for the important decisions. That’s been rewarding.”
Fisher spoke fondly, too, of the ongoing partnership between Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau. When the members of Farm Bureau in the 1920s established a mutual insurance company that eventually became Nationwide, Fisher said they created an enduring model.
“It’s not what the product was. It’s what the concept was – farmers pooling their resources, pooling their leadership skills, pooling their passion to work together to help each individual.”
L to R: Brooklyn, Jameson, Addison, Grayson, Beau, Jackson and Bryce with their grandparents, Jack and Judy Fisher.
Seven young Fisher grandchildren live nearby. He’s been asked to share some of his plant knowledge by becoming one of Ohio State University Extension’s master gardeners. But don’t expect him to spend too much time lowering his golf handicap.
“I’ll stay involved in ag policy,” with plans to do that through continued associations with Ohio State, the Ohio State Fair, Columbus Zoo, COSI, Franklin Park Conservatory and Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation, all organizations Fisher sees as ways to further the farmer-consumer partnership.
“I’m very proud of the impact we’ve had in communicating with the public about farm life, farm families and their operations and businesses,” he said. “We still have a lot of opportunity to connect the dots.”
Sharp succeeds Fisher as executive vice president
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation board of trustees has named Adam Sharp to succeed Jack Fisher as the organization’s executive vice president.
Sharp of Amanda served as OFBF’s vice president of public policy and previously held senior positions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“Adam is one of the nation’s foremost policy experts in agriculture and has a deep understanding of the rapidly changing food and agriculture industry,” said OFBF President and chair of the search committee, Frank Burkett III. “We are confident that Adam will provide strong and collaborative leadership as Ohio Farm Bureau moves toward an exciting future,” Burkett said.
Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning
In honor of Jack Fisher’s career of service to Ohio agriculture and his belief in empowering individuals, the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation has established The Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning.
The fund will support educational projects and programs that build a greater awareness of food production and knowledge of the interconnected food system. It will invest in the development of skills, confidence and support needed for school-age youth (5-18 years) to connect with quality mentors, develop leadership skills and graduate with a plan for the future. Individuals pursuing careers in agriculture will be supported and opportunities for continuing education will be developed.
The Fisher Fund will invest in teaching students about food, agriculture and nutrition, developing agriculture youth by providing constructive and encouraging relationships between them and their peers and adults, strengthening beginning farmers’ technical and business skills and providing learning opportunities for adults.
You can choose to help thank Jack Fisher for his service to agriculture by helping kick off the Fisher Fund for Lifelong Learning. Visit ofb.org/foundation.