Frank Burkett grew up on the family farm.
Well, not really on the farm, more like on 17th Street in Massillon, but he might as well have. The newly elected president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation says he felt more at home at his grandparents’ Clardale Farm in the far northwest reaches of Stark County than anywhere else.
Dale and Clara Rohr had an indelible impact on young Frank, whose mother was one of their 10 children.
“On weekends and breaks I was always there,” he said, noting that his parents would have to “drag me off the farm” to go on vacation.
“I always loved the farm,” he said. He also revered his grandparents.
“My grandpa was the best man at my wedding,” he said. “My grandma was like my second mom. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them.”
His grandparents, who still live just a couple miles from the dairy, have watched Clardale improve in cow comfort, efficiency and technology in the 20 years since Burkett was hired to work there full-time after college, when the process of modernization began to take hold. He has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Ohio State University with a major in agricultural systems management and a minor in agricultural economics.
“Looking back, I was just a young kid out of college,” he said. “They were very accepting of my thoughts and plans for what we needed to do for the future.”
When Burkett was hired in 1997, Clardale had 140 cattle. Now the farm has 695 head and 700 replacement heifers. Everything possible is recycled on the farm, from water to clean out the milking parlor to the sand bedding in the dairy barns. The raw milk is carried, a tanker-full every day, to Superior Dairy in Canton for processing and delivery to retailers.
A total of 950 acres is farmed for feed, mostly corn and alfalfa, while cereal rye and rye grass are planted as a cover crop to help manage nutrient runoff and soil erosion. About 650 of those acres are in one location, the relatively urban area of Canal Fulton in Stark County.
Nowadays, Burkett stashes a change of clothes and a toothbrush at Clardale, putting in the long hours necessary to help run a large dairy and crop farm in equal partnership with three uncles, Tim, Bruce and Dennis Rohr, while simultaneously taking the reins as Ohio Farm Bureau president.
When it came time to elect a successor to former President Steve Hirsch earlier this year, Burkett’s position as first vice president put him in the right position to take the next step. He’s served as chair of the committee tasked with establishing Farm Bureau’s new membership model, as well as chair of the search committee in charge of selecting a new executive vice president for the organization as John C. “Jack” Fisher retires. Burkett served as first vice president for two years and previously served as treasurer and has been on the state board since 2007. For the Stark County Farm Bureau, he was a board trustee, policy development chairman and farm tour chairman.
“In June 2007 I was on the Stark County board,” he said, thinking back to the first time he had been asked to be an active participant in Ohio Farm Bureau. “I hadn’t even had an opportunity to be an officer and someone pulled me aside when I was fertilizing corn one day and told me about an opportunity on the state board. I told him I was pretty busy dairy farming and dismissed it.”
That disengagement didn’t last very long, and Burkett is happy that it didn’t.
“(Serving on the OFBF board) has been the best serving experience I have ever had in my life,” he said. “The professionalism, organization, board, staff, it’s been an incredible experience.”
He said he was privileged to serve under “three great presidents” – Bob Peterson, Brent Porteus and Hirsch. His goal is to carry on the legacy of cultivating new leaders in the organization and engaging them in work on an active board.
“I remember one conversation I had with (former trustee) Sparky Weilnau,” Burkett recalls. “He said you either have to work hard (on the Ohio Farm Bureau) board or get out of the way.”
Weilnau, who served on the Farm Bureau board with Burkett for seven years, said he not only has taken his advice to heart, but Burkett is also a good fit for his new role.
“He’s a real level-headed guy. He’s a natural leader and a great listener, too. He takes a lot into consideration before he formulates his opinion,” Weilnau said, noting that service on the Farm Bureau board “takes a tremendous commitment. It’s not just about attending the meetings. It’s about doing extra when asked and even when not asked. You have to be able to speak up for agriculture and be able to help (people) understand what we are doing.”
Burkett has had almost 20 years of experience doing just that. While running a dairy farm in an urban setting, the contact he has with his neighbors on a routine basis – whether it’s pulling someone’s car out of a ditch or avoiding spreading nutrient-rich manure on the same day as a child’s graduation party next door – are the same kinds of conversations all farmers should have with their community, he said.
“Our business exists by public permission,” he said. “If we lose that permission, we will not have the freedom to do what we do.”
He cites Ohio Farm Bureau’s Grow and Know events, farm breakfasts and other engagement activities as great examples of bringing the community to the farm and vice versa.
“We open up our farm and we give farm tours,” he said. “This is a family farm. We want people to see what we do and how we do it.”
Engagement is critical, he said, whether it involves priority issues such as water quality, Current Agricultural Use Value (CAUV) changes or tax issues. What affects the state’s farmers affects all Ohioans.
“Farm Bureau is a parade of people,” he said, quoting another former Executive Vice President C. William Swank. “The strength of Farm Bureau is it is a grassroots driven process. That recognition is huge. We can weigh in on issues with 193,000 members and carry their voice, not just for the ag community but for the entire community as well.”
He stressed that Farm Bureau is of its members, by its members and for its members and each and every one has ownership in the organization.
“This is your Farm Bureau. This is your county, your Ohio, your American Farm Bureau,” he said. “This is a membership organization that serves a purpose. There is a reason for our existence: To serve our members and represent their interests.”
Burkett will continue to serve as the District 9 trustee representing members from Columbiana, Mahoning, Portage and Stark counties.
Hirsch steps down after five years as president
Steve Hirsch of Ross County stepped down April 5 as Ohio Farm Bureau president and was elected to the Nationwide board of directors.
Hirsch’s relatability, availability and commitment to Farm Bureau allowed him to tackle hard issues during his years on the board of trustees where he served as treasurer, first vice president and then president for five years. He was first elected to the board in October 2001.
During his tenure, the board tackled visionary goals such as the Envisioned Future project, which gave Farm Bureau a specific focus in reaching consumers. He was first vice president in 2009 when Farm Bureau successfully supported a statewide ballot initiative to amend the Ohio Constitution to allow for the creation of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.
Under Hirsch’s leadership the board also took on the task of examining the future of Ohio Farm Bureau’s membership through the new membership model project. Hirsch also oversaw the launch of Ohio Farm Bureau’s $1 million Water Quality Action Plan and served as chairman of Healthy Water Ohio’s steering committee.
Cultivating a Cure close to Burkett’s heart
In the summer of 2010 former Ohio Farm Bureau President Brent Porteus lost his wife, Debbie, to breast cancer. That September Frank Burkett III, who was a member of the Farm Bureau board during Porteus’ tenure also lost his wife, Christie, to cancer.
Burkett and Porteus shared the devastating experience their families went through together and are “great personal friends” to this day, Burkett said.
One of Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation’s signature fundraising events, Cultivating a Cure, was established in 2011 by Porteus as a result. Proceeds from the annual event are donated to The Comprehensive Cancer Center—Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute at The Ohio State University.
As the event has grown, friends within the industry have shown their support by hosting the invitation-only fundraiser on their farm. More than $282,000 has been raised in the past five years during the August event. This year’s event is taking place at Watts Family Farm in Alexandria Aug. 21.
“It brings ag together for a great cause,” Burkett said. “It is one of my favorite events of the year. I look forward to eventually hosting it some day.”
Many farmers around the state have hosted their own events to raise money for the fund as well. In May about 200 people helped raise $1,000 for Cultivating a Cure during an evening of wine tasting and berry picking at Mitchell’s Berries in Plain City.