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Bettering agriculture priority for Specht family

The rules were set: No discussion of politics at Thanksgiving that year. The political climate was hot and so were the viewpoints of different members of the Specht family. But as usual, the temptation was too much. Before the Tuscarawas County family knew it, they were embroiled in a lively conversation with each side pressing its liberal or conservative side. Words at times were sharp but they were tempered by the respect and love the family has for each other.

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The Specht family circa 1989.

“Speak out about what you’re passionate about but always be respectful of others” has long been the mantra of the Spechts and continues today. The Dover family has an uncanny skill in not only identifying problems within its local community and the agricultural industry but finding solutions or ways to make things better. As an Ohio Farm Bureau organization director for the past 15 years, Michele Specht has helped lead and inspire Farm Bureau volunteers in a variety of activities including addressing the opioid crisis, raising money for a local hospice, creating a training program for humane officers and promoting agriculture in both rural and urban classrooms via Google hangouts. Over the years, the Farm Bureaus in Michele’s area of Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson and Tuscarawas counties have been honored by Ohio and the American Farm Bureau for their innovative programming and membership work.

“Mom’s passion for issues is one of the reasons we’re as passionate as we are today,” said daughter, Allison, the oldest of three children. “One of Mom’s biggest attributes is seeing a need and filling it. Both of my parents have always been hard workers and good role models.”

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Michele Specht speaks at an opioid crisis roundtable discussion hosted by Ohio Farm Bureau with Anne Hazlett, U.S. Department of Agriculture assistant secretary of rural development.

Today, Allison and her siblings Adam and Annie live in Columbus. Annie is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Communication, Education and Leadership at Ohio State University. Allison’s dairy farming background prepared her for her current role in dairy procurement for global nutrition company, Abbott, where she works with global dairy supplies. Adam stays connected with his rural roots as the communications and member services consultant for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. “One thing I’ve learned is that rural life is worth preserving and improving,” he said.

All three say that while they now live in Ohio’s largest city and have traveled to other countries, they feel the most grounded when visiting the family farm. Perhaps that’s because it’s where they learned the value of a hard day’s work and how it has helped them succeed in their careers.

“In agriculture if you’re not there doing your job every day, the land or animals will suffer. They rely on you. It’s the same way with my students. I think of them the same way as my baby calves – they need to be fed and nurtured and you need to build that relationship with them to help guide them in their future,” Annie said.

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Annie Specht helps one of her students during an agriculture communication publication class in September.

Being in touch with the issues that affect agriculture and local communities has always been important to the Spechts. Whenever Michele sees an inequality, she works hard to fix it, whether it’s securing funding to put in a handicap accessible playground or starting a fundraiser that benefits 4-H dairy project exhibitors and has generated more than $1 million over 30 years.

The opioid crisis is one issue that has particularly struck a nerve with Michele. She shared the story of a local woman who is raising her grandchildren because of her son’s drug addiction. At least he’s alive; 16 of his friends have died of substance abuse overdose. Over the past couple of years, Michele’s four county Farm Bureaus have held roundtable discussions about the opioid crisis and developed policy proposals that in true grassroots form have worked their way up to the national level. They have helped American Farm Bureau form policy on the topic and led Michele and county volunteers to meet with U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett.

“What families go through is heartbreaking. We need to take on this crisis because it affects all generations,” Michele said.

Changes on the farm

Michele’s voice tends to go up slightly in pitch whenever she talks about the issues closest to her heart. One of those is the current condition of the dairy industry. Family dairies across the country are being squeezed out of existence because of a dramatic drop in milk prices the last couple of years. In their heyday, the Spechts milked 80 registered Holsteins twice a day, 365 days a year on the farm. About six years ago, the family decided to sell its herd and get out of the dairy business. The cost of corn (part of the cows’ feed) was high at the time and it was time-consuming and physically demanding to milk the cows every day. It wasn’t an easy decision but at least it wasn’t forced on them.

“It turned out to be a godsend that we got out when we did. We didn’t encourage the kids to come back to the farm (to live),” said Steve, Michele’s husband who farmed for decades with his father. “You always hoped it would be enough income for two families and it worked for a while.”

Michele finished her husband’s thought by talking about how life on the farm has helped prepare their children for dealing with life’s challenges.

“All those years they saw the struggle … not knowing what your income was going to be month to month and how to plan and budget,” Michele said. “We have always encouraged the kids to think for themselves.”

Today, the Spechts grow corn and hay, raise some heifers and have 10 cows at a nearby farm. A love of cows resonates deep in Allison and Annie, who traveled recently to Idaho to judge a dairy show. About once a month, Annie travels two hours northeast of her home in central Ohio to visit the family farm and unplug as she works with the cows.

“It’s a time to go outside, work with the cattle and not be inundated with the noise of the city,” Annie said. “I’ll always be a cow girl at heart.”

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Participating in spirited family discussions over the years helped Annie develop the skills and confidence to win Ohio Farm Bureau’s Discussion Meet this year. The annual competition simulates a committee meeting where discussion and active participation are expected from each participant. The goal is to have a thoughtful, courteous discussion to solve problems dealing with agriculture. Annie will be representing Ohio in the national competition during American Farm Bureau’s convention in New Orleans this January.

“Being the middle child (in the family) had a mediating influence on me, which is good for Discussion Meet because you need to be someone who leads and guides the discussion but doesn’t overtake it,” Annie said. “Working in a very people-centered field also helps because you are more in touch with the social issues in agriculture.”

Feat Image: The Specht family from left, Annie, Allison, Michele, Steve and Adam. Photo by Devin Trout, Devin Rachelle Photography.

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Amy Beth Graves 

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.