At helm of Ohio Cattlemen’s, Elizabeth Harsh works to ‘be fearless daily’

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Elizabeth Harsh, executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, says she has “the perfect job” — a marriage of the beef cattle and the agricultural community she loves. (Susan Crowell photo)
(Editor’s note: This week, we wrap up our eight-week series profiling some of the women who play key roles in the region’s agriculture. We’re proud to salute them — and others — who illustrate the diversity of farmers and farm leaders today.)

MARYSVILLE, Ohio — Elizabeth Harsh is never content with the status quo.

As the executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association since 1992, Harsh says, yes, “we’ve certainly done a lot for the beef industry in Ohio,” but “we need to stretch ourselves.”

“You never want to be in a rut or not moving forward in a positive way,” said Harsh, who has been instrumental in building the Ohio Cattlemen’s Foundation, the Ohio Beef Expo, and the association’s youth programs like the wildly successful BEST program.

She’s also been key to solid membership efforts, the association’s political outreach, and volunteer/member leadership development.

You can’t let the fear of doing the wrong thing freeze you into doing nothing, she remembers her predecessor Fred Dailey saying. She’s internalized that advice as her own personal goal of “being fearless daily.”

Challenge as woman

Harsh started working at the cattlemen’s association part time in 1985, designing and coordinating the monthly magazine. She was hired full time in 1989 with magazine and membership responsibilities, then was named executive director in 1992.

She also serves as executive director of the Ohio Beef Council, and is responsible for compliance with the beef checkoff act, and related accountability.

Read all of our “You Go, Girl” profiles.

When she took the helm in 1992, Harsh admits, there was some resistance to a young person — and a female — in that role.

“In those early years, some members were certainly more comfortable working with a man,” Harsh said. “I don’t think we have that now.”

Building consensus

That recognition of skill regardless of gender has been part of the changing times, but also a result of the skills that Harsh has shown in leading the association.

“You can never over-communicate,” she said. “You make the extra call to make sure someone understands a program.”

Although she recognizes not every decision will be popular, and sometimes the association simply needs to act, “I try to include more viewpoints, create transparency and build consensus.”

Ohio Beef Expo

Among Harsh’s accomplishments is the growth and development of the Ohio Beef Expo, which started in 1988.

This year’s Ohio Beef Expo drew more than 30,000 participants and visitors, and the trade show featured 140 vendors from 15 states.

“I look at it as one big, happy marriage,” Harsh said. It blends a focus on breeds (the shows and sales), the allied industry (the trade show) and junior activities.

“It all has to work together,” she added. “That’s what makes it a success. It’s the envy of a lot of other state expos.”

It wasn’t always that way. Before the first expo in 1988, it was a challenge to get the breed organizations to change the dates of their individual shows and sales and bring them under the beef expo roof.

Harsh said they’ve also worked hard to maintain an educational component to the expo, and to keep all other association events size- and breed-neutral.

Last year, the association added the Best of the Buckeye program — a show within a show — at both the Ohio Beef Expo and the Ohio State Fair. The program recognizes top Ohio bred, born and registered calves, along with the breeder and youth exhibitor, in each breed division at the two shows.

The BEST

In addition to the Ohio Beef Expo, perhaps one of the most visible programs that has helped build association membership is the BEST (Beef Exhibitor Show Total) program. Youth exhibitors can participate in sanctioned shows to earn points toward final awards and scholarships.

The association started the program in 1999, in the wake of a steer tampering scandal that rocked the state in the mid-1990s. There was a handful of jackpot shows around the state, Harsh said, each with different rules. Through the BEST program, they hoped to create a series of sanctioned shows with consistent rules and ethics.

“We didn’t want to compete with 4-H, FFA or breed association events,” Harsh said.

Once the framework was in place, the program grew quickly. The 2014-15 year-end banquet May 9 will include awards to the youth totaling more than $50,000 from what Harsh calls “tremendous sponsorship.”

More than talking head

She was young when she was named executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association in 1990 — and she was a female — but Elizabeth Harsh expanded the association’s visibility and built programs that are now the envy of other state cattle associations nationwide. (Susan Crowell photo)
She was young when she was named executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association in 1990 — and she was a female — but Elizabeth Harsh expanded the association’s visibility and built programs that are now the envy of other state cattle associations nationwide. (Susan Crowell photo)

Harsh has been around beef cattle all her life, and brings real world farm experiences to her “day job.”

She was raised on registered Angus farm in Guernsey County, where her parents, George and Vivian Martin, and brother, John, still maintain a herd and sell between 20 and 25 bulls annually.

She and John, along with their sister Susan, were active in the junior Angus program and showed at county fairs and shows across eastern Ohio as youth.

Today, Harsh and her husband, Tim, whom she met at Ohio State and married in 1984, farm in a family operation near Radnor in Delaware County. Tim and his brother, David, farm 3,500 acres and operate Harsh’s Farm Service.

Tim and Elizabeth also have a herd of 40 registered Angus cows, which started when their children — Bailey, now 24, and Will, 20 — were “show age.” Bailey, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State and Oklahoma State, is starting a Ph.D. program in meat science at the University of Illinois. Will, a sophomore and member of the livestock judging team at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill., will start his junior year at Oklahoma State this fall.

Which all means that Harsh has a vested interest beyond a paycheck in keeping Ohio’s cattle industry strong.

“There’s a big on and off switch for a lot of people when they go home,” she said, adding that for her, however, “you don’t know where work and personal starts and stops.”

“It’s the perfect job.”

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