(This week, we continue our Rural Roles series, which features different voices within the agriculture industry who make a difference. We run one profile story a month.)
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Kim Billman can remember her very first cow, Bil-Wa (pronounced Bill-Way) Tristram Lynn. “I was 8 years old. She was my first 4-H project and she was my baby,” said Billman. “I had to go out to the barn every night before I went to bed to tell her good night. My mom still laughs about it,” she said.
Growing up on the family dairy farm in West Salem, Ohio, Billman said, “I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up any other way.” And now, as the editor of the Jersey Journal, a monthly publication of the American Jersey Cattle Association and National All-Jersey Inc., in Reynoldsburg, Billman said she owes her success to the Jersey cow.
“My mom always kind of joked, ever since I started working (at the Jersey Journal), that it is really sad that I take a paycheck to talk to people that I grew up with my entire life,” said Billman. Billman’s mom told her, “you could take off at any point and find a place across the United States to stay with friends that you’ve met because of the Jersey cow.”
“And she is right. The cow has let me meet a lot of people. She put me through school … I owe her a lot,” said Billman.
Billman’s farm chores started in the calf barns at Bil-Wa Farms, in West Salem. She helped feed and care for calves alongside her grandfather, Homer, who started the dairy in the 1920s. “I was his helper,” said Billman. “I always looked at it as they were the future of the farm so you had to make sure they were healthy and make sure they were thriving.”
Billman was a part of the local 4-H and FFA clubs, participating in the Wayne County Junior Fair Board and Junior Leaders. “Anything and everything that I could do as a kid I got involved with because I wanted to be able to experience everything,” she said.
She showed Jersey cattle with her family at the county fair, at district shows, the state fair and in the All American Jersey Show. “Dad and I always joked that we were there for the social aspect of it because we made everyone else’s cows look better,” said Billman. “Or else the queen was starting at the wrong end — we are not really sure.”
Mostly, it was an opportunity to meet fellow dairymen and women. Those connections would only grow stronger when her career took shape.
A different path
“When I was growing up did I think that I wanted to work in the ag industry? Not really,” said Billman, who actually went off to college to study accounting at Ashland University. “And that lasted a semester — I found out how boring it really is,” she said. Having played softball and basketball in high school, she switched her major to sports medicine, considering a career as an athletic trainer. But she didn’t stray far from her farm upbringing. “I still worked at home on the farm every chance I had,” said Billman.
Doesn’t feel right
“About my second year at Ashland, I was like, you know what, this doesn’t feel right,” she said. She vented to her parents about how the “city kids” didn’t know what a cow was and how it drove her crazy that they just didn’t understand. Her fellow classmates were always fascinated with the farm life, she said. One of her classmates wanted to come out to the family farm with Billman and he wanted to milk a cow.
Before going out to the farm, the classmate had asked his mother to send him a pair of rubber gloves so that he could blow them up, fill them with water and poke holes in them so he could pretend to milk a cow. “I didn’t know about this until the day we went out to the farm,” said Billman. “He had come up with this on his own because he wanted to know what he was doing.”
A light bulb came on for Billman. “That’s where I first started seeing the education, the communication part of it,” she said. “OK, I have got to teach these people something.” So between her sophomore and junior year, she applied for an internship with NOVA Dairy Products and transferred to Ohio State the fall of her junior year.
Making a change
It was the early 1990s and desktop publishing was just beginning to take hold in the design world, said Billman. “That was my first introduction to Pagemaker. I feel in love,” said Billman, who knew she had found what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “I want to create things and I want to do them for ag,” said Billman.
Internships proved to be very valuable to Billman. She took another internship opportunity with the Jersey Journal and then with the Guernsey Association, working for their breed publication. She would stay with the Guernsey Association for the next two-and-a-half years, and by the time she left, the company had named her assistant editor while she was still in school. She would take another internship with Select Sires before taking a full-time position with the Jersey Journal in 1994 — working in advertising.
In 2001, she shifted to working with the Jersey Marketing Service — handling promotions, advertising and catalogue development — until the editor position of the Jersey Journal came open in 2003.
“It’s funny how things work out,” said Billman, recalling a statement she made to her mother as a child. “When I was in eighth grade, I looked at my mom and said, ‘I’m going to be editor of the Jersey Journal someday,’” said Billman.
At the time, Cherie Bayer was the editor and would travel out to the Billman family farm often. Billman admired Bayer’s ability to travel and meet dairy people all over the U.S. “I thought, ‘I can travel, I can go to these cow shows, meet people and visit these farms.’ And I thought it was really neat what she got to do,” said Billman. Even though her initial career plans veered away from the dairy industry, “ultimately that’s where I ended up and I still work with (Bayer) on a daily basis,” she said.
“Kim Billman today is the same Kim Billman I met all those years ago: enthusiastic, energetic, and engaged in everything that concerns the Jersey breed, every hour of the day, every day of the year,” said Bayer, Ph.D., current director of development at the American Jersey Cattle Association and National All-Jersey Inc.
Having a total commitment to the dairy industry — from her own personal background of raising Jersey cattle with her family, to her participation in the Jersey association programs and contest growing up to, now, encouraging the youth partaking in those programs today — Bayer feels Billman uses all these qualities to be a successful editor.
Check out other stories in our Rural Roles series:
January: Amish farmer and author shares story of the simple life.
February: Mary doesn’t have a little lamb, but she is a friend of the sheep industry.
March: Connie Finton volunteers off the farm to build quality of life for her family.
April: Conservation and cattle: Pete Conkle knows them both.
May: Gerards helped give equine trail riders miles of opportunity.
July: Passion for the fair runs deep: Tanya Marty.
August: Tuscarawas County farmer answers the call of his industry
September: It’s all because of the Jersey cow
October: Risky business: Tire repair has its share of dangers
November: Family tradition, trees and rescue
Working with youth
“(Bayer) works with our youth programs here … and that is something that I want to be very involved with here,” said Billman. Having been a part of the association’s youth programs herself, Billman said it’s exciting now to watch those programs, and the youth involved in them, grow.
Billman said one of the biggest things she pushed for was reinstating an internship program with the Jersey Journal. “Mine were so valuable to me that I want to be able to give that back, because it definitely taught me what I wanted to do,” she said.
Erin Williams, communications specialist at the American Dairy Association Mideast, was one of the first to be a part of the reinstated program. Williams had gotten to know Billman through the dairy industry as Williams’ and Billman’s families got to know each other through the Jersey cow.
Billman knew (agriculture communications) was a path Williams wanted to take and took Williams on as an intern from September 2013 through January 2014. Not only did Williams gain the knowledge to put together a magazine — learning journalism and design elements — but Billman helped Williams make connections with farms across the country. A lot of those design skills and connections have carried through to Williams current job. “Kim is the biggest support system you could ever have,” said Williams.
Because of the cows
Until the cows were sold on the family dairy in 2006, Billman continued to make the (around two-hour) drive home from Reynoldsburg almost every weekend so she could be with her cows. “Our cows have been gone for 10 years now,” said Billman.
“That is probably where I feel that I am lacking the most right now in my job, because I don’t have that one-on-one, every weekend connection of doing the work. … I always prided myself on being able to say I milk cows too.” Billman said if there would have been a way to eventually return to the family dairy, she probably would have found her way back to the farm.
“I say that, but I love my job and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.
5 minutes with Kim Billman
Family: Parents, Jim and Linda Billman, younger brother, Tim Billman, and younger sister, Terri Boreman.
First job/chore: Milking cows to earn money to buy “designer jeans” when I was in sixth grade. I earned 25 cents per hour and by the end of the summer I had two pairs.
Favorite cow(s): Three stick out in my mind. My very first cow, Bil-Wa (pronounced Bill-Way) Tristram Lynn. I was 8 years old and she was my first 4-H project. I had to go out to the barn every night before I went to bed to tell her good night.
My first Homebred Excellent, Kims Boomer Mickey. She was not a show cow, but she was a milk wagon — milking 24,000 pounds. And, I had a little cow called Benni, that I got from a Buckeye Classic Sale. Everything about her was perfect except she was teeny tiny.
Burger or steak? Steak
When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? A farmer of course.
The best piece of advice I ever received was: Make a good first impression, because you don’t get a second chance for that.
Favorite interview: Through the Jersey cow, Billman had become close friends with Reese Burdette and her family. When Billman had heard of the fire that caused Reese to be hospitalized for almost two years, she stayed in close contact and planned a one-on-one interview with Reese to tell her story, “in Reese’s words.”
It was Valentine’s week and Billman spent the whole day at John Hopkins, asking Reese candid questions about her favorite food and favorite doctors and nurses. “I got to tell their story and talk about everything (Reese) went through and how many times (the Burdettes) almost lost her and the miracle child that she is. That one gets me.”
Billman also learned that day, that Reese would be able to go home on her birthday but she wasn’t able to reveal the news in case something went wrong. “That day was probably one of the most amazing days I’ve had on this job. Watching our industry rally around that little girl and their family — I still get teared up.”
Something on your bucket list: To visit Jersey Isle and see the birthplace of the Jersey cow. And meet Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers.
People would be surprised to know that: I almost became an accountant
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