CANAL WINCHESTER, Ohio – Neal Schirm sits in his khakis, a nice plaid dress shirt, and comfortable brown shoes in a quiet brick ranch in the middle of an exploding Columbus suburb.
With an asphalt driveway and two shiny cars in the garage, Neal and his wife, Mary, hear the traffic outside. And if they angle just right, they can look out their picture window and see the new apartments, new housing developments and new construction.
Neal seems at home here. The folds across his forehead and the creases in the corners of his eyes are no more than those of other 81-year-olds. He could easily be a retired teacher or banker or accountant.
But this isn’t quite home and his job wasn’t so conventional.
This man once owned all this land.
He spent springs wobbling over it on his tractor, row by row. He spent decades anticipating the corn’s first push through this earth.
His cattle grazed this land. His father lived off it. He lived off it. His children lived off it.
The people who live here now don’t know Neal. They don’t know the man who tended the ground and milked the cattle back when this was just farmland, back when it was just Canal Winchester, Ohio, and not another tentacle of ever-expanding Columbus.
But the dairy industry knows. And it decided a little honor was overdue.
In 1989, Bill Grammer of Sebring, Ohio, had just broken into the dairy business and had only been to a few American Jersey Cattle Association conventions, but he already knew about Neal Schirm.
He’d heard about Neal’s good-looking cattle and their high production, but most of all he noticed whenever another farmer spoke Neal’s name, it was with respect.
“I wanted to mold myself after him,” Grammer said. “I wanted to be just like him.”
Over the next 15 years, Grammer got to know the man he calls his role model and soon he was also saying “Neal Schirm” with reverence.
But it wasn’t until this year that Grammer asked Neal’s youngest son, Paul, if his father had ever received the American Jersey Cattle Association’s Distinguished Service award.
Paul said “no,” Grammer nominated his mentor, and last month they all went to Seattle to present Neal Schirm with the country’s highest Jersey award.
Neal’s father, Frank, moved his family into a Canal Winchester farmhouse in 1924. Neal was just 1 at the time, and lived in that farmhouse for 67 years.
His family churned butter from their Jerseys’ milk and delivered it to families in Columbus and Bexley.
Neal bought his first heifer when he was a freshman in high school for his FFA project. And although he graduated with a small college scholarship, Neal stuck with Jerseys instead of heading off to school.
He farmed for the next 55 years, building his herd to 70 milking cows and tillable ground to 700 acres, but Neal never changed.
His sons, Larry and Paul, credit it to the German blood running through his veins.
“He was cautious,” Paul said. “First, he went through the Depression. Then he saw the big-buying and agriculture boom in the ’70s. He saw farmers go belly up and he didn’t want that to happen to him.”
That’s why back when Neal was on the farm, he always had a notebook tucked in his overall’s pocket. He detailed how many bales of straw he had in the barn, how much money he made off them, how much money he gave to church each week.
Neal considered bookkeeping one of the most important parts of farming, Paul said, and debt as one of farmers’ biggest adversaries.
Unless it was a combine or land, Neal didn’t borrow money. And except for borrowing $200 for his first vehicle, he never went into debt again when buying a car.
He was frugal, said his daughter, Sara Martin. If he didn’t absolutely need it, he wouldn’t buy it, she said.
“You have more time than money,” he told Sara when she was buying a tree for her yard. “Buy a little one.”
In fact, when Neal was audited 20 years ago, Paul said the government actually owed his father $400.
Back when Neal milked, he was the first farmer in the neighborhood to start his morning milking. At 6 a.m. sharp, his brown cows were already lined up in the flat barn.
Neal was also the first farmer in at night, Sara said. At 6 p.m. sharp, he was sitting at the farmhouse kitchen table with his wife and three children.
“He believed in God. He believed in family. He believed in doing the best he could on his farm to earn a living.” Paul said.
But never did Neal believe his love of farming would be passed on to all three children.
“I remember overhearing my parents talking to someone saying, ‘We hadn’t expected it but we’re thrilled all three of our kids are interested in agriculture,'” Sara said. “I hadn’t realized how much it meant to him.”
Now Paul has his own 200-head Jersey farm in West Salem, Ohio, Larry travels the world for Alta Genetics’ sire selection program, and Sara also used to milk Jerseys.
When they were young, their help was appreciated and expected, but Neal and Mary wanted the children to have a stake in the operation, too.
Paul was about 14 the year Neal told each of the kids to pick out a Jersey calf for Christmas.
Paul took the decision seriously and chose a calf that later rated Excellent and was featured on the cover of Hoard’s Dairymen, along with three other Schirm cows, for the magazine’s annual judging contest.
Neal also taught his children to show cows, which quickly became the family’s main hobby.
Traveling from the Franklin County Fair, to the state fair, to the national show in Louisville, Ky., Neal’s sons won every showmanship age division they entered.
“It kept us interested in farming and Jerseys,” Paul said.
The American Jersey Cattle Association’s office sat down the road from Schirm Farms, and Neal made sure everyone knew they could drop by his place.
From hosting judging teams or 50 Chinese visitors to having a milk plant’s advertising segment taped at the farm, Neal welcomed everyone.
“It was all part of PR and advertising the Jersey breed,” Paul said.
“He had an open-door policy. He knew the importance of being available and having a farm that looked good all the time.”
Larry added, “He was the quintessential of what a member of an association should be. He’s what you’d love all participants to be.”
But Neal agreed to lead only when asked.
“He was quiet. He never sought the headlines, or the top positions,” Paul said. “In the Jersey breed, there’s been lots of leaders like him, who are not about self-promotion, but about promoting the cow itself and the organization.”
Paul compared his father to the World War II general Omar Bradley who was known as “the soldier’s general.”
“[Like Bradley, Neal] was in tune with people. And although he was the best man for the job, he didn’t necessarily want it. But if people wanted him to take it, he did the job to the best of his ability,” Paul said.
These “jobs” included being the first president of the Ohio Young Farmers Association, vice president and director of the Ohio Jersey Breeders Association, treasurer of the Ohio Dairy Farmers Federation, and a director of the American Jersey Cattle Association.
Neal was stubborn, though.
He wasn’t the first farmer in the area to adopt new ideas, Paul said. Instead, Neal took his time looking over data and giving other farmers time to experiment.
If a salesman came to the farm, Neal knew instantly whether to trust him, Paul said.
“He could shuffle them out with a shaft real quick,” he said. “He was a good judge of character and could tell if someone was pulling one over on him.”
Sara still remembers when the National All-Jersey Inc. equity program started in 1976.
One of the men in charge of the program told her everyone was saying, “If Neal Schirm signs up, I will, too.”
“You couldn’t talk him into doing anything he didn’t want to do,” she said.
Two years later, Neal was finally convinced. He signed up for the equity program and continues to support it.
Neal knew right away, though, that Central Ohio Breeding Association (COBA) was a good idea.
To get good genetics, he needed access to good bulls – ones he couldn’t afford to own.
So he went door to door selling stock shares for $5 until the cooperative finally got started.
Top of the class
Breeding has always been important to Neal, from the showing perspective as well as production.
In the mid-1980s, Schirm’s cattle were producing 18,137 pounds of milk, 763 pounds of fat and 628 pounds of protein, and ranked fourth in the nation.
And Schirm Jerseys continue to be top show cows, from the 1970s when the Schirms had the state fair grand champion three out of five years, to the 2003 first-place aged cow at the All-American Jersey Show.
Paul also sold a Jersey in 1996 that is now No. 1 on the Jersey Performance Index. And her ancestry traces to that first registered Jersey Neal bought when he was in high school.
An aerial picture of the farm hangs over Neal’s desk. It’s from the early ’90s when urban sprawl was poised to swallow Schirm Farms, but that doesn’t show in the pictures. Instead, it’s a photograph of a farm, surrounded by open fields with Jerseys dotting the pastures.
At the time this was taken, even Neal knew it wouldn’t look like this much longer.
Back in the 1970s as highways connected, the family knew what was coming but didn’t realize it would be so quick.
As the gas stations, churches and apartments moved closer, the family prepared.
Neal and Mary bought their brick ranch with the asphalt driveway about a mile away, and slowly Neal let his sons take over the physical labor.
Paul decided to continue farming and land transfers helped him start a farm in West Salem. He bought half his father’s Jersey herd and started milking again in the late 1990s.
By then, the original farm was gone. All that remained were four original maple trees and a new development named “Schirm Farms” that the family didn’t know about until the billboard went up.
But even if Neal’s new neighbors don’t know who he is and what kind of farmer he was, the Jersey association made sure the dairy industry doesn’t forget.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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