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Jerry Heck emphasizes stewardship for today, future

The Monroe producer has been named a 2024 Michigan Master Farmer.

Jennifer Kiel

January 24, 2024

18 Slides

Stewardship. Most view it as an ethical value that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. For farmers, that includes land and all their natural resources.

For Jerry Heck, his conservation management includes no-till or minimal tillage, cover crops, variable-rate seeding and fertilizing, filter strips along drainage ditches, fertilizer containment structures and, most recently, water-level controls on tile outlets.

He’s also gone a little further than the “here and now” to include plans for the care and management of his farm and rented ground after he’s retired and gone.

Up until a few years ago, Jerry had been farming about 580 acres in the Monroe area in southeast Michigan, growing corn, soybeans, wheat and cover crops in rotation.

Jerry is now transitioning his farm to John Delmotte and mentoring him on the farm’s conservation practices.

Eleven years ago, Delmotte, of nearby Dundee, approached him about potentially using his combine because his father’s older combine was not equipped with a yield monitor. He needed to record yield data to work into variable-rate fertilizer applications through a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant. Delmotte had gotten to know Jerry, as he was his father’s seed dealer and has been a Pioneer Hybrid Seed dealer for 33 years.

Today, Jerry has cut back and is farming about 140 acres of wheat — a crop he’s passionate about after devoting long hours as a founding board member of the Michigan Wheat Program, established in 2011.

The rest of the ground he owns and had rented is now rented to Delmotte. After talking for more than three years, they are now in the first year of a five-year machinery lease, with a buyout on the sixth year. Next, they plan to work on a lease agreement for the grain bin and barn.

“I’m slowly easing into retirement,” says Jerry, 74, who exchanged rings with his wife, Diane (Dee Dee), more than 50 years ago on Nov. 3, 1973, after being set up on a square-dancing blind date by his sister.

Together, the couple has two married daughters, Deann Falkowski and Amanda Marsh, who have successful careers in civil engineering in the Lansing area. “I knew neither of them wanted to come back and farm, and this is an opportunity to help a young farmer out,” says Jerry, who pauses and adds, “It’s more like helping each other out.”

Jerry was nominated as a Michigan Master Farmer by a slew of Michigan Wheat Program members, as well as Executive Director Jody Pollok-Newsom.

Part of the nomination also included a letter from Delmotte, in which he wrote, “Having experience on a very traditional farming operation, coming to work along with Jerry opened my eyes to some very different practices I wasn’t all that familiar with. I later understood more of the philosophy behind it. Jerry has been a leader in adopting new practices on the farm that ensure he will leave it better than he found it.”

In addition to all the conservation practices, Delmotte points out that the farm was one of the first to be verified through Michigan’s Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program.

“Jerry has meticulously managed ground to improve soil health,” Delmotte says. “He maintains, literally, miles of filter strips along his waterways and makes sure maintenance of those filter strips is a priority. Jerry really is the farmer who thinks not of just today, but of what tomorrow looks like for generations ahead. He demonstrates a passion for helping ensure a bright future for those coming after him. He defines stewardship.”

Building a farming life

Jerry and Dee Dee live in the home his great-great-grandfather deeded in 1879, albeit much different since its renovation in 1982-83.

Growing up, Jerry was involved in 4-H and FFA and helped his father with chores, tending to 16 dairy cows in a stanchion barn and about 1,000 chickens, which made them a relatively large egg producer at the time. Through Farm Bureau Services, two cage-type houses were added to expand the operation to 14,000 chickens.

Jerry went to college, graduated from Michigan State University in 1972 and returned home to farm. His brother, Bob, followed the same path, coming home in 1973, and the two of them began building their farming enterprise while helping their dad and using his equipment.

“We had just a few acres, but kept adding as farmers retired and land became available,” says Jerry, who worked off-farm part-time jobs to supplement their farm income. Dee Dee also worked as a school nurse.

The family downsized the egg business and were out by 2005. In partnership, Jerry and Bob grew their crop farm to a peak of about 1,100 acres before Bob passed away in 2004, and Jerry’s dad died in 2008. The farm was split up, and two of Bob’s sons are now farming part of that ground.

Jerry farmed alone for several years, but was fortunate to have the help of a neighbor and friends during critical times.

Taking and giving advice

Being a successful farmer means being a good listener, and Jerry took advice from his dad, consulted with his brother, and sought out information from other growers and MSU Extension.

While building his own knowledge, he was freely sharing it with others and cultivating leaders in the industry, says Doug Darling, who last year retired after 20 years serving as a director on the Michigan Farm Bureau board.

“I met Jerry when he showed up while I was milking cows one morning in 1979 and asked me to take part in the Farm Bureau Discussion Meet,” Darling recounts. “He got me engaged in the organization, and one of the first discussion topics was national farm policy — my first exposure to farm bill debate.”

Jerry has served on several Farm Bureau boards and committees, as well as commodity boards, commodity and university advisory groups, school boards, church and township office positions, water-quality issue groups, and state-appointed committees. “He cultivates more than soil. … He cultivates minds, leaders and consumer understanding of agriculture,” Darling says.

Jerry has been particularly outspoken in representing and advancing wheat growers in the state, Pollok-Newsom says.

“Jerry brought his love of farming and agriculture to the board [Michigan Wheat Program], and he was always an active participant in discussions as to which research projects should be funded — what was cutting edge, versus what was not,” she says.  “He was particularly looking out for what would make the most financial sense for the growers.

“He had his ear to the heartbeat of the industry and was willing to make tough decisions for its advancement.”

While he was term-limited off the board, the MWP directors successfully nominated Jerry to fill the wheat position on the Farm Produce Insurance Act board.

Over the years, he’s hosted several field days, working with the Monroe County Conservation District, and even welcomed former U.S. Rep John Dingell and a delegation from Japan.

Working with Delmotee and others, “I try to offer advice without being too pushy,” he says. “People have different ways of doing things, so I just explain what has worked for me. But also knowing that it may not work for others, I urge them to explore options.”

Ag, in general, has a bright future, he says. “The industry is changing, and I’m reluctant to stop farming, but it is also a bit daunting trying to keep up with all the new technology.”

As he gradually steps back from the farm, Jerry and Dee Dee are enjoying their family, including three grandchildren, and are taking some camping trips.

Even though they have no shared branches on a family tree, Delmotte says, “Jerry and Dee Dee are family to me. They have been a partner to me and my family and have shown us so much goodness and opportunities, all while demonstrating the ‘right’ way to do it.”

Jerry Heck at a glance

Farm: Heck Farms LLC, 415 acres, corn, soybeans and wheat

Nominator: Michigan Wheat Program board of directors, Executive Director Jody Pollok-Newsom

Leadership: FFA in high school, chapter president; past 4-H Club leader; Monroe County Farm Bureau board; past member of MFB state young farmer committee; past member of MFB policy development committee; MFB Feed Grains, Oilseeds, and wheat advisory committee; founding member of the Michigan Wheat Checkoff Committee, 2011-19; Farm Produce Insurance Agency committee, representing wheat; past member of Ida Farmers Co-op board; Mercy Memorial Hospital board 2005-11, chairman for two years;  Monroe Public Schools board 1989-97, president for two years; Monroe Charter Township Zoning Board of Appeals; Immanuel Lutheran Church, various offices and committees, usher; member of MSU Alumni Association, FFA Alumni Association, Amvets Post 1942, Monroe County Historical Society and Michigan Centennial Farm Association

Awards: Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation District Conservation Family of the Year, 2010; Monroe County Farm Bureau Ecology Leadership Award, 2011

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Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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