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Former Michigan legislator named state ag director

U.P. farmer Gary McDowell brings lifelong farming and public service backgrounds to lead MDARD.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

January 24, 2019

3 Min Read
Gary McDowell-MDARD
FARM BACKGROUND: McDowell owns and operates McDowell Brothers Farm and McDowell Hay Inc., along with his brothers.

The new director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development hails from the Upper Peninsula and is settling into his downstate service after being appointed Dec. 27 by Michigan’s new governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

Growing up on farm in Rudyard, the oldest of 10 children, Gary McDowell was ready to hit the ground running when Michigan Farmer caught up with him shortly after the new year.

“It’s an opportunity and honor to serve the ag community in Michigan,” he says, noting he has no immediate plans to change the department’s direction. “I know the ag community well — some of the finest people on this earth. I want to work with them to make it better for agriculture in the state of Michigan.”

McDowell owns and operates McDowell Brothers Farm and McDowell Hay Inc., along with his brothers Bob and Ron. McDowell served for 22 years on the Chippewa County board of Commissioners and for six years as a state representative for the 107th District in 2004-10.

Gary was also a United Parcel Service delivery driver for 30 years and, most recently, a real estate agent.

His public service also includes being a volunteer Rudyard Fire and Ambulance Corps firefighter and emergency medical technician for 18 years, a member of the county economic development board, and board member for 27 years for Chippewa County War Memorial Hospital.

When younger, McDowell says his dad and grandfather bought the local John Deere franchise in town. “They were so busy with that, the farm operation fell onto his children,” says McDowell, who is keenly aware of how agriculture has changed in many ways.

The farm once housed a small cow-calf herd before going into the high-quality hay business in 1948.

In the early years, that hay was being shipped downstate to feed the horses delivering milk in urban communities and to feed the Detroit and Chicago police departments’ mounted divisions. Then, it shifted to the race horse industry. “But that’s since declined. Now, the small bales are sold to feed stores in mostly Southern states,” he adds.

McDowell formed a partnership with his brothers in the early 1980s and worked to expand the farm to around 1,000 acres.

With all his public service commitment, McDowell admits he’s not around the farm too much anymore, noting his family is supportive of his new position. “I thought my brothers might be a little upset about it, and I was wondering why they weren’t,” he says. “Then, I figured it out. … They were glad that it keeps me away from the equipment. It seems to go a lot smoother when I’m not around,” he says with a chuckle.

For rural communities, McDowell noted the need for comprehensive broadband throughout the state to allow farmers to take full advantage of today’s technology.

Labor issues and finding labor for Michigan agriculture were also identified as issues to focus on.

McDowell wants to hear from producers. “Please contact us if there’s a problem to see what we can do to help. Our doors are open; the phones are ready and we’re listening,” he says, adding he will continue to engage commodity groups for input.

McDowell, who attended Lake Superior State University, is married to Carrie, who grew up on a farm in nearby McMillan.

Their children are daughters Olivia, with her husband, Mark; Emily, with husband Eric; and Rachelle, who will marry in July.

Other department heads named
Whitmer also named Paul Ajegba as the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The Department of Environmental Quality will be led by Liesl Eichler Clark, and Daniel Eichinger will serve as director of the Department of Natural Resources.


About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

Jennifer was hired as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, and in 2015, she began serving a dual role as editor of Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer. Both those publications are now online only, while the print version is American Agriculturist, which covers Michigan, Ohio, the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. She is the co-editor with Chris Torres.

Prior to joining Farm Progress, 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 the 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 resume.

She has been a member of American Agricultural Editors’ Association (now Agricultural Communicators Network) since 2003. She has won numerous writing and photography awards through that organization, which named her a Master Writer in 2006 and Writer of Merit in 2017.

She is a board member for the Michigan 4-H Foundation, Clinton County Conservation District and Barn Believers.

Jennifer and her husband, Chris, live in St. Johns, Mich., and collectively have five grown children and four grandchildren.

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