By LOU WILIN
For 31 years, lifelong farmer Gary Wilson was also an educator who helped farmers and ag-related businesses in Hancock County succeed.
His accomplishments earned him national recognition earlier this year.
Although he has retired as Hancock County’s Extension agent, he still farms, raising cattle, sheep and goats and growing corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa hay.
He is still active with many of the same agricultural groups he has been with for decades, like Hancock County Cattlemen’s Association and Hancock County Sheep Association. He simply likes being around people like him, he said.
The former president of the American Forage and Grassland Council still likes going to the national group’s annual meetings.
“It’s like family,” he said.
But something else has happened to this seventh-generation Jenera area farmer. He has become a rural ambassador to Findlay, helping city-country dialogue on how to reduce Blanchard River flooding in Findlay without aggrieving rural residents.
He wants to protect the rights of property owners in the country, but is not so militant about it as to alienate his Findlay neighbors. He talks with Findlay Mayor Lydia Mihalik and others about Blanchard River flood reduction. They don’t always agree, but they have a mutual respect.
“He’s a compassionate guy who cares a lot for this community and I love the fact that he is always willing to listen,” Mihalik said. “His compassion for the community and his willingness to listen are very advantageous when discussing something as vital as the future of flood mitigation for our community.”
Predictably, Wilson is a member of a group of rural residents who call themselves Hancock United for a Better Blanchard.
But he also is a member of Blanchard River Watershed Solutions, a group of business and government leaders and professionals which sometimes clashes with rural residents in flood-reduction debates.
“Findlay is where the growth is at. Findlay is where the jobs are at,” Wilson said. “Ninety percent of our farm families are coming into Findlay for work. That’s where the employment is. Our farms wouldn’t survive without that off-farm income. It’s critical.”
Wilson also is chair of the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation, a hub for charitable giving and endowment funding.
When he was asked to serve as a foundation trustee to represent the rural community, he was shocked.
“The Community Foundation has a lot of what I call corporate executives that are on that board,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘You want me?'”
“But it’s been a nice match. I’ve been able to bring a lot in that really hasn’t been a part of that group,” he said. “It’s been kind of out of my normal zone of very agricultural, rural kinds of groups. Anytime anything comes up, that anybody sees in the fields or they hear something about agriculture at all, they go to me.
“I’m kind of like the token farm guy,” Wilson said.
He also started the Historic Barn Tour in 2013 as a board member of the Hancock Historical Museum.
The Wilsons’ original 80-acre farm was started by an ancestor in 1834. Wilson has the original deed stamped with the signature of President Andrew Jackson. Wilson also owns other acreage in the Jenera area, giving him a total of over 200 acres. By today’s standards it is not a large farm operation, he said.
For six generations, including Wilson’s parents, Herb and Loma Wilson, the Wilson farm operation provided all the family’s food. Gary was the youngest of three children.
“When I grew up — of course I’m at the same place I was 63 years ago — every neighbor was a farm family. Every single one,” Wilson said.
Today, perhaps as few as 5 to 10 percent of rural households are farm families, he said.
Today, Wilson drives back and forth between home and Findlay multiple times per day. Growing up, he and his family went for spans of six months without visiting Findlay.
“Back then, going to Findlay was like going to Columbus today,” he said.
Jenera and Arlington had everything the Wilsons needed: Grocery stores, barbershops, lumberyards, hardware stores.
Gary and one of his sisters were the family’s first to marry someone from outside Hancock County. He and a sister were the first in the family to go to college. Gary was the first in the family to earn off-farm income.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State University, Wilson became a vocational agriculture teacher for Patrick Henry Schools in 1978. He came back home on weekends to help with the family farm.
In 1980, the position of Ohio State University Extension agent in Hancock County opened up and Wilson was hired.
For over three decades, Wilson averaged about 20 meetings per week with over 30 different agriculture groups, many local, others around the state and even the nation. The first meeting of the day typically was at 7 a.m. and the last one was in the evening.
His wife, Mary, did much of the farm work. But Wilson also did farm work in the evening when his Extension agent duties were done.
One of his signature accomplishments as Extension agent came in 1988. Farmers that year grew desperate while a drought and extreme heat destroyed their crops.
Some farmers “borrow their net worth annually,” Wilson said. “You have one devastating year and you could be out of business. So it was very, very stressful. All the investments were made and the crops weren’t growing.”
Wilson had the anguished farmers meet together in groups.
“Therapy groups you could call it. Talk. ‘Let’s talk. Let’s get through this. How can we? … Together,'” he said.
The meetings did not save the crops. Farmers had nothing to sell. The federal government declared Ohio a disaster area and provided relief to farmers.
But meeting to talk helped farmers weather the anguish of the drought.
“We said, ‘This is a good thing. We need to keep doing this,'” Wilson recalled.
The Hancock County Ag Council was born. Even after the drought — when the weather was favorable and the crops abundant — farmers kept meeting at restaurants, like the old Rose Villa and the Dark Horse.
There were too many farmers to fit at a single table, so they pulled a bunch of tables together. They continue to meet to this day, at 7 a.m. on the second Monday of each month at 50 North. Anyone is welcome to attend, including non-rural people, Wilson said.
“It’s just an informal group. Farmers and agribusinessmen,” he said. “We sit around the table and we just go around the table. ‘What have you heard? What do you want to bring us up to date on? What’s happening?'”
“I learn more there than anything else I do,” Wilson said.
For his commitment, dedication, leadership and humanitarian service to farmers over the years, Wilson earlier this year won the 2018 Hall of Fame Award from the National Association of County Agriculture Agents.
“Once people get old and do a lot of things, this kind of stuff happens,” Wilson said of the award.
“I was always looked at as being the one with the answers. You’re no better than the people around you. You can’t know everything,” he said. “If one farmer asked, ‘I have this problem. How do I do this?’ Well, I may not have the answer, but I knew another farmer who had the same problem. ‘This is what he did. This is how it worked out.’ What you learn from one, you’re able to help another.”
He calls it a “unified effect.”
Wilson brings his trademark affability when he represents his rural roots and neighbors in flood-control conversations with city officials and business leaders.
“We’ve got differences of opinion, but we’re trying to work together,” Wilson said. “We’re trying.”
The “we” includes city government and business leaders — who also are trying, he said.
“We agree to disagree sometimes. That’s fine,” Wilson said. “But we’re talking. We’re sitting down at the table together. That’s huge.”
“I talk to the commissioners often. I know them well.
“Steve Wilson (flood-control project manager for the Maumee Watershed Conservancy District) is my cousin,” he said. “His dad and my dad were brothers. We have that connection. We’re still close. We go back and forth even though there’s some things that we may not agree on … Lydia (Mihalik) and I talk. And that’s important. It’s critical.”
Deep differences of opinion remain on flood control.
“Somehow, you have to find a friendly way to agree to disagree,” Wilson said. “Somehow.”
Wilson said he has been urged over the years by many to run for a public office, like county commissioner.
“Bill Recker (a commissioner in the 1980s and 1990s) pleaded with me to try to run, and I said, ‘Bill, I just don’t think it’s me,'” Wilson said. “I’ll help. I’ll work with anybody.”
“I’m a groupie … I’m in so many groups,” he said. “If you’re in a group long enough, pretty soon they’re going to be looking to you for leadership.
“I’m very comfortable just being in the background. I really am,” Wilson said. “I don’t need to be in charge. But I want to be part of the group.”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin