Jeremy C. Nagel
Even the most senior Farm Bureau veterans don’t likely remember a time when the state annual meeting didn’t smell like a movie theatre lobby from start to finish. That’s because Kent County Farm Bureau member Kathy Slater-Hirsch has been popping corn at the event for the past four decades.
How she got to become a fixture at the largest annual gathering of Michigan farmers is a story any of those farmers will appreciate, as it embodies the same kind of grit and determination characteristic of those who make their living from the land.
Kathy Slater grew up the eldest of five daughters on a dairy farm in northeastern Muskegon County, near Holton.
“My dad was a lifetime Farm Bureau member — he loved it — his brothers did, too. A lot of them were farmers,” Kathy said between popcorn rushes at MFB’s 2018 Annual Meeting. “He was quite the inventor and did a lot of things first in Michigan. He was the first to have a pipeline milker, bulk tank… He had all sorts of equipment to help him work because he only had girls — no boys!”
Both her parents in those early years embodied the kind of social hospitality Kathy would, later in life, bring full-circle back to the greater Farm Bureau family.
“I remember when they were first married, my mom would have a luncheon in the house and the members would come from all around,” she remembers, describing the rituals that endure to this day among Farm Bureau Community Groups.
“Dad would get everything all spiffy in the barn for the neighbors,” she said. “It was a social event — a good, social gathering of the neighborhood.”
Kathy would eventually leave the farm, graduate from accounting school, and move to Kansas City where she worked for Gulf Oil through the 1970s. She and her husband eventually returned to Michigan to start their family in Grand Rapids.
In more ways than one, their son Bill Hirsch would go on to complete the story.
By the mid-1980s, the same high interest rates and inflation that was putting so many farms into bankruptcy had the Hirsch family in a similar bind.
“And my father just walked away,” Bill remembers. “He left my mom and us — a 13-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son — under a mountain of debt.”
There were multiple mortgages, massive credit card debt and leins on auto loans. But even under those most dire of circumstances, the dairyman’s daughter from Holton rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
Besides the family and financial disaster her husband left behind, he also walked away from the popcorn wagon they’d bought from a relative a decade earlier — a 1926 Cretors originally designed to be drawn by horses. The antique went straight into storage as a sacred family heirloom, but in the economy of the mid-‘80s, it was forced back into service.
“It needed to help pay for itself,” Bill remembers.
Its first outing was at an antique market in Allegan, a few years before Kathy took on the annual Farm Bureau gig. In addition to popcorning full-tilt at events across multiple states, she had also begun a jewelry business, a carpet-cleaning business and was managing rental units across Grand Rapids.
“My mom can be very, um, strong-willed,” Bill said. “For the war she fought on her own and got through, I love her dearly and I’m just amazed at what she’s accomplished and achieved in her life.
“She never filed for bankruptcy. She never lost the house.
“In my eyes she’s always been very successful, and she did not want to quit or retire ever. She’s said to me countless times, ‘Retiring’s not in my vocabulary.’ She didn’t want to give up.”
But Parkinson’s Disease is also strong-willed, eroding the links between brain and body until Kathy was forced at last onto the sidelines.
MFB’s 2019 Annual Meeting was her last.
In another full-circle twist, Bill is downsizing his own dairy operation to make room for the popcorn wagon that’s been part of his family’s identity since the ‘70s.
“Now I feel like this is a family legacy and it needs to continue. People love it.”
The Allegan antique market is still on the agenda, as is the Farm Bureau annual meeting, but this year it’ll be Bill filling the bags in his mother’s place.
For 40 years of making Michigan Farm Bureau’s annual meeting crunchier, saltier and more buttery than it otherwise would be, Kathy Slater-Hirsch was recently honored with a token of the organization’s appreciation. Earlier this month MFB Human Resources Director Tom Nugent and Lisa Fedewa, Engagement Specialist for Farm Bureau Insurance, delivered flowers, a plaque and other tokens of appreciation to the beloved “Popcorn Lady.”
“She loved the recognition,” Bill said. “She’s an outstanding lady.
“She took care of me now it’s my turn to take care of her.”