Staffers at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development don’t just work in the food and agriculture industry – many of them also live and breathe agriculture in their personal lives.
Dr. James Averill
As the state veterinarian for Michigan, Dr. James Averill’s responsibilities at MDARD include protecting, regulating and promoting animal health for Michigan’s 35 million domestic animals. Averill and his fellow staffers respond quickly to animal health issues, and as state veterinarian, he has the authority to quarantine or isolate animals to reduce the spread of diseases.
“Animals play an important role in our lives, from providing sheer pleasure and stress relief as a pet to a source of protein for human consumption,” Averill says. “As state veterinarian, I help ensure Michiganders are keeping their animals healthy and free of disease for the betterment of all other animals.”
In his day job, Averill works with animals as small as mice and as large as elephants. Mostly, he deals with farm animals, cats and dogs.
“The United States has the safest food supply in America, and that is due in part to the work of state veterinarians having regulations to protect animals,” he says.
Outside the office, Averill and his wife, Donna, own Willowcreek Farm, a small sheep farm in Webberville, just east of Lansing. They have 20 registered Dorper sheep they show and sell all over the country. Dorper is a breed of sheep known for their muscle mass and ability to shed fiber with no need to shear.
“They are an easy breed of sheep to care for and are excellent mothers,” says Averill, who was raised on a sheep and dairy farm in Maine. “As a child, I had my own flock of sheep – Hampshires. I have been around sheep all my life.”
Averill enjoys raising sheep because they are easy to manage. They don’t require an elaborate barn, they efficiently convert grass into muscle and they are environmentally friendly.
“Raising sheep is a stress reliever for me, and the art of raising livestock and improving their value really intrigues me,” Averill says. “Trying to match the right male to a female to create the perfect sheep … You mate the two and wait 147 days to see if you made the right decision. Excitement rises as lambing season approaches, and you see if the pairing worked. Then you have the challenge of making sure the newborn lamb grows well into a mature sheep. When all the pieces come together, you’re very happy.”
On the clock, Sean Dunleavy is manager of quality assurance for MDARD’s Food and Dairy Division.
“We oversee 45 local health departments and review them to make sure they have appropriate food safety programs in place, since they inspect all the restaurants in the state,” Dunleavy says. “We also oversee our own internal food quality assurance programs that inspect food manufacturing plants, like Chelsea Milling Co., that produces Jiffy Mix, and Kellogg’s, that produces cereal and a wide variety of breakfast and snack items. And we have two state rating officers who conduct routine ratings of the dairy farms and dairy processing plants.”
When he’s off the clock, Dunleavy is still involved in agriculture, farming hay as a forage crop for horse farms near Hartland.
“We bale about 10,000 square bales of hay every year and sell them directly to horse farmers,” Dunleavy says. “Our college-age kids help in the summers, driving the tractor or whatever needs to be done. Farming is my happy place – my connection back home.”
Dunleavy also serves on the board of the Fowlerville Family Fair in his home county, where he is superintendent of campgrounds.
“I take a week of vacation time to do it, but it’s for a good cause,” he says. “It’s awesome to see the kids and their projects. My kids grew up showing hogs and rabbits, and doing 4-H projects like welding, jewelry making and building model rockets.”
Heather Throne grew up on a small hog and beef cattle farm, and was active in 4-H and FFA before attending Michigan State University and landing a job at MDARD. She works as an agriculture development outreach specialist, managing more than 150 active grants. She also serves as the MDARD representative on 14 commodity marketing boards, including boards representing blueberry, corn, dairy, apple and wheat producers in Michigan.
“My role allows me to work with Michigan farmers, which is my passion,” Throne says.
Throne has fond memories of her childhood as a 4-H member, when her summers revolved around the county and state fairs. She showed pigs, beef cattle and sheep at the Shiawassee County Fair, where her grandfather had been a 4-H leader and superintendent of the horse barn. Now, Throne’s two daughters (ages 10 and 11) are showing 4-H projects of their own.
“Last year, they showed pigs, beef cattle, garden vegetables, sewing and other exhibit-building projects,” Throne says. “I always loved seeing my friends at the fair and making wonderful memories. Now my daughters have the same love for the county fair and our state’s agriculture industry.”