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Overcomer

Huntingdon row crop and livestock producer Gerry Hilliard rises above adversities to continue farming
Story and photos by: Allison Farley 6/26/2020

 

Gerry can always count on help around the farm from his wife of 11 years, Lisa. The couple raises Hereford cattle, 500 acres of white corn, 150 acres of wheat, 350 acres soybeans, and 75 acres of mixed grass hay on their Carroll County land.
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Gerry Hilliard began farming with his father, Edgar, as soon as he was old enough to walk beside him. 


Growing up, the 57-year-old Carroll County row crop and livestock producer recalls dreaming of being a full-time farmer like his father, who raised market hogs, soybeans, corn, cattle, wheat, and other row crops in Huntingdon. 


“When I was probably six or seven years old, I started following the tractor pretending I was a farmer just like him,” says Gerry, who, along with younger sisters, Annette and Telena, were taught the values of farm life by their dad and mother, Carolyn. “I would play with my toys in the shade of his truck while he was planting with the tractor.”


As Gerry grew older, he took on more farm responsibilities, from driving tractors to feeding hogs. When he was only 10 years old and just becoming an invaluable help to his dad, Gerry was diagnosed with juvenile or Type I diabetes. Because his body could not produce insulin on its own, he had to adopt a rigid diet and insulin injection regime to control his blood sugar. He never missed a beat as his dad’s helper, despite the limitations common with this serious condition. Even as a student at Huntingdon High School, Gerry found a way to spend some of his class time on the farm. 


“When I was in school, study hall was the last period of the day and packed with students,” he says.  “The teachers worked it out where those of us who worked could leave at that time and go to our jobs, so I came home to work on the farm with dad.”


Gerry also took advantage of every opportunity at school to learn more about farming, so naturally he made the choice to join FFA. He was very active with the organization, which culminated in him receiving the American FFA Degree at the organization’s 1983 national convention in Kansas City.  This degree is only awarded to less than 1 percent of FFA members, making it one of the organization’s highest honors.


Since his high school graduation in 1981, Gerry has never spent a day as anything but a full-time farmer. He went into partnership with his father that year, and the two continued to farm together for more than three decades until his father’s passing in 2014. 


The father and son team hit the height of the farm’s production in the late 1990s and early 2000s, raising 1,200 acres of row crops and managing a 60-sow market hog operation, where they would sell between 1,200 and 1,400 hogs each year.


Gerry says farming together has been a blessing over the years as the family experienced health issues and unexpected loss. In 1975, Edgar caught his right arm in a grain auger’s PTO shaft, while Gerry received a kidney and pancreas transplant in 2006, a year after he was diagnosed with kidney failure. Then, in August 2013, Gerry’s 23-year-old son, Ross, who had plans to return home to join the family farming operation, was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. 


“Dad and I were able to take over the major farming operations when the other was recovering and supported each other while we were both grieving, too,” says Gerry. “I don’t know how we could have gotten through those times without each other.”


Despite the adversities he and his family have faced, Gerry continues to be committed to carrying on the Hilliard farming legacy. Today, he and Lisa, his wife of 11 years, raise cattle and a few row crops on their Carroll County land. 


“We have around 50 Hereford and commercial mama cows in our cow/calf operation,” says Gerry. “We also grow 500 acres of white corn that goes to make corn meal, 150 acres of wheat, 350 acres soybeans, and 75 acres of mixed grass hay.”


While Gerry’s pancreas transplant means he no longer needs daily insulin, he still deals with many of the long-term effects from diabetes, such as nerve damage. Since 2017, Gerry has struggled with Charcot, a condition caused from neuropathy, which affects the bones, joints, and soft tissues of his feet or ankles.


Even with the chronic health battles, both large and small, Gerry continues to find joy each day by farming the land his father taught him to love and care for.


“It’s not a job to me; I just enjoy doing it,” says Gerry. “I have always enjoyed and looked forward to getting into the field and being around the equipment and the livestock, so it feels more like a hobby and a way to work through whatever is happening in my life.” 


 
 
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