Interview With a Groundskeeper: Mike Herrema
Become certified in something that you are passionate about and be inquisitive about everything else.
Interview With a Groundskeeper: Mike Herrema
Today’s interview is especially enjoyable for me. Mike is one of my all-time favorite people. We first met spreading mulch together on the Calvin College campus when he was a student. A few years later he applies for a full-time job in Illinois where I was running my first grounds shop. Probably my best hire to date. Mike’s an all-around great guy who knows his stuff, works hard, and really cares for his campus and the people who live and work there – everything a great groundskeeper should be. Join us after the interview and ask Mike follow-up questions in the comment section.
Interview With Mike Herrema
TCG: Welcome to The Campus Green, Mike. Thank you for helping launch our Interview Series. We’ve worked together in the past and have remained friends, even as we’ve moved to different states. I’ve always respected your work ethic and broad knowledge of our industry. Can you tell us about your background and how you got started in Groundskeeping?
MH: I’ve always liked growing things and operating equipment (who can say that operating a wheel loader occasionally isn’t fun) so I was always kind of drawn to something like this career. When I completed my undergraduate education at Calvin College, I was fortunate enough to work as a student for Calvin College Grounds. While I graduated with a business degree it was during the midst of the recession so the high rise business jobs weren’t available. I did what I knew and that was working for commercial landscapers. During this time I networked with other green industry professionals and gained some certifications which help lead me to work at a college in Chicago for several years and then I got the chance to move back to Grand Rapids, Michigan.
TCG: How long have you been at Cornerstone?
MH: It’s getting close to three years now.
TCG: What have been the most rewarding part of your work at Cornerstone?
MH: I’ve worked commercial landscaping and at colleges. I prefer colleges better because it feels more like I own the campus instead of working at a client’s house. Every day I can see how the changes or decisions I make are working long term, but I would say that the most rewarding part of the work is working with and getting to know the students that work for me. Sometimes it is aggravating having students working for me, for example with the stuff that they don’t know how to do, but I can get over their inexperience and they can learn. Overall it is a really positive experience, we can keep it fun most of the time, and it is kind of rewarding when they acknowledge you in speeches or bring their parents to the shop to show them where they work and introduce them to you so you know that for some of them you had an impact on them and their college career.
TCG: What have been your biggest challenges?
MH: At Cornerstone University we rely on a mixture of full time workers, outside contractors and student labor to complete the grounds tasks. We rely pretty heavy on our student workers to complete the majority of the tasks such as mowing irrigation repair, etc. With student workers it is kind of a revolving door because they are only going to be there for a set amount of time before they are done, and it is virtually impossible to get any work done during exam time.
Another challenge seems to be balancing services provided with the budget allowed, but no one has an unlimited budget. At Cornerstone we have the fortune (or misfortune depending on how people look at it) of being across the road from Fredrick Meijer Gardens, an arboretum who has impeccable looking grounds. I like being across the road, it keeps me on my toes and I take it as a challenge to try to have Cornerstone look as good or better than them because that is what we are compared to as people pull into the drive.
Winter is always a challenge. I’ve increased the standards for snow removal to be better than what the city or county can provide on their roads and sidewalks. It gets a little tedious when it snow for days on end and the standards can’t slip.
TCG: I know you’re great with tree care. We are focusing on tree care on The Campus Green here in the midst of Arbor Day season. Can you tell us a bit about how you gained that knowledge?
MH: I’m an Arborist. To me this is surprising to think about. This is not the career path that I thought I would be heading in when I started working in the green industry. I even liked turf grass more than trees, but good advice pushed me to become certified in some area of the industry to help distinguish myself. It started with the easier to obtain certifications. I studied and took tests to become a Certified Green Industry Professional. Not only did this help me to learn and identify a host of landscape plants include many varieties of trees with their common and Latin names, it did open new doors to me. Soon I was putting in the time and effort to become an ISA Certified Arborist. While this was a lot of work, I consider this to be one of the most beneficial tools I have acquired in the green industry. Through this process my knowledge, love and respect for trees expanded greatly. Taking the ISA courses was time consuming, but it was worth it. My learning and certification enabled me to effectively communicate with community members about trees, and help inform them on topics like why a tree species might not be the best to plant in a particular area. It helped me to identify diseases and pests and to help figure out why a tree was going into decline. It also helped me to identify tree hazards and risks to make a campus a safer place, and at the same time the knowledge helped me to alleviate unfounded fears from the public. In short, having a certification in the green industry, or being an Arborist greatly increases the respect for the opinions of me or any employee that has is and makes my job easier.
TCG: That’s good insight. We tend to think that we have to pursue a specialty and stick to it. Your experience suggests that we can, and should, broaden our knowledge base and become “experts” in a variety of fields. Is that what you would suggest?
MH: Yes, I would think I’m knowledgeable enough to be dangerous in turf/sports turf and irrigation. It is always worth your time to investigate and learn more about different areas of grounds care. I find my job less tedious if I can bounce around the different fields occasionally and it makes for a more valuable employee. At one point in time I was studying to become certified in the Irrigation Association, but I thought that would be a lot of different continuing education credits that I would have to maintain every year. I’m happy with just getting the CEU’s for the Certified Green Industry Professional and the Certified Arborist, so I would say become certified in something that you are passionate about and be inquisitive about everything else.
TCG: Would you be up for some continuing discussion on tree care as we focus on that this spring?
MH: Yes! I like giving my opinions and hearing from others. This is how I think my campus and others can improve. I’m willing to share where I think I did things right with tree care and what I thought I could have improved upon.
TCG: Thanks so much, Mike. We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts on tree care over the next many weeks.
Mike will be available to answer questions in the comments below for the next few weeks. Look for Mike’s thoughts on tree care every Thursday over the next many weeks.