Feature

Meet the Future of Agriculture

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Erin Woody — Making Bold Moves 

From college intern to assistant manager to business owner—that’s the accelerated career path Erin Woody has taken since she was part of the inaugural MFA Ag Experience internship program in 2013.

She interned with MFA the summer before her senior year at Missouri State University. Before she graduated, she was working for MFA full time. In 2014, she was named retail services manager and then assistant manager in 2016 at MFA Agri Services in Ozark, Mo. At the time, the 25-year-old was the youngest female assistant manager in any MFA location.

Now, her experiences with MFA have given Woody the confidence and skills to make a bold move. She’s in training to take over the operation of her family’s farm store. Woody left Ozark MFA at the end of June and began her new career July 5.

The store has been owned and operated by her grandparents, Dale and Donna Wickstrom, for the past 33 years, and Woody developed a passion for the business long before she looked at it with an entrepreneurial eye.

“I feel like I’m coming home,” said Woody, whose family also raised cattle and sheep. “I pretty much grew up in the store and fell in love with it from the get-go. You’d have customers who would come in and sit down and tell you stories—whether they were true or not. They still do.”

Initially studying ag education in college, Woody said she switched her major specifically to ag business with intentions of running the farm supply store someday. First, however, her family encouraged her to get some experience elsewhere. The MFA Ag Experience program fit the bill.

During her internship, Woody moved around to various locations learning about retail sales, grain production and crop protection. Her final internship project, however, was what earned her the attention and respect of cooperative leaders such as MFA Regional Manager Ed Long. His challenge to her? The Ozark location was underperforming. Figure out why and fix it.

“I scoured data. Took every single ticket in an entire fiscal year and categorized the totals,” she explained. “I looked at how many sales we were doing in each category. Figured out what days of the week they were selling the most things. Looked at everybody’s salary. Evaluated different departments. Had them reduce 20 percent of their inventory.”

At the end of the summer, Woody presented her findings to Ozark Manager Keith McDaniel and then to executives at MFA Incorporated’s Columbia home office.

“Numbers don’t lie, and I was as confident as I could be—maybe a little too confident,” Woody recalled. “I made my presentation, explained what I thought the issue was and how they could fix it. I left there having no idea what the future held. As far as I knew, I had one week left with MFA.”

In fact, the future held a part-time job with MFA while Woody finished college and then a full-time position as second-in-command at the Ozark location.

“Erin shows how interns can develop into dedicated employees who are passionate about agriculture,” McDaniel said. “She has an outgoing personality, and when you give her something to do, she gets it done.”

Erin Teeple, who manages MFA’s Ag Experience program, said that of the 11 interns in the first year when Woody participated, eight were asked to stay on as full-time employees. Of the 50 students in the first four years of the internship program, 40 percent have been hired or remain on staff. Internship numbers are growing steadily and hit 16 in the summer of 2017.

The Ozark location was struggling when Woody started there in 2014, but two years ago, its profitability began improving. She pinpoints that accomplishment as a milestone in her young career.

“My goal was to keep the store in the black,” she said. “As soon as we saw we’d made money that first year, it was truly tears of joy from Keith and I. It wasn’t done individually. It was a complete group effort. It was one of those proud feelings I’ll never forget.”

While she relished her role at Ozark, Woody still had ambitions of eventually running her family’s business. That dream is now a reality.

“Every time I’d go home, I would ask, ‘Are you ready to turn the store over to me?’ and Grandpa would just smile and say, ‘Not yet,’ or ‘You need more training,’” Woody said. “I’d almost given up on the idea. Last year, my grandparents came to me and wanted to know if I was still serious about wanting the store, and we started working on the logistics.”

The youngest of six grandchildren—and the only female—Woody also felt it was important to gain her extended family’s blessing before she bought into the business. There were no objections, she said, and she’s now fully immersed in what she describes as a “slow transition process” to take over the store.

“My main thing is to keep their legacy going,” Woody said. “They’ve done an incredibly successful job with the store, and my intention is to grow it in a positive manner.”

In the bigger picture, Woody said she wants to use her leadership skills to help advance agriculture in the community.

“The stigma of agriculture isn’t what it used to be,” she said. “Growing up, people thought of farming as sows, plows and cows. I think we are truly changing that mindset. It’s important to teach people that it doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, everyone can be involved in agriculture.”

 Jeremy Dold — K-State Bound

Each summer through high school, Jeremy Dold of Emporia, Kan., worked full time on the farm operated by his grandparents, Tony and Virginia Dold. The young man learned to cut, rake and bale hay and combine wheat. Now 18, Dold recently received an MFA Foundation scholarship that will help him pursue a career in agriculture.

“I applied for many scholarships, but this is a big one,” he said. “It’s important to me.”

Dold was among more than 340 students who received $2,000 scholarships from the MFA Foundation in the spring of 2017. AgChoice of Emporia, which is owned by MFA Incorporated, sponsored his scholarship. Dold, a 2017 graduate of Emporia High School, will use the funds to attend Kansas State University this fall.

The experience on his grandparents’ farm inspired Dold to major in mechanical engineering. He plans to use the degree to build a career designing and improving farm equipment.

“We spent so much time fixing equipment on the farm,” he said. “If we make equipment more durable, we can focus on making the land as productive as possible.”

Dold is the second-oldest of five children—two boys and three girls. His mother, Joan, works as youth director at their church and his father, Dan, is a mechanical engineer at Camso, a plant that manufactures tracks for agricultural equipment. His father’s career also inspired Dold’s interest in machinery, and he landed a job working at the factory this summer, too.

“Jobs in my field are available around Emporia,” Dold said. “My dream for the future is a peaceful life near family in a big house in the countryside, with a wife and kids.”

While in high school, Jeremy took part in FFA, the National Honors Society, Key Club and the Robotics Club. He led the marching band drum line and captained the wrestling team.

MFA Foundation Scholarships are offered at high schools and sponsored by participating MFA AgChoice locations, MFA Agri Services Centers, MFA Oil Company propane plants and MFA Oil Company bulk plant local affiliates. 
“MFA supports youth in agriculture because we know that today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders,” said Pam Hiller, secretary-treasurer of the MFA Foundation. “We’ve done this for more than 50 years to the tune of more than 14,000 scholarships and $15 million.”

Interested students should contact their school counselor to see if an MFA Foundation scholarship is available in their area. Counselors can obtain applications from participating MFA locations. For more information, visit
www.mfafoundation.com.

John Hyder — Prepped  for success 

John Hyder has held several jobs in his 47 years—on the farm, in the Navy, and as an electronics expert. But he said he’s never been in a position that felt as natural as managing the MFA Feed Mill in Aurora, Mo.

Hyder’s confidence got a boost in the past year when he was one of 58 MFA Incorporated supervisors selected for a new Management Series training program designed to prepare promising leaders.

“MFA’s success in providing quality products and services to our customers is critical to the future of agriculture,” Hyder said. “I appreciated the opportunity to attend the series. We learned a lot about how to help MFA continue as an industry leader.”

The Aurora plant is one of seven MFA feed mills in Missouri and Kansas. In Aurora, Hyder manages 23 employees who manufacture about 90,000 tons of feed a year for dairy, beef, poultry, swine, goats, sheep, horses, deer and rabbits.

Amanda Cooper, vice president of corporate services for MFA Incorporated, oversees the Management Series and led several sessions.

“We created the series to provide continued high-level development for up-and-coming MFA leaders, and John is a leader,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re providing growth opportunities to keep employees like John engaged. He has a great head for business and a big heart for employees.”

The series ran from November 2016 to February 2017 with three separate day-and-a-half classes featuring topics such as leadership, communications, human resources and financial management. Also covered were basic supervisory practices, teamwork, and how to direct and coach employees. The series will be repeated for other supervisors in the future.

Hyder’s supervisor recommended him for the series, and in other cases, employees asked to participate. Hyder said his favorite part of the course involved learning about how to communicate with different personality types.

“I also learned how to have difficult conversations with people so we can be more effective,” he added.

Raised on a farm near Marshfield, Mo., Hyder earned an animal sciences degree from the University of Missouri, and then moved to Massachusetts to work in electronics for Lockheed Martin. In 2007, Hyder and his wife, Leanne, returned to Marshfield to raise their children—now 16, 20 and 22—in the country. He went to work at MFA, rose through the ranks and took the reins of the Aurora plant as general manager in 2015.

“I enjoy my job and appreciate everyone I work with,” said Hyder, who raises beef and swine in his spare time. “My dream is to continue to raise my family in a farming community and to make sure MFA continues to be vital to agriculture’s success.”

The future of agriculture looks bright, Hyder said, but he sees a few challenges ahead, particularly from regulations designed to ensure a safe food chain.

“I’m confident MFA is working diligently to be proactive and meet these challenges,” he said.

 Jacob Hoellering — Ag Experience Intern, Round Two

Jacob Hoellering thought he knew a lot about crops when he took his first internship with MFA’s Ag Experience program in 2016, but a summer of walking fields with crop consultants proved just how much he had to learn.

“I really fell in love with the agronomy side of things and being out on the farm talking to people, so that is why I went into seed sales this summer,” said Hoellering, who was raised on a row-crop and livestock farm in California, Mo. “It’s one of the most important things about being a salesman—to build a relationship with your growers and get to know them.”

The Ag Experience is a partnership between educational institutions and MFA Incorporated. Students are hired by MFA into a professional or technical position that correlates with their area of study. During the 12-week internship, students receive the kind of hands-on experience that prepares them for the workforce. The MFA Ag Experience provides students with a chance to learn about agriculture as professional employees. MFA customizes each internship, catering as much as possible to a student’s interest.

Students who perform well during the program may receive an offer to return to MFA the following summer or work part-time throughout the school year. That is what happened to Hoellering, who was asked to come back for a second-year internship this summer. He started as a regional intern his first summer and interned in seed sales in 2017.

Hoellering said that when he had a chance to come back to MFA for a second internship, it was an offer he “couldn’t refuse.” He went from walking fields and finding his career interests in his first summer to talking with growers and building relationships with them in his second summer. He has learned to load orders, treat soybeans, scout fields and make feed deliveries.

Hoellering, a junior at the University of Missouri studying plant sciences, said he hopes to get a job immediately after college. He said he believes seed sales would be the best career fit, and he loves being able to put what he has learned in the classroom to the test during his work experience.

Every Ag Experience intern has a summer project. Hoellering’s project included interviewing seed sales people in his region about their definition of success and what is important for customers. He is also talking to customers about what they look for in seed and in a brand and why they buy seed from MFA. 

“The overall goal is to not only help the seed sales staff to perform their job better, but also to make the customer happy,” Hoellering said. “That way we can do what is best for them.”

 When asked what his advice would be for other Ag Experience interns, Hoellering said to take every given opportunity.

“The experience that I have gotten in the past couple summers is just amazing,” he said. “I never thought on the first day that I would go into the home office and sit down with the CEO and vice president and talk with them one on one.”

Hopeful about his future in the agriculture industry, Hoellering said he believes growing up on his family’s farm and being active in FFA has helped him in his success. He even spent his freshman year of college as a Missouri State FFA Officer. 

“It is something that is really important to me. This is one industry that is never going away,” said Hoellering. “Everything in your daily life connects to agriculture in one way or another. I feel very confident going into an agriculture-related field.” 

The MFA Ag Experience is available to college students who have completed either their sophomore or junior year in a bachelor’s program in agriculture, business or a related field. For more information, download a brochure and application form at www.mfa-inc.com/about/youth

—This portion of the story is by MFA Communications Intern Madison Byrd, also a 2017 Ag Experience participant.

Investment for the long haul

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

From concept to completion, it was a celebration more than five years in the making—or some might say, more than 100 years in the making.

The MFA Rail Facility in Hamilton hosted an open house June 20-21 with festivities befitting the historic occasion. The shuttle-loader grain operation is MFA’s largest single investment in real dollars in any geographic region, and it’s the first such facility for MFA Incorporated and its partner in the project, MFA Oil.

The facility will benefit farmers in north central Missouri and southern Iowa by providing them a modern, high-speed grain facility to deliver crops and quickly unload during peak seasons. It will also provide new efficiencies for MFA Incorporated’s grain operations as well as access to large and diverse markets such as exporters, poultry and cattle operations, and other end users of grain in areas that stretch from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast and Mexico.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Why would MFA want to build a shuttle-loader facility at this point in its history?’” said Mitch Dawson, MFA Incorporated director of grain operations. “The question is really, ‘Why not?’ MFA has been around 103 years, and we’ve served all aspects of agriculture. What we haven’t done is give farmers the most up-to-date grain-handling site and access to markets they’ve never had before—until now.”

Several hundred guests at the two-day open house had a chance to hear from company officials, see grain-receiving demonstrations and take tours of the newly completed facility. Local farmers and MFA employees had the honor of ceremoniously unloading grain during the event.

“When we saw those first trucks come through, it was like a dream come true,” said Adam McIntyre, MFA regional manager who serves the area. “We’ve been waiting so long for it to happen, and it’s finally here. When I looked around today and saw the look of amazement on the faces of our employees and customers, it was really a proud moment.”

One of the inaugural trucks through the facility was owned by Hamilton farmer Ted Sloan, a former MFA Incorporated director, and driven by neighboring producer Quintin Jones. Both raise several hundred acres of grain and say they believe the facility will be a big boost to the local farm economy.

“I served on the MFA corporate board for more than 25 years, so it was an honor to be one of the first ones in line,” Sloan said. “This is something our community has been needing for a long time. I’ve really enjoyed watching this facility go up. My wife and I would come out here every week and check out the progress. We’re fortunate to have something like this here.”

Not only does the Hamilton facility represent a change in the skyline of Caldwell County, it also represents a change in MFA’s approach to the grain business, MFA Incorporated CEO Ernie Verslues said, addressing the open house crowd.

“What you see here today is a culmination of more than five years of searching, scouting, analyzing, designing and building a facility that will take MFA’s commitment to another level in the grain business,” Verslues said. “Opportunities don’t just happen. You must create them. We’ve created an opportunity here at Hamilton.”

The joint venture between MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil Company brings resources and expertise from both cooperatives and a significant investment in local communities. MFA Oil installed a 60,000-gallon propane tank to power the grain dryer and plans to build a Petro-Card 24 fuel station adjacent to the site as well.

“This facility, to me, is all about vision,” said Mark Fenner, president and CEO of MFA Oil. “Farmers working to build something more than they could build on their own is really what set our companies in motion. This grain shuttle project exemplifies that vision. We are proud to partner with MFA Incorporated in bringing it to fruition. Today, we just got better.”

The two companies broke ground in May 2016, but the idea took root in 2012 when MFA began exploring the feasibility of putting a large rail facility in north central or northwest Missouri, Dawson said. MFA has 20 local grain elevators in the region, which is rich in corn and soybean production.

The construction site was strategically chosen because of its location on four-lane Highway 36, proximity to Interstate 35 and connection to the Union Pacific Railroad. With a side track off the main line to accommodate a 110-car “shuttle” train, the facility is also known as a “loop-loader” because the track is in a circle linked to the main line. Railroads prefer to load grain via shuttle for ease of movement from a point of origin to a destination.

“When we started talking to the Union Pacific railroad, they told us there were only three or four places left on their system where a new shuttle-loader would work,” Dawson said. “One of those spots was in north central Missouri.”

Officials say size and efficiency for a growing grain industry are the objectives of the facility, which can move 60,000 bushels per hour as farmers deliver grain. A 110-car shuttle train will hold approximately 420,000 bushels of corn or 380,000 bushels of soybeans and can be loaded in fewer than eight hours. The operation will position MFA to potentially reduce truck traffic by 14 to 15 million bushels of grain annually.

While the Hamilton facility is designed to move grain rather than store it, there are 2.1 million bushels of permanent grain storage and 1.5 million bushels of temporary storage on site. This can help relieve harvest-time pressure on existing MFA facilities and give farmers a year-round outlet to sell corn and soybeans.

“We think we’ll run approximately 17,700 semis through this facility a year, and the majority of that grain will be pulled 50 to 90 miles from this location,” Dawson said. “We believe we are doing something here that will benefit the farmer, benefit MFA members and benefit the region as a whole.”

The facility will be operated by MFA Incorporated with seven full-time employees, including grain operations superintendent David Jones, and offer seasonal part-time jobs as demand grows. After retiring from a military service in 2006, Jones began a second career in the grain industry, including managing three different shuttle facilities from Texas to Colorado and, most recently, Kansas. The St. Joseph, Mo., native said the MFA Rail Facility offers advantages in economics and efficiency.

“You get better rates on shipping 110 rail cars with 420,000 bushels in one shot than trucks with 1,000 bushels at a time,” Jones explained. “So, this facility opens the door for better pricing and gives farmers a better market for their grain. They don’t have to go to the city, where they might spend six to eight hours in line versus coming here and getting out in five to 15 minutes.”

That convenience is what Maysville, Mo., grain producer Brad Bray is looking forward to the most come harvest time. His farm is about 25 miles away from the Hamilton Rail Facility, a much shorter distance than the 70 miles to Kansas City where he normally transports grain.

“Instead of hauling grain to the city, we can get it here a lot quicker, and that allows us to get the grain off the farm and keep more storage open,” Bray said. “It will help us with shorter travel distances, quicker return times to the field, and hopefully, a faster harvest. At harvest, time is everything.”

While the June events marked the official opening of the Hamilton facility, work has continued throughout the summer to complete construction and work out any issues before harvest hits. The first shuttle cars are expected to be loaded and shipped in late August.

“The real work has just begun,” Verslues said. “It’s up to us to take advantage of our strength in this area. We have all the ingredients and the people to make it successful. It’s an investment for the long haul.”

View a time-lapse video of construction at: https://youtu.be/shBcOXkAJNg

See more about the Rail Facility here: https://youtu.be/awfaKaXELf4

 

 

Serve and protect

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

After seven inches of rain fell over two days in late April, Dave Bohlmeyer was faced with the expense and hassle of having to replant some 80 acres of corn on his farm in Centralia, Mo.

It was not a hassle, however, to get his crop insurance claim filed. Bohlmeyer simply filled out the paperwork at the same time he ordered his replacement seed from his local MFA Agri Services in Centralia, where general manager Jim Gesling is an MFA Crop Insurance agent.

“I ordered seed corn and turned in the replant report—they did it all right there,” Bohlmeyer said. “I didn’t have to go anywhere or talk to anyone else. That’s just one example of how convenient it is to have crop insurance with MFA.”

MFA is new to the crop insurance business, launching a pilot program last fall with a wide range of risk management solutions for farmers. The program insures key crops in MFA country, including corn, soybeans, milo, cotton, rice and wheat. Livestock insurance will also be offered in the near future.

With crop insurance now the centerpiece of the U.S. agriculture safety net, most producers can’t farm without it, making this risk protection vital to their operations, said Jason Mott, retail credit manager for MFA Incorporated who helped oversee the implementation of the program.

“Crop insurance is essentially another farm input, and that’s what MFA does,” Mott said. “We already offer expertise in seed, fertilizer and crop protection, and we felt like we could add value by offering crop insurance as a resource for our customers. It creates a one-stop-shop atmosphere for our farmers.”

MFA employees like Gesling have taken on the role of crop insurance agents in addition to their existing responsibilities. The program began with 15 agents in the spring, who insured more than 24,000 acres. That response was considered successful enough that 25 more agents have been added this summer across the MFA system. All have completed the required training, testing and licensing to sell crop insurance through MFA.

“When MFA asked me to become an agent, I felt like it was a perfect fit—mainly because of my friends and customers like Dave,” Gesling said. “I know their operations; I know their families. We’ve worked closely together through the good times and bad times in agriculture. It’s a pleasure to get to serve them in this aspect of their business.”

MFA has also recently hired crop insurance veteran Mike Smith as principal agent to manage the program and help train agents with intentions of growing the business. With more than 27 years in the insurance industry—including crop insurance sales in MFA territory—Smith said he learned early that the guiding principles for success are speaking sincerely and acting in the customer’s best interest.

“If you are doing your best and are sincere about what you do, you’ll have people put their trust in you,” Smith said. “MFA customers have trust in MFA already. MFA crop insurance can benefit from that. Farmers know we have expertise and a support system behind us.”

MFA is working with AmTrust Ag, based in Leawood, Kan., to handle the risk management, underwriting and claims. AmTrust Ag is part of a well-established financial services company with a division specializing in multi-peril and crop hail insurance policies.

It was crucial to choose the right partner in this program, said Jerome Gerke, MFA corporate credit manager, who has also been leading MFA’s crop insurance efforts. AmTrust is one of 15 private-sector insurance companies that are currently authorized to sell and service policies through the Federal Crop Insurance Program. Only three are still American-owned, and AmTrust is one of those.

“That was important to us,” Gerke said. “We know AmTrust will have the best interests of the American farmer in mind, and that’s especially critical because the 2018 Farm Bill is expected to include big changes to crop insurance.”

AmTrust Ag focuses on quick communications, turnaround time and electronic processing and tracking of claims straight from the field. Its mapping tools simplify acreage reporting. But above all, the company emphasizes a personal approach to crop insurance, according to Chris Nesteby, AmTrust Ag’s account manager for MFA.

“This is not cookie-cutter crop insurance,” Nesteby said. “Crop insurance done right should be truly tailor-made for each farmer. MFA is making that happen. The average crop insurance agents for other companies probably see their clients two, maybe three times a year. MFA agents usually see their farmers weekly or more. The more involvement agents have with customers, the better they can provide protection.”

That type of service is exactly what convinced Bohlmeyer to choose MFA to provide crop insurance for his 500 acres of corn, soybeans, milo and wheat. The convenience is especially important because he also works a full-time job at Hubbell Power Systems in Centralia in addition to farming.

“I went through three agents in four years and never even met the last one,” he said. “I was looking for something closer to home. Well, you can’t get much closer than this. I stop by the MFA store here just about every day to get a cup of coffee and check the markets, so they can remind me when there are deadlines I need to meet. With the other company, I might get a phone call or find out there was something I should’ve done two weeks ago.”

For crop insurance agents, AmTrust provides materials to study for the state licensing exam. Once they pass the test, they must complete 12 hours of initial training followed by a competency exam. Continuing education is required each year with spring and fall updates in addition to training sessions planned by MFA and AmTrust.

“The crop insurance program evolves nonstop,” Nesteby said. “There are all kinds of new things that come down the pipeline from the government. We have to keep our agents up to date and continually help them refine their ability to provide the best service to the farmer.”

AmTrust provides “traveling” underwriters who will help MFA agents sit down and go over cropping plans and insurance policies. Company representatives have also been part of producer meetings to help foster a better understanding of what can be a complicated process.

“With the approach AmTrust has, I think we’re providing more information to producers than their agents have done in the past,” said George Kirchdoerfer, general manager of MFA’s River Hills Group, who is also licensed as a crop insurance agent. “If we keep proceeding in that direction, I think we’ll see good growth.”

MFA’s legacy of serving farmers and AmTrust’s experience in protecting farmers are a winning combination, Smith said.

“The support is there for this program,” he said. “We have quality people invested. Farmers will benefit from the fact that MFA retail locations are already part of their business. Our employees know and care about our customers’ operations, and that personal touch will make all the difference.”

For more information, contact your local MFA Agri Services. Each location has an agent available to work with producers on crop insurance needs for the upcoming year. The sales closing date for winter wheat in Missouri is Sept. 30 and for spring crops March 15, 2018.

Assurance through insurance
How risk management became a regulatory requirement on American farms

Although federal crop insurance has been around since the 1930s, authorized by Congress to help agricultural communities recover from the effects of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, for more than half a century it was largely underused. Protection against natural disasters and market downturns was mostly done after the fact in the form of government bailouts, disaster payments and emergency loans.

Even as late as the early 1990s, crop insurance participation rates hovered in the 30-percent range, and Congress was often spending considerably more each year in disaster relief expenditures than it was on crop insurance. The Federal Crop Insurance Reform Act of 1994 restructured the program to boost farmer participation, increase the private sector’s role and create the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

By 1998, more than 180 million acres of farmland were insured under the federal program, representing a three-fold increase over 1988. But coverage levels on a per-acre basis were still so low that Congress had not been able to break the habit of yearly ad hoc disaster bills.

Then, in May 2000, Congress approved the breakthrough piece of legislation: the Agricultural Risk Protection Act. Its provisions allowed farmers easier access to different types of insurance products, including revenue insurance and protection based on historical yields.

By the summer of 2012, more than 280 million acres were enrolled in crop insurance—just in time for historic drought. The 2014 Farm Bill made crop insurance the centerpiece of modern-day farm policy, replacing disaster packages and direct subsidy payments. Today, farmers must purchase crop insurance to be eligible for certain farm loans and government disaster benefits.

More than 90 percent of insurable farmland in the U.S. is now protected through the federal crop insurance program, which is delivered through a unique public-private partnership. Writing policies, marketing, adjusting and processing claims, training, record-keeping and other services are handled by private companies authorized by the RMA, which sets the rates that can be charged and determines which crops can be insured. The private companies are obligated to sell insurance to every eligible farmer who requests it and retain a large portion of the risk.

The federal government also subsidizes the farmer-paid premiums to reduce the cost to producers. In addition, it provides reimbursement to the private insurance companies to offset operating and administrative costs that would otherwise be paid by farmers as part of their premium. This helps crop insurance remain affordable to a majority of America’s farmers and ranchers. Still, farmers have paid $50 billion out of their own pockets for crop insurance since 2000.

In 2016, 1.2 million crop insurance policies were sold, protecting more than 130 crops on more than 290 million U.S. acres. Those crops had an insured value of $100 billion. 

— Source: National Crop Insurance Services, cropinsuranceinamerica.org

Grade A students

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Dining at The Keeter Center, an elegantly rustic lodge on the College of the Ozarks campus near Branson, Mo., is an unexpectedly exquisite experience.

Inside the beautifully appointed dining room, smiling servers clad in white coats carry expertly arranged food on silver serving dishes. The restaurant’s log cabin style evokes the spirit of the region as guests savor creative menu items that taste just as good as they look.

But this isn’t just fine dining. It’s farm dining.

Each course offers dishes made with student-produced ingredients from the campus farm, consistently ranked as one of the best college farms in the nation by online services such as College Ranker and Best College Reviews. For starters, there are fried green tomatoes breaded in fresh-ground cornmeal, followed by mixed greens salads, several pork entrées and homemade ice cream for dessert. Even the table’s decorative centerpiece is crafted from flowers and ornamental plants grown in the college’s horticultural greenhouses.

“It’s amazing how much demand there is for a place like this,” said Dr. John Anderson, farm manager and chair of the college’s Business, Applied and Technical Sciences Division. “There’s nothing like it with this atmosphere, this quality. We’d outgrown the kitchen to the point that we closed down in January and completely remodeled and expanded it. It gives us more space for operations and learning. This restaurant, just like every part of our campus, is part of the classroom environment.”

Nearly everything raised on the College of the Ozarks farm is used in some way by The Keeter Center, a combination hotel-restaurant-conference center on the historic campus where students do not pay tuition thanks to an integrated work program. Along with agriculture, there are more than two dozen other majors at this fully accredited liberal arts college, and all 1,500 students earn their education in exchange for working at assigned jobs on campus. Students work 15 hours each week, plus one 40-hour week per semester, to cover tuition, and they can work extra time in the summer to pay for room and board. The faith-based college openly discourages debt and doesn’t participate in any government or private loan programs.

This novel concept, plus proximity to the area’s bustling tourism industry, has made College of the Ozarks somewhat of a tourist attraction all its own—and agriculture is the star of the show. Visitors flock to campus to buy student-produced goods at the farmers market, Edwards Mill gift shop, creamery, greenhouses and famed Fruitcake and Jelly Kitchen. Even the dairy barn is designed with a rare six-stall bypass milking parlor so observers can stand outside and watch the process through large picture windows.

“It literally warms people’s hearts to see students working in the landscape or with the cows,” said Lori Simmons, garden and farmers market supervisor. “It’s refreshing. We also have so many places on campus where you can purchase things the students have produced. Tourism is part of who we’ve become.”

Though there are more than 100 work stations on campus, farm jobs are among the most popular choices for students in all disciplines, not just agriculture. On the livestock side, opportunities are available in the beef, hog and dairy farms as well as feed mill and meat-processing plant. The agronomy work station encompasses all aspects of crop production, and students can also work in the horticulture lab, gardens and farmers market, which is temporarily closed due to construction.

“The hands-on application you get within a work station is where the true value lies,” said Shaylee Wallace, a junior animal science major whose job assignments have included The Keeter Center, dairy farm, garden and farmers market. “You can talk about something in the classroom all you want, but once you do it for yourself, it’s instilled in you. That’s when I really learn the skills I need to be successful in the workforce, especially in agriculture, because those jobs are competitive and skill-based.”

That’s exactly what MFA Incorporated employee Noble Carpenter discovered when he graduated from the College of the Ozarks in 2013 with a degree in agribusiness and animal science. While on campus, he worked in the carpentry shop and on the hog farm, which has proven beneficial to his current role as livestock consultant in eastern and central Missouri.

“There are a lot of hogs in my area, so that helped me tremendously,” Carpenter said. “There are a lot of things you learn on the job that college can’t prepare you for, but the base of my knowledge came from school. The hands-on experience to go with quality education in the classroom did a really good job of preparing me for what I do now.”

Carpenter said he chose College of the Ozarks over a state university partly because of its conservative values and close-knit environment. Those attributes also attracted recent graduate Milam Smith, who completed his agribusiness/animal science degree this past May. He plans to return to his native Mississippi and start his own beef operation.

“I’d heard lots of good things about the school before I came, and it surpassed what I had heard,” Smith said. “I was raised to be part of something like this, with a strong Christian background, core values and work ethic. And it’s definitely a strong community, so that’s something I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten at a larger school.”

The oldest of seven, the promise of no college tuition costs ultimately swayed Smith’s decision to pursue his degree at College of the Ozarks.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity to graduate without debt,” he said. “I can use those finances to start my farm, and I wouldn’t have that if I’d chosen to go to another university.”

The school’s tradition of working for an education is as old as the college itself. The institution was founded in 1906 as a grammar school for children in this rugged, rural region, where there was little opportunity for formal education. Families in the area couldn’t afford to pay for schooling, so they worked to support it. From those humble beginnings, the school eventually grew into a two-year junior college and then a four-year college by 1965.

In 1973, the Wall Street Journal dubbed College of the Ozarks “Hard Work U.” in a front-page story about its work-study program. The nickname stuck and is now a trademarked logo for the university. Anderson said it’s just as relevant today.

“The students really do work hard here,” he said. “They get a lot out of it, but they put a lot in.”

As the college has grown, the emphasis on producing, growing and raising food has become even more central to its mission. The college’s acre-and-a-half garden includes seasonal selections of fruits and vegetables, including several types of greens, onions, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, potatoes, strawberries and watermelons.

“Our student-farmers are literally growing the produce, picking it, washing it and walking it up to The Keeter Center,” Simmons said. “How many farm-to-table restaurants have the farmers stepping into their back door? What’s even more awesome is that they’re paying for college by doing that work.”

At the dairy, some 60 cows are milked daily by students at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. This work station is a full-circle experience, from the birth of calves all the way to bottling milk, which is sold on campus and the farmers market as well as used in the restaurant, cafeteria and creamery. The milking herd is primarily Holsteins with a few Jerseys and red Holsteins.

The college also operates off-site hog and beef farms. The farrow-to-finish swine operation consists of around 200 head, including registered Hampshire and commercial hybrid hogs. The majority of the pork is processed at the college’s own USDA-inspected facility to be used on campus and marketed to the public through the farmers market.

The beef herd is dispersed across several locations near campus with about 200 head of registered and commercial polled Hereford and Angus cattle. The operation primarily produces seed-stock rather than meat, and students have an opportunity to help organize the college’s biennial cattle auction held on odd years in the fall. The 2017 event will be Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 25, at the on-campus sale barn.

“We don’t finish enough beef to supply our restaurant, although we’ll occasionally have a beef dish at a special event,” Anderson explained. “Most of the cattle go into our production sale. The students handle all aspects of it, even learning to be auctioneers.”

The livestock work stations give experience in all aspects of animal agriculture, including feeding, haying, vaccinations, breeding, record-keeping, farm maintenance and processing. All the rations are custom-mixed by student workers at the college’s feed mill with grain and concentrates sourced from area suppliers, including MFA Agri Services locations.

Along with giving students practical skills and classroom instruction, the college is committed to cultivating character, responsibility, patriotism and teamwork, said Tammy Holder, a 1990 graduate who is now associate professor of agriculture, beef farm manager and agronomy supervisor. These life lessons are just as important to their education, she said, and help build camaraderie among the students and staff.

“We become like family; we really do,” Holder said. “You teach with them. You work with them. You really get close. The students don’t just get the theory and background. When they leave here, they are more well-rounded people. We try to educate the whole person, not just the academic side.”

Although widely noted for its academic excellence and affordability, the college never rests on its laurels, Anderson said. In particular, he pointed out that the agriculture degree programs and curriculum are being revamped. New classes are being introduced, such as precision agriculture, weed science and animal genetics.

“This is great place to get an ag degree,” Anderson said. “If you draw a triangle connecting northwest Arkansas, St. Louis and Kansas City, there’s not an area of denser agribusiness activity in the nation. Our graduates are sought out there in the marketplace. We are continually trying to improve our farm operations to keep them relevant and viable and, more importantly, make sure our students are being equipped for success when they leave here.”

For more information, visit www.cofo.edu or call 417-334-6411. Most campus points of interest are open to the public Monday through Saturday, but check the website or call ahead for specific hours. 

Coming of Age

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

It’s 7:30 a.m., and Nathan Hemme is already four hours into his workday at Hemme Brothers Creamery in Sweet Springs, Mo.

Inside the immaculately clean production facility, the fresh milk he pumped into a stainless-steel cheese vat at 3:20 a.m. is just starting to cook. A high-pitched hum fills the temperature-controlled room as the vat’s motors turn paddles slowly in the coagulating liquid. By noon, the 3,000 gallons will be transformed into curds and pressed into 40-pound blocks of cheese.

That’s when patience becomes a virtue for the 30-year-old cheesemaker. He won’t know how this batch will taste for another 7 months. The hoops he fills today will sit in a cooler, untouched, until the cheese inside is ready to be marketed as the Hemme family’s “Brother’s Keeper” brand of aged cheddar.

“It’s nerve-wracking to put that much work and money into something just to set it aside and hope it turns out OK,” Nathan said. “It definitely takes a leap of faith.”

If the reputation the family already has built with its fresh cheese is any indication, the aged cheddar will be more than OK. Less than a year after churning out their first batch, Hemme Brothers Creamery is making a name for itself with hand-crafted, farmstead cheese produced on the family’s 180-cow dairy.

Hemme cheese curds, smoked cheddar and German quark, a spreadable product like cream cheese, can be found in grocery stores, specialty shops, farmers markets and wineries within a three-hour drive of the farm. These customers will have dibs on the creamery’s aged cheddar, too, when it debuts this summer. The public will get its first taste of the Hemmes’ signature product on Memorial Day weekend, when Brother’s Keeper is scheduled to be unveiled at a “Block Party” hosted by The Cheese Store in Sweet Springs.

By spring, Nathan said the creamery already had surpassed its business plan’s projections for sales in the first year, and the popularity of its products just keeps growing.

“The reaction to this cheese has been wonderful,” said Lori Henderson of S&P Quality Meats in Marshall, Mo., one of the first retailers to offer Hemme Brothers products this past fall. “Our customers love the curds and the cheddar block, and they’re so happy to find out it’s locally made. It’s selling really well for us.”

Cheesemaking is Nathan’s job, but cheese marketing is the responsibility of the family patriarch, David Hemme, who, with his wife, Janet, established the dairy in 1996 after running a farrow-to-finish swine operation. When pork prices bottomed out, the Hemmes got out of the hog business—but at a cost.

“We saw it coming; we just didn’t get out quick enough,” David says. “We lost about $300,000 in 18 months. But I wasn’t going to get out of agriculture. I knew we’d find a way.”

The 59-year-old farmer said switching to dairy was the best solution to stay in agriculture and allow the Hemmes’ children—four boys and a girl—to return to the farm if they chose. Except for daughter Elizabeth, who is a social worker, that’s exactly what happened. The eldest brother, Jon, came back to the farm after graduating from the College of the Ozarks in 2007. Nathan, next in line, earned his degree there, too, and joined the operation in 2009. Michael followed four years later, and the youngest, Aaron, in 2016.

“With a limited amount of land, dairying was about the only thing we could do to make it work,” David says. “The transition from hogs to dairy was pretty easy. You’re dealing with lactating animals, and both are high management. Actually, dairy is easier, just longer hours.”

With the boys back in the fold, the time was ripe to reinvent the farm again. More partners meant a need for more income. For the Hemmes, the options were to get larger or get creative. They chose the latter.

“It’s stressful, starting something you’ve never done before, but we see this as risk management,” David said. “When you produce a commodity like milk, you’re at the mercy of politics and price. By adding the creamery, we’re not just selling a commodity any more. We’re making a higher-value product for people who enjoy outstanding food. We set our own price and create more stability.”

Smile and say, cheese!

From concept to construction, the creamery was a multi-year process. First, the family toured similar farmstead operations, asking lots of questions and taking lots of notes. Then they began constructing the creamery, doing much of the work themselves.

To learn the basics of production, Nathan took a week-long cheesemaker’s short course at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, and the family hired St. Louis-based consultant Neville McNaughton—known as Dr. Cheese—to help set up their operation and develop their cheese formulas.

“The cheese course in Wisconsin was intense with a lot of concentrated information, but our consultant helped more than anything,” Nathan said. “He knows a lot of tricks of the trade.”

Cheese-making challenges range from installing the right equipment—all of which is customized and costly—to making sure the room is surgically sanitized and optimizing conditions inside the aging rooms. Each step in the process must be precisely timed and controlled to ensure proper pH, temperature and consistency of the cheese.

“You think cows are complicated, but this is complicated, too,” Nathan said. “It took a while to figure out what makes it tick. It’s an interesting process. There’s a lot of stuff going on in there you can’t see. I’m always measuring so I can manage.”

Making cheese means milk goes full circle on the dairy. The family and some part-time employees milk twice a day, 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Their herd is mainly made up of Holsteins with a few Brown Swiss and Jerseys to raise the milk’s butterfat level, which runs about 4.2 percent on the Hemme farm. By comparison, Holsteins alone typically average around 3 to 3.5 percent butterfat. That extra fat makes their cheese extra creamy, David says.

“Legal whole milk is 3-percent fat, so a lot of big manufacturers make their cheese at that level,” David explains. “We leave all of it there. People like our cheese because it’s so creamy. That’s one way we differentiate ourselves from the big boys.”

The Hemmes work with Dr. Jim White, MFA Incorporated director of nutrition, to formulate their herd’s ration, which includes farm-grown alfalfa, corn silage and ground corn along with MFA dairy feed concentrate.

About 10 percent of the Hemmes’ milk is currently being processed into cheese, pumped straight from the adjacent parlor into the creamery. The remainder is sold through DFA dairy marketing cooperative.

Family time redefined

Despite the name on their aged cheddar, none of the Hemme siblings is his “brother’s keeper,” David emphasized. Duties on the farm are divided purposely so that family members have their own areas of responsibility.

“The hardest part is that they’re partners,” David said. “They’re equal in this business. The worst thing I can do is pull out my ‘Daddy card.’ I’m surprised my bottom lip isn’t bleeding for all the times I’ve had to bite it. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how it gets done as long as it gets done. They find ways to do things totally different than I would have. And that’s just fine.”

While Nathan handles the cheese production with help from his dad and brothers, Jon is mainly in charge of raising row crops and replacement heifers. Michael manages herd reproduction and health and supervises the milking process with help from Aaron, who also oversees nutrition.

“You could say working with family is a blessing and a curse,” Jon said. “It’s great to have an opportunity to come back home and work with my dad and brothers. We have a lot of fun, but it can be hard, too. It’s not an employee you’re getting mad at or yelling at; you’re dealing with family all the time.”

As for David, salesman is the title he carries these days. After a lifetime of hard labor on the farm, he’s traded in his tractor for a van and delivers cheese to customers along Interstate 70, which is just minutes away from the farm. Until Brother’s Keeper is in full supply, the main income-generators are the farm’s fresh cheese curds, sold in 10 flavors, and German quark, which is only made by a handful of creameries in the U.S. Also popular are smoked cheddar blocks made from “younger” versions of Brother’s Keeper. An 8-ounce block retails for around $7, 10-ounce bags of curds are typically $6 to $7 and a 6-ounce jar of quark is $6.

“There are plenty of customers from Lenexa, Kan., to the Arch in St. Louis,” David said. “We don’t have to dominate the market—we just need a certain percentage of it.”

Farmers markets in Kansas City and Columbia also are a popular outlet for the Hemmes’ cheese, and the family participates in tasting events across the region. That personal, one-on-one relationship with customers is just as important to the Hemme Brothers brand as the hand-crafted quality of their cheese, David said.

“You can have a great product, but if you don’t have good customer service, you won’t last long,” he said. “We have a quality product, we can deliver it fresh and we take care of our customers. They want to have confidence in the farmer who’s making their food, and I want to have confidence that if I do my job, they’ll be back. There’s trust on both ends of the equation.”

Craft culture  

Launching their own line of cheese also allows the Hemmes to capitalize on consumer trends toward local foods and artisan products. The number of farmers markets, wineries and craft breweries and distilleries has grown exponentially in recent years. Cheese gets its slice of this trend, too. Americans are eating more cheese—43 percent more over the past 25 years, the USDA reports—and specialty products are the fastest-growing segment of this market.

“People want to know where their food comes from, and they don’t like the idea of it being ‘corporate,’ so we’re trying to tap into that,” Nathan said. “We’re pretty confident about it. It’s just a matter of getting everything figured out and getting our name out there.”

Their ultimate goal is one year away. Next summer, the Hemmes plan to enter Brother’s Keeper aged cheddar in the American Cheese Society’s Judging and Competition, an annual event that’s like the Olympics to cheesemakers. The growth in artisan cheeses is evident here, too, with the number of entries doubling during the past decade to more than 1,850 in 2016. The competition is tough. That’s why a win at this prestigious event can open doors to new markets and help make Hemme cheese a hot commodity.

“If we can place in that competition, we’ll get some validation of our cheese,” Nathan said. “There are a lot of distributors who will take note. We’re entering our quark this year, but it will be next year before we can enter Brother’s Keeper.”

Someday, David said his desire is to see most—if not all—the dairy’s milk crafted into cheese and have the Hemme Brothers name known far beyond this little corner of the world.

“I’d like to walk into a shop in, say, Boston, and see our cheese for sale and not really know how it got there,” David said. “There are others doing it. Why can’t we? I think we’ve got a product we can definitely take regionally and then nationally.”

If that dream comes true, it will mean much more than brand recognition. It will help preserve the future of the family farm.

“We feel like this gives us the best chance to be active in production agriculture for generations to come,” David said. “I’m the sixth generation to farm this land since my family came here from Germany in 1848. My grandchildren will be the eighth. It’s important to maintain that legacy if they choose to farm. At least this way, they’ll have that opportunity.” 

Cheese Please 

Currently, Hemme Brothers cheeses can be found at select Hy-Vee grocery stores in Columbia and Kansas City; the Columbia Farmers Market and City Market in Kansas City; shops such as the Cheese Store in Sweet Springs, S&P Specialty Meats in Marshall, the Better Cheddar in Kansas City, and the Wurst Haus in Hermann; and several wineries across the state. For more information, follow the creamery on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HemmeBrothersCreamery.

VIEW THE VIDEO OF HEMME BROTHERS CHEESE ON YOUTUBE - CLICK HERE

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