Words of Wisdom from a Young Farmer
The most recent Field Notes podcast highlighted an episode from the new AgBiz Cast podcast, which shares inspiring stories of young, beginning and small farmers. The interview was with William Thiele, dairy farmer and AgBiz Masters graduate. William shared the history behind his farming operation, challenges he has faced along the way and advice for other young farmers just like him. Listen to the full podcast episode.
Tell us about your operation, some of the history behind it and how you got started?
So, the history of my farm is that I along with my brother are the sixth generation to live and work here on this farm. My farm is exactly 153 years old, created back in 1868 when my ancestors came over so, my brother and I are the sixth generation to live and work on this dairy farm. We used to have chickens back then my grandfather and my dad used to have chickens and then that went away back in the '80s so we've been dairy all that time and we still are dairy today.
A unique thing about us is that we're always willing to try new things, whether it's in the field, in the barn, whatever it is we always are willing to try new things, trying to be the guinea pigs, if you will and just trying to get that edge, I guess and trying to become better farmers, better stewards of the land. Stuff like that, so that we can keep this farm going for generations that will come after myself and my brother.
Why do you enjoy farming and what inspires you to stay in that business?
I guess everybody likes to be outside at least that's what everybody tells me 'You get to be outside all the time.' It's like most of the time, if the weather's good or what have you. But we farmers enjoy being outside, working with the land, working with animals so it's second nature to be an outdoors person. I like being outdoors, I like working. That seems to be something we all farmers have in common is that we like to work. We like to work hard in the day and to see something get accomplished and that's always been something I enjoy doing is to work and see something, come to fruition or see crops grow, or see cattle grow to full maturity or produce that gallon of milk or produce anything.
I've always found that very satisfying. I think every farmer will tell you that farming is very satisfying at the end of the day. I mean, there's going to be ups and downs. There's just going to be commodity prices will go down or you're going to have bad weather or it's going to take a physical and mental toll on you. But at the end of the day, you feel very satisfied that you produced a... Crop produced milk, produced anything grain or what have you to feed the world and that's something that we all, all of us farmers should be very satisfied and very proud of what we're doing.
Within that business, what was your biggest challenge personally?
There's always going to be challenges. So, no matter how old or young or what industry you're in. But I guess with the dairy industry, we dairy farmers like to complain about the price of milk and what we're getting. That's always an issue. Although on my farm personally, we've tried to diversify a lot, not have 100% of our income come from the dairy side. We grow more than enough crops that we can sell some, and that's a bit of an extra income and we grow more than enough hay and straw that we can sell that. We've been trying to do stuff like that to help with the current dairy prices the way they are. And like I said before about trying new things, trying to gain that little bit of an edge to try to help just a little bit here, just a little bit there to try to help us move along.
Because in my opinion, if you're not on the cutting edge, you are basically going backwards. Whenever we're on the cutting edge and trying new things that can only help. Yes, there's going to be a risk involved with that. There's a risk in doing everything, but the rewards, I think, far outweigh the risks far outweigh the consequences. So trying new things being on the cutting edge and just being open-minded to new things that can come across you as an opportunity. I don't want to waste an opportunity to do something new, do something to improve.
There's going to be challenges with commodity prices and weather and everything. I could go on all day about that. But I mean that other challenges would be if you wanted to go into public marketing with selling at a store, if we wanted to, that's an issue. Some people don't like to do that and which is understandable. There's always going to be challenges, no matter what. If we stay the size we are, there's going to be challenges. If you choose to get bigger, there's going to be more challenges. So, I guess you just got to learn to roll with the punches and to continue going and continue to be on the cutting edge and to try to improve on things throughout the years.
What has been your favorite memory from your farm over the years?
I don't have a specific favorite, but whenever you are done in the fields in the fall, that's always very satisfying every year. That's always a good uh-huh (affirmative) moment. You can say, 'Oh yeah, I'm finally done.' That's something that hopefully it happens every year and we've had some a lot of great things happen here.
We had a big 150th celebration a few years ago to celebrate our 150 years and that was a very momentous occasion. Just seeing things improve every year, year after year, after year, things slowly get better or less physically demanding or trying to be more efficient. I can't specifically pinpoint it to one specific day or one specific event, but just slowly building on that, I guess is as good as any one event that can happen. So that's the best way I can describe it.
What do you envision for the future of your farm?
I would say, my brother and I, we kind of already are taking it over in that sense. I farm with my brother and both my parents. So I would say continuing to stay the course, continuing to be on the cutting edge, always trying new things. Not necessarily getting larger, but getting more efficient, trying to make do with what we got, deal with the hand that you're dealt. Always trying to try new things, be on the cutting edge and just staying the course. Because my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents all the way back, they found a way to do that themselves.
There's no reason why my brother and I can't do that ourselves either. Things are different now than they were back in the 1860s when they came over here, my ancestors. They had a stick-to-itiveness that helped them get through it and that same stick-to-itiveness can help nowadays. That's one of the envisions I have of our farm, is to continue staying on the course and we'll just roll with the punches as they come.
In your own words, what does AgBiz Masters teach young and beginning farmers?
Well, since it was back in 2018 and it is 2021, I'm going to have to go back in the memory bank to remember a lot of the stuff, but my brother and I did that together and I felt that it made you think a lot about putting pencil or pen to paper and thinking about being more efficient in different areas. I might need to take a good, hard look at my input costs in this area and that made me think a lot about budgeting and the cost of stuff. All of our input costs. Does it equal output costs? And it made you think a lot at the very least, it makes you think. Makes you think, oh, and maybe I'll scratch my head and think, 'Oh, I need to try something else in this certain area.'
And it also helped that there were some other young farmers my age that were also in my class and I got to become friends with them and we would bounce things off of each other and that helped a lot. Actually there's a couple that was with my brother and I, that were also dairy farmers, so we had a lot in common naturally. We had a lot of the same problems, a lot of the same good things happen to us so we would bounce things off of each other and say, 'I've had this issue, what have you guys done to solve that issue?' And it was a good program to make you think and I know those modules that we took.
I remember taking a bunch of those modules and watching those videos with Dr. David Kohl. I believe those were very fascinating. David Kohl is a very good speaker and he has a lot of knowledge on the stuff that he's teaching. I thought it was very informative and it helped help me think a lot and just help me make a better manager. I know afterwards after that, I was obsessed with keeping records on stuff like I was taking detailed records because I know, because that AgBiz taught me about how important record keeping can be, whether it's anything from budgeting to plant dates to anything. It just made me record happy. And I was like, I want to record all this stuff. So I know exactly when it happened. That was one benefit that I got out of that I still use today and I thank AgBiz Masters for helping me achieve that.
How did AgBiz Masters help you improve your operations?
Yeah, like I said about record keeping, it helped with that and it helped me broaden my horizons and helped me meet new people, of course. I know a lot of people have asked my brother and I about the AgBiz Masters Program and they'd say, 'Hey, what's that AgBiz Masters like?' And I would tell them about it and they'd say, 'Oh, that sounds interesting, maybe I'll give that a try.'
So that was one benefit that I thought was good that people were asking about it, because I knew that my brother and I went through it and we did that whole program. So, that was a good learning experience. And I know earlier this year, I know AgBiz, some of the people from AgBiz they asked me to come back and talk as an alumni speaker.
That was a neat experience to do that and to see how things have evolved since then and that was a neat experience to talk to the current AgBiz Masters students. And they were very informative, made them think of course and made them want to be more efficient and, and all that stuff. So, overall was a great experience for my brother and I, when we went through that program.
What final piece of advice do you have for younger beginning farmers that are looking to start their own business?
I would say to keep the faith, keep the stick-to-itiveness and to continue to learn from your elders, learn from your co-farmers, people your age, see how they're doing things. I've always learned about other people's operations, where I would go and visit their farm and see how they do things and ask them tons and tons of questions and say, what have you done with this? What have you done with that? What do you do when you encounter this problem or that problem?
I always try to learn from everybody else learn from their mistakes and just constantly ask questions. I've learned a lot that way and asking industry experts about certain things and that's always been something I've always tried to do, and learning from everybody else because, I don't know everything, nobody knows everything.
So it's best to just learn from everybody else and to basically be a sponge and soak up as much information as you possibly can so that you can always better your operation, because you always have to look at it as there's always got to be somebody out there that's doing it better than I am or doing it more efficiently than I am or doing it completely different though. Wait, I never thought of.
You don't want to stay close minded and just have everything stay in my little cocoon here, but I need to branch out, broaden out and to learn from other farmers and why they do their... The way they do, how they do it, how they got the capital to do it. Just overall learning from everybody else, being that sponge and soaking up as much info as you possibly can. That can definitely help in the long-run.
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