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GETTING STARTED: Success can be traced to lessons learned early.

Startup stories

How some well-known ND farmers and agribusiness executives got their start.

I enjoy stories about the how people started farming or what led to their careers in agriculture.

Les Kletke’s and John Vasichek’s book, “On Golden Plain,” is a good source for those kind of anecdotes. Each chapter is about a different well-known farmer or agribusiness person from North Dakota or Minnesota.

Here are some excerpts:

Rat in the grain pit
Keith Finney, senior merchandiser for Tharaldson Ethanol at Casselton, N.D., cemented his place in the grain business when as a young man he was the newest hire at a country elevator. Naturally, he got the worst jobs at the elevator. Once he was told to check the pit at the bottom of the grain leg for a smoldering fire. “You’d better tie some twine around your ankles so the rats don’t come up your pant legs,” his boss told him. Finney says, “Well, I tied strings around my pant legs, wrists and I had a hooded sweatshirt and even tied a string around my neck! But I got in that pit cleaned out and I guess that proved I wanted to stay, so he kept me on.”

Sparrows and parakeets
When Jay Schuler, Breckenridge, Minn., founder of Sigco Research, Seeds 2000 and several other North Dakota-Minnesota retail ag businesses, was in grade school, he noticed the Ben Franklin store was selling parakeets. He thought he could get into the business, too, by catching sparrows and painting them blue and yellow. “It was my first lesson in genetics,” Schuler says. “I found you cannot turn a sparrow into a parakeet, and the market wanted parakeets.” Not much later, his entrepreneurial drive led him to the grain business. He noticed that train cars parked at the elevator had to be purged of the previous cargo scraps before they could be loaded. The grain was swept out of the car onto the ground, resulting in food for pigeons. “I would scout the rail yard on my bike, looking for cars that had a fair bit of grain in them, and then take a gunny sack and sweep the grain up until I had a bagful, and then sell it to the elevator. That was pretty good money for a kid. Flax was a gold mine!”

Candy store lessons
Roger Johnson, former North Dakota agriculture commissioner and the current president of the National Farmers Union, learned his first lessons in organizational management at NDFU’s youth summer camp. He was elected to the board of directors to run the candy store. The directors and managers made decisions about the items to sell to campers. “At the end of the camp we also had to deal with the profits, so we learned how to dissolve the business and deal with the allocation of the earnings. It wasn’t a great amount … but the important thing was that we learned the process of dealing with it, and the procedures of a meeting.”

Cash for a Monte Carlo
When Terry Wanzek, a Jamestown, N.D., farmer and longtime state senator, was a high school junior, he struck a deal to use his dad’s machinery to work a quarter of land that he rented from an uncle. “I planted durum wheat that yielded 40 bushels an acre and the price went to $8 a bushel. Back then, our input costs were only about $20-$30 an acre so I had $32,000, which was a lot of money for a junior in high school. … I remember my parents going on vacation, and I went to town and bought a brand-new Chevy Monte Carlo for cash. When my parents came home, they were more than a little surprised by the new car in the driveway and wanted to take the rest of the money away from me. I said a deal was a deal, and I kept it and used it to pay for a college education. They were afraid I was going to blow it all, and they wanted me to know that farming was not that easy.”

Work at what you dream about
Neil Jonk, a Forest River, N.D., potato grower, emigrated from Holland, where the government was not allowing young people to start farming because the country had too many farmers already. Neil never wanted to do anything else but farm, and he loved growing potatoes. He even dreamed about potatoes. In the U.S., he worked for other farmers until he got a chance to start his own farm. “I always tell my kids, work at what you dream about because that is your passion … I started raising certified seed potatoes and never looked back.”

Going where the money is
Jim Broten, a Dazey, N.D., farmer and owner of Sheyenne Tooling and Manufacturing, grew up on a farm, worked for a manufacturer and trained to be an engineer. “When I went to university, engineers had all the good jobs so I went into engineering,” he says. “When I started working, the salesmen were making all the money, so I went to sales. Then, when I was selling, it seemed like farmers had all the money so I expanded the farm.”

Get the book
There are more good stories in the book. For a copy of “On Golden Plain,” contact John Vasichek, 2819 Walnut St., Grand Forks, ND 58201, or email

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