FFA was really important to Frank Vyskocil, probably more than most. At age 14, he lost his father to heart complications believed to be connected to having rheumatic fever as a youngster.
“To take over the farming operation, I needed all the help I could get,” Frank says. “The morning of the day he died, he told me he hoped I would continue to farm and be successful.”
In the past 60 years, Frank has incorporated technology while expanding and improving his father’s farm in New Lothrop, Mich., all while he’s keeping a keen eye on protecting the environment. Today, the farm includes about 3,000 acres planted in a three-year rotation of certified seed wheat, corn, soybeans and seed beans.
Frank is also active in the community and commodity organizations, including serving on the board of directors of the Michigan Wheat Program and later serving as treasurer.
Frank’s too humble to self-proclaim success, but others are more than happy to tell his story, successfully nominating him for the Michigan Master Farmer award. Frank normally would have been honored at the Great Lakes Crop Summit at the end of January, but because of COVID-19, his plaque will be presented and a video tribute played at the 2022 GLCS.
“In addition to serving on the state wheat board, he also went to national meetings for the National Association of Wheat Growers to bring more learning and perspectives back to Michigan,” says nominator Jody Pollok-Newsom, executive director of MWP. “Frank is a very good farmer and was always an active participant in discussions on funding of research projects. He was particularly focused on what would make the most financial sense for growers. It takes a good farmer like Frank to know where and how to prioritize funding.”
Sharing the spotlight
Frank, being surprised by the award and a bit uncomfortable in the limelight, was quick to share the honor with his associates. “You know, it’s like football — it takes a team,” he says.
He has one 20-year-plus associate and two other full-time associates. “We have a briefing every morning about what job duties we have for the day, and we all try to quit at the same time with a debriefing, so if there was a problem, we’ll know to address it in the morning," Frank says.
Duane Bowns is the senior associate, and he does the seed selection, planting, shop work, grain delivery and redesigning of equipment. “He can really think outside the box and leads us in the right direction,” Frank says. “He wanted to farm but didn’t know how to get started. He worked the winter for me and has been here ever since.”
Al Spiegel works on farm equipment and does field preparation, while Jared Kulhanek helps with spraying and variable-rate application of fertilizer. “Jarrod, an agronomist, comes to us with new ideas after graduating from Michigan State University,” adds Frank, who also has another agronomist who tests soil every three years.
“The more minds to take care of a problem the better,” he says. “We all have different ideas. We bounce them off one another until we get the best solution.”
Frank’s daughters, Michelle Vyskocil, vice president of student services for Kirtland Community College, and Tracey Vyskocil, operations manager for Sparrow Home Care, manage the farm’s books, accounting and payroll. “I know the dollars; they know the cents,” Frank chuckles.
Frank does a little bit of everything, all of the harvesting. “I enjoy selecting seed and fertilizer and watching it grow,” he says. “And to see the accomplishment at the end — from inside the cab — it’s unbelievable what the soil can do if you treat it right. I’m proud of what the farm has become and where it’s heading.”
Looking to add diversity, Frank says there’s no magic bullet — noting that he has grown cucumbers, sugarbeets, malting barley, dark red and light red kidney beans, black beans, and white beans through the years.
The flood of September 1986 — the worst in 50 years at the time — was one of his greatest challenges.
“There was no crop insurance back then, and we didn’t hardly harvest sugarbeets that year,” Frank recalls. “It hurt us, and a lot of farmers, hard. Disaster loans helped save a lot of farmers.” This coupled with the high interest rates in the 1980s added additional stress to the farming operations.
Frank’s father, Frank II, had been farming with his father, who started the farm in 1918 with 60 acres and grew sugarbeets.
There were some tough decisions to be made after Frank’s father died at age 36. “There were times when I thought, ‘Boy, what did you get yourself into,’” he recounts. “People don’t realize how much their fathers can influence their farming, and help them, until you don’t have them.”
With his mother and grandfather, they decided to sell the dairy cows the following spring.
He relied on neighbors, his “mentors,” to provide direction. “There was no autosteer, plant populations or monitors back then,” says Frank, who recalls being overwhelmed. “I was frightened at times with the decisions … to the point I thought it easier to give up. There were quite a few mistakes made. But I knew I wanted to be a farmer. I liked working with the soil.”
He graduated high school in 1965 and married his high school sweetheart, Sue White, who was by his side until her death in 2009.
Shortly after being married, Frank’s mom moved to town, and his grandpa passed away. “I’ve had the same address and phone number my entire life,” Frank says.
Sue was hands on. “At times, the girls would be at the headlands playing, while Sue was working the ground and I was planting,” says Frank, while noting it would probably not be acceptable today. “But those girls grew up knowing farm work and hard work.”
Conservation and community
Frank’s love of FFA led him to co-found the Corunna FFA Alumni, which still exists. The need to be involved in the community also led to several leadership positions. He served 24 years on the Corunna school board, including 22 as president, as well as chairman of the Hazelton Township Board of Review. The farm also was host to a Michigan State University State Farm Management tour.
Over the years, Frank has used the latest technology, including implementing GPS yield mapping and partnering with the Shiawassee Soil Conservation District to adopt best management practices.
“They help with cover crops no-till, including radishes and oats in the fall,” he says. He’s also frost-seeded clover in wheat in the spring. “Some were successful, some were not,” he adds.
For his conservation practices, the farm was Michigan Agriculture Environment Assurance Program certified in 2014 for farmstead and cropping systems.
Frank’s farming philosophy is to keep a sharp eye on return on investment. “It’s not all about how hard you work or how many acres you farm. You need to know your costs per acre and keep expenses down,” says Frank, who has expanded his grain storage to now hold 90% of his crop. “It’s important to control marketing. Corn can swing 20 cents a day — boy, if that doesn’t make you nervous and excited sometimes.”
For those just getting started in farming, “Crawl, walk and run. … Don’t skip a step because it could cause you to have problems in your farming career,” he says. “And take advice from your dad.”
Master Farmer profile
Name: Frank Vyskocil
Farm: Shiawassee Valley Farms — corn, wheat, soybeans
Nominator: Jody Pollok-Newsom, executive director ,Michigan Wheat Program
Ag and Community Leadership: Past Corunna public school board member for 24 years. Member of Corunna Public Schools Education Foundation, member of the Corunna FFA Alumni Association, past Western Fraternal Life Association/ZCBJ Lodge #242 board member, Chairmen of the Hazelton Township Board of Review, Member of St Joseph Catholic Church — Owosso, past board member and treasurer of Michigan Wheat Board Association, National Wheat Board Association delegate, member of Michigan Corn Growers Association, Farm Bureau member, Michigan Crop Improvement Association member.