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Bob Schultz forges own path during decades in agriculture

The Michigan Master Farmer started by renting 36 acres and turned it into 2,880 acres of his own ground.

Jennifer Kiel

January 26, 2024

11 Slides

“I’ve been a farmer all my life, well almost, but getting close — I never wanted to do anything other than farm,” says Bob Schultz, 82, of Washtenaw County, Mich., with a dose of his usual wit.

He grew up on a farm, but he came from a generation where you were expected to forge your own path. So, in 1962, at age 20, he started that journey by renting 36 acres.

He only had that ground for a year, but the following year he rented a 120-acre parcel with a small loan from Farm Credit. He’s been a customer since. Fast-forward 60-plus years, he owns 2,880 acres in southeast Michigan, focusing on corn, wheat and soybeans.

“Each year, he looks forward to making the ground he owns the most productive soil possible — he’s very astute in the agronomy of his farms,” says Michael Niesyto, a senior financial services officer with GreenStone Farm Credit Services, who along with colleague Richard Duybke, nominated Bob as a Michigan Master Farmer.

By farming in warm months and working in Detroit in the winter up until age 36, Bob kept adding to his acreage. In 1979, he bought his home farm of 369 acres in Ypsilanti. From rental ground, he moved a house and five barns to the property, where he grew a lot of produce, including sweet corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins.

“Growing produce is much different than row crops,” says Bob, who sold to wholesale buyers and also rented a stall at the Detroit Eastern Market for many years. “Produce needs to be very good quality, and the market is not just about buying and selling a commodity. It’s about buying quality products and cultivating people. Some people I had sold to for over 50 years.”

Building a land base

Acquiring land meant a lot of listening, prospecting, walking the ground with a shovel in hand and negotiating. Bob bought land when others thought he would never be able to pay for it. “I thought it was a bargain, and then others would ask if I was interested in buying,” he says.

He’s only sold one farm, in Tecumseh, over 30 miles away. “It was too far away, and I wasn’t able to rent anything else in the area,” he says. “I sold it and bought more property closer to home.”

Bob says it’s important to keep his land in farmland and resist the development pressure created by Ann Arbor to the west and Detroit to the east.

So, when the Superior Township supervisor and clerk stopped in at the home farm to inquire about selling the land’s development rights (payment in exchange for a deed restriction preventing urban development), it wasn’t a difficult proposition.

“It’s important to keep this land in farming and, to be honest, they were willing to give me money for something I was going to do anyway,” he says. “Some people thought I was a fool; I thought it worked out pretty well.”

The development rights on two other farms, 150 acres and 140 acres, were sold to the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy and the city of Ann Arbor, respectively.

“Bob has taken advantage of buying land around his farm, not relying on having rented acres for production,” says Dubke from GreenStone. “He has learned to farm alongside his urban neighbors and has been doing it efficiently and effectively for many years.”

Not only has Bob taken measures to protect the land from being pieced off for houses, he’s also protected the soil and nutrients from erosion with cover crops for 60 years. He uses conversation tillage and sidedresses nutrients when they are ready to be used. A buffer strip along a stream helps protect the water, something he’s keenly tuned in to, especially being in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

While he credits his father, Elmer, for being a major influence in his life, Bob says he’s pretty strong in his own beliefs, as well.

At age 10, Bob started reading the works of Louis Bromfield (1896-1956), who was an American writer and conservationist. Bromfield reinvented himself as a farmer in Ohio and was a proponent of sustainable agriculture. “He was the epitome of soil conservation; he gave speeches, wrote columns, screenplays and books,” Bob explains.

Bromfield won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “Early Autumn,” in 1927, founded the experimental Malabar Farm near Mansfield, Ohio, and played an important role in the early environmental movement. “He probably did more for soil conservation than any one individual in history,” says Bob, who has read five of his books. “He was a great man for what he did in agriculture.”

Farming family

Bob never married, and without children, he farmed with the help of several hundred young people, most on summer break from high school. “And some of those kids had kids that have worked here, too,” he says. “For some, it was their first job.”

But as the farm grew, he surrounded himself with a smart, dedicated, talented and hardworking crew — his farm family.

“Bob has mentored several employees who have started their own operations,” Dubke says. “He is happy to share advice for those who seek it.”

One summer, 25 years ago, a local high schooler named Javier Gordillo showed up to pick sweet corn. He came back the following spring looking for work.

“I told him he would have to learn how to run equipment, so he stayed here,” Bob says. “He learned and has never let me down, always giving 100%.”

Gordillo started renting Bob’s ground and raising tomatillos, and his operation expanded when Bob stopped raising vegetables in 2020. “He took over the sweet corn, watermelons, and expanded tomatillos,” Bob says.

“Javier is a good money manager and good farmer,” he adds. “He works hard and treats this farm like his own — a great guy.”

Warren Boyke is a part-time employee who helps plant and runs the combine, while also offering some mechanical skills.

Kevin Bradbury is a certified mechanic and now retired from the road commission. He’s worked with Bob for 35 years. Bradbury is a key component to keeping the farm running. Bob is a believer in getting your money’s worth, as there’s not a piece of his equipment on the farm that isn’t at least 25 years or older. “Find something that runs well, it might be worth it to stick with it,” says Bob, who brags that Kevin can fix just about anything.

Bob knows; he’s tested that theory. In 1992, he bought a 5-year-old red Chevy diesel. The 6.2-liter, four-speed pickup was reasonably priced, with only 37,000 miles. Up until an accident a few months ago, he was still driving it with more than 600,000 miles.

A few years after buying that truck, Bob bought a heavier pickup, a three-quarter Chevy, five-speed diesel. It was red too, “but that one only has 500,000 miles on it,” he says with a smirk under his vintage engineer’s hat.

One of hardest-worked tractors, which are all Case or International, is a 1963, clocking 21,000 hours and counting. The combine has reached the 9,000-hour mark.

“The combine before had 11,150 hours, and it still does its job, but we quit using it because we needed something bigger,” Bob says. “Kevin is a very qualified mechanic and keeps things going. I feel that I’m further ahead by doing it this way. Also, there’s a certain amount of sentimentality. These machines put this farm together, why kick them out? I like old stuff. I’m not saying I’m right, but that’s the way I did things.”

Before Kevin joined the operation, his wife, Judy, and her brother were hired to paint Bob’s house. “She came intermittently thereafter to transplant plants, drive tractors, take loads to the market and other farm chores,” Bob says. “She’s very independent and is not afraid of things she’s never done before.”

Judy and Kevin’s daughter, now-32-year-old Becca, was almost born on the farm. Judy has slowed down some into semi-retirement, “but I do whatever he needs done — housekeeping, bills, payroll — I keep things moving,” she says.

Newest to the farm is a young man that picked corn for Bob through his high school years. “A couple of years ago, we needed another guy, so I called and asked Shawn Stafford, who is just 22, to see if he’d like to come back. He’s been here two summers now and has really worked out well.”

On one of Bob’s farms is a house he rents to Becca. It’s also where he decided to locate his grain system.

“It is south of here, and our grain moves south to Toledo, so it made sense to put it on that farm in Milan,” Bob explains.

There, he put up two 50,000-bushel grain bins and a 975MC grain dryer in the early 1980s. He later added another bin for a total storage of 150,000 bushels. Two concrete silos are now used to store 4,000 bushels of wet corn.

“I have 60,000 bushels forward-contracted for fall delivery this year,” he says. “The rest is contracted for January and February. I might be a little different than some grain farmers, because if I don’t have two-thirds of my projected crop sold by planting time, I’m a little nervous. I believe in forward-contracting, and the last couple of years it’s been a big mistake. But year in and year out, I think I’m further ahead.”

For young people, Bob says you need a dream and ambition, and that applies to more than agriculture.

“The harder you work, the luckier you are,” he says. “Be persistent, be an optimist and don’t be afraid to depend on, and trust, other people. I like it when Kevin or Javier or Shawn asks, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ I want them to regard the farm as something they are part of. … I want them to feel that.”

Bob Schultz at a glance

Farm: Brookside Farms, 2,880 acres, corn, soybeans and wheat

Nominator: Michael Niesyto and Richard Duybke, GreenStone Farm Credit Services

Leadership: Mentored hundreds of mostly young people, while supplying summer produce jobs; served on Wastenaw County Conservation District board

Read more about:

Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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