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Here’s how an Ohio farm boy found himself sharing more farm management analysis with Illinois farmers than perhaps anyone in history — plus, how Farmdoc changed his trajectory.

Holly Spangler, Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer

March 11, 2024

5 Min Read
Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois ag economist
MASTER PIVOT: Gary Schnitkey’s career as a University of Illinois agricultural economist has seen a monumental shift in the delivery of Extension, from dozens of local county meetings to the birth of the successful Farmdoc website. “You gotta think first about the electronic delivery and second about meetings,” he says. Holly Spangler

Gary Schnitkey’s got a process.

He likes to sit down at the computer in the morning, before everything else. Before the day takes off. Before agriculture students migrate into Mumford Hall. There, in the quiet of the day, he spends a couple of hours writing, compiling research and thoughts on farm benchmark prices, or liquid farm assets, or this year’s crop budgets.

“The more you write, the stronger you get — like a muscle,” Schnitkey says, smiling, an ag economist clearly in his element.

To be sure, Schnitkey knows about writing better than most, having recently penned his 1,000th article for the University of Illinois Farmdoc Daily website. At last count, he was up to 1,033.

Schnitkey came to the U of I in 1998 as an ag economist specializing in farm management. If you’re a farmer who’s ever referenced U of I data like crop budgets or crop insurance analysis or custom farming rates, then Schnitkey’s work has touched your farm.

3 dimensions

“Dr. Schnitkey epitomizes the three dimensions of the land-grant university mission,” says Bob Easter, former U of I president and an Honorary Master Farmer himself. “He conducts high-quality research relevant to his discipline, teaches and mentors students effectively at the graduate and undergraduate level, and communicates his findings through a variety of state-of-the art means to agricultural audiences in Illinois and beyond.”

Related:Prairie Farmer names 2024 Master Farmers

And that is exactly why Prairie Farmer has named Schnitkey an Honorary Master Farmer in 2024.

It’s no surprise that Schnitkey’s love of agriculture was born on the farm where he was raised, in Henry County in northwest Ohio.

“It was very much a Midwest farm when I was growing up, with corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and we had hogs, beef and chickens,” Schnitkey says. Today, it’s evolved like many Midwestern farms. All the livestock but hogs went away, and eventually, they did too. His brother raises corn and soybeans, and his mother still lives there.

“That’s my home,” he says.

Schnitkey earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in 1982, and then came to U of I for his master’s and doctorate. Graduation in 1987 led him to an open position back in Ohio as a dairy Extension agent, where he spent the next 10 years traveling the state and speaking at farmer meetings about dairy economics, mastitis, farm expansion, BST and, of course, manure management.

“Ohio was more livestock friendly than Illinois was,” he recalls. But by 1998, he was back in Illinois, this time with a job in hand.

“Illinois is a very good agriculture school,” he says. “There are three main schools for someone in agriculture economics: Purdue, Iowa State and Illinois. And if you get an offer to come back here, you’re gonna take it.”

The big transition

Little did Schnitkey know, his Extension ways were about to change profoundly from meetings on the road to stories on the internet. U of I Extension had just eliminated its farm adviser positions before he arrived on campus.

“There was virtually nothing,” he recalls.

So he and several ag economics colleagues launched the Farmdoc website in 1999 as a one-stop shop for information and tools to help Corn Belt farmers make better management decisions.

And those 1,033 articles? He began writing them for Farmdoc in 1999 and never stopped. Schnitkey has at least one story per week on the site, usually on Tuesdays.

“Farmdoc was sort of fortuitous, and I think it hit a niche,” he says. “Not that there isn’t value in going out to county meetings, but you can write a Farmdoc Daily article and everybody can read it if they want.”

If you don’t want to read? Watch a Five-Minute Farmdoc video. Want more? Catch an hourlong Farmdoc webinar, on any topic pertaining to farm finance, management, policy, marketing and more.

“Farmdoc is the biggest change in my career, because it changed my delivery system,” Schnitkey says. “And I like to write, so that fits the new mode pretty well.”

No matter the delivery, Schnitkey’s work has deeply impacted Illinois agriculture. Back on campus, he’s teaching class, guiding future farmers through 400-level management courses. He’s working with Illinois Farm Business Farm Management to manage and analyze data. And he’s working with the Illinois Society of Professional Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers to track farmland values.

Even on sabbatical, he’s working to marry FBFM data with Precision Conservation Management data for IL Corn — the kind of project that will help farmers make better economical decisions about conservation.

Easter says it best: “Over a long career, Gary has made a difference.”

Birth of a platform

Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act back in 1914 to establish a state-by-state network of educators, called the Cooperative Extension Service, who “extend” university knowledge to people throughout the country. For most of 85 years, that meant county meetings, county agents and bulletins in the mail.

But then the internet was born. Illinois folded its county agents. And Schnitkey and several colleagues launched Farmdoc — designed to be a one-stop shop for information and tools to help farmers in the Corn Belt make better decisions. They tapped into initial funding from the Council on Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR) to launch the site, offering information on:

  • ag finance

  • ag policy

  • crop insurance

  • farm management

  • law and taxation

  • marketing and outlook

By 2011, they created Farmdoc Daily, where they publish daily articles with research-based analysis. They added farm policy in 2016, and today, farmers can connect through email updates, Facebook, X (Twitter), LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube.

Farmdoc will celebrate 25 years this year.

Gary’s favorites

Gary Schnitkey
Most common farmer question? “How’s my operation gonna survive?”
Hobby? Walk my dog and take pictures
Podcast? “The History of the Americans,” “History Unplugged” 
Team? Ohio State Football
Music? Classic rock: “I’m your typical 62-year-old!”
Book? Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy
Family? Wife Bobbi, daughters Diane and Lauren
Advice to students? It isn’t that you have troubles — it’s how you react to troubles.

Read more about:

Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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