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This 2024 Prairie Farmer Master Farmer from Colfax, Ill., is passionate about agriculture, advocating for farm life and giving back to the community.

Holly Spangler, Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer

March 8, 2024

8 Min Read
Gerald Thompson from Colfax, Ill.
MASTER: “I’m truly humbled,” says Gerald Thompson, Colfax, Ill. “You just go out every day and do the best you can. I served in Farm Bureau because it’s the right thing to do. I serve in my church because it’s the right thing to do.” Photos by Betty Haynes

What’s the right way to do business?

Gerald Thompson would tell you it’s a matter of treating people well and pursuing integrity, no matter what. His farm partner, Ron Warfield, would tell you if an elevator makes a mistake in his favor, Gerald calls and makes it right. If he makes a mistake allocating landlord bushels, he corrects it.

But even more, the Colfax, Ill., farmer does business the right way by doing right by people.

“He could hire young men that had no farm experience and turn them into died-in-the-wool farmworkers,” Warfield says. And they loved him for it.

When Gerald hired a young man needing direction, he and his wife, Jayme, let him stay overnight with them. They treated him like family and he worked for them for several years, earned a degree, got married and found a career. Gerald was at his wedding.

Another young employee was a non-agriculture major, acting in plays in Chicago. He loved working on the farm and stayed until he got married and moved away. Gerald was at his wedding.

And one fall, among his fall truck-driving crew, one employee was a cancer survivor. He loved working for Gerald and worked until the cancer came back. Gerald was at his funeral.

“The great thing about agriculture is that people talk about a way of life, and it’s so true,” Gerald says. “I farmed with my dad, and now I have the privilege to farm with my son, and it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Related:Prairie Farmer names 2024 Master Farmers

That desire to live and farm the right way sets Gerald apart and helps make him a 2024 Prairie Farmer Master Farmer.

Gerald earned an agriculture degree from the University of Illinois in 1984 and returned home to farm with his dad, Don Thompson, making him the third generation to operate Thompson Family Farm in McLean County, Ill.

He doesn’t mince words: “Farming alongside my father was always my dream.”

The beginning

Gerald and his dad formed a partnership, operating 1,200 acres together. Right away, his dad put him in charge of the farm’s books, and before long, marketing, too. It was a tough time to launch into a farming career, but as Gerald says, “On the bright side, starting in the 1980s taught me to be as efficient as possible.”

He and Jayme married in 1984, and Jayme began her nursing career, supplying health insurance and helping out on the farm as needed. Today, they have three children, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.

In the early days, Gerald knew he needed to diversify but didn’t have a good water source for livestock, so he made use of their semi for additional income. Over time, he created a separate corporation with several trucks on the road year-round, hauling freight across the country.

Gerald ran that business until 2005, when he and Warfield merged their farming operations, as Warfield retired.

Gerald Thompson with wife Jayme and son Reid

By 2019, son Reid was ready to return to the farm full time, following 10 years as a professional farm manager. Today, he and his wife, Heather, live just across the field from Gerald and Jayme with their three young boys, Abe, Hank and newborn Arthur. Daughter Amanda and granddaughter Kaia also live nearby.

Reid leverages his contacts and experience to do all input buying for their farm. They built an on-farm nitrogen storage facility, so they can buy fertilizer at off-season prices, and they built a chemical mixing facility to take advantage of better chemical pricing. Over time, Gerald and Reid have transitioned to applying all their own fertilizer and chemicals, and do some for their neighbors, as well.

“In the early days of my farming career, my wife and I made the decision to reinvest as much of the farm profits back into the business as we could,” Gerald says. It’s a philosophy that’s served them well, and they continue it today.

They’re strategic in their plans, too. Gerald, Jayme, Reid and Heather meet once a year for strategic planning, where they set financial, operational and personal goals. Their philosophy is to have a plan but pivot if necessary.

“At the end of the day, my financial goal is to grow a sustainable family farm business that my children and grandchildren can participate in if they choose,” Gerald says.

Two men examining soil while squatting in a no-till farm field with a cover crop

He has adopted new technology when he thought it could help conserve time or resources, or just make the farm better. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. If it didn’t, they didn’t do it again.

Warfield has seen that scenario play out, time and again. “Gerald is not afraid of failure. He acts, reevaluates and tries again,” he says.

Beyond the farm gate

Gerald was elected to the Illinois Farm Bureau board in 1999 at age 37, substantially bringing down the average age of the board. He served 10 years and credits his grandfather’s “Farm Bureau member” sign at the end of his driveway for making him realize he wanted to be involved.

“That showed me it was important to give back to the industry, to help others and make a difference in my community,” Gerald says. Plus, he picked up a lot of good ideas and brought them back to the farm.

Next up: the McLean County Board. Gerald ran because he found out there were no farmers or ag representatives on the board, despite McLean County’s distinction as one of the largest ag counties in the state.

“I’m fortunate to have incredibly supportive business partners — first my dad and now my son — who understand and support my passion for agricultural leadership and advocacy,” he says. “I’m a better farmer because of my off-farm leadership experiences, and I hope the industry and the community are better off for my involvement.”

As it turns out, giving your time and talents beyond the farm is a lot like planting a seed. “You go out in the spring with your hope, and you plant a seed,” he says. “All you can do is put yourself in a position to succeed and have faith that it will work out.”

And that’s Gerald: doing it the right way.

A close-up of gloved hands holding soil with earth worms poking through

Born to fly

Like a lot of farmers, Gerald likes to fly. He joined an agricultural aviators fraternity in 2017 when he earned his private pilot license, and then his instrument rating in 2018.

“I’ve always been interested in aviation,” Gerald recalls. “I used to stand out in the yard and spin around with model airplanes.”

Eventually, with his kids grown, he found time to pursue the hobby, which also means he and Jayme can fly out of state to see their son Tyler and his wife, Suzanne. That’s led to fewer hours of driving and more time with them.

Farmers make good pilots, Gerald says, pointing out the similarities in technology between agriculture and aviation, and the need to monitor systems in the cab and the cockpit.

“Except for the third axis,” he jokes. “We don’t really go up and down in agriculture, unless you count all the hills in Iowa.”

Gerald also volunteers with Young Eagles, a program that takes 10- to 18-year-olds on their first airplane ride.

“When they all come out to the airplane, I say, ‘Is this your first airplane ride?’ And of course, they all say yes. And I say, ‘Mine, too!’” he says, laughing. “It instills a great deal of confidence in the parents.”

Gerald Thompson talks to his son

Master at a glance

Gerald Thompson
Wife: Jayme
Children:  Tyler Thompson, Reid Thompson, Amanda Thompson
County: McLean
Operation: Corn and soybeans
Leadership: Illinois Farm Bureau director and committee chair, IAA Audit Committee chair, Illinois Ag in the Classroom chair, McLean County Farm Bureau board, Arrowsmith Village Board, Trinity Lutheran Church elder, McLean County Board finance vice chair, seven-time wedding officiant
Nominator: Ron and Melanie Warfield, 1992 Master Farmer

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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