By Harley Buchholz
From tending his own small potato patch and a few beef cattle as a teenager, Jeff Sommers has built his farming career into a partnership in a multi-faceted agribusiness with more than 300 employees who grow, grade, pack and sell the produce from 13,000 acres and feed and milk 3,500 dairy cows.
Farming is his passion.
"Growing up with my dad and uncle, they never held me back, so I got my feet wet at a very young age," he says. He has planted and harvested potatoes by hand and sold them from the back of a pickup truck. He has milked cows in a stanchion barn, pitched manure and unloaded silage with a fork.
Jeff also developed a business sense. By the time he was in high school, he was raising his own potatoes, corn and beef cattle in the Plover area of Wisconsin's Central Sands country.
While studying agriculture at Univeresity of Wisconsin-River Falls, he says, "I was borrowing money at 8% for student loans and planted it."
Profits from his crops carried him through to a Bachelor's degree in 1988 and within the year he had bought the business interests of his father and uncle and was farming 400 acres of rented land. By the late 1990s he was growing 2,500 acres of potatoes and vegetables and had 37 full- and part-time employees.
Then came a life-changing opportunity. The Wysocki family, another large potato grower, suggested a merger.
"We took three weeks to decide but it wasn't easy," says Jeff's wife, Kathy. "It was life-altering," Jeff adds. The merger in 1997 put together the Sommers' 2,500 acres and the second generation of the Wysocki family's 4,000 acres. The second generation of Wysockis includes three brothers, a brother-in-law and a cousin. Growth continued.
Today, at 49, Jeff is a partner in an operation of 13,000 fully irrigated acres, 11,000 corporate-owned, plus packing, sales and the large dairy. He is the general manager of Wysocki Produce Farm Inc. which raises potatoes and vegetables and also produces feed for the dairy cattle. Back on his home farm, Jeff has his own 50-cow/calf Angus beef herd.
"I've always had an attachment for cattle," he says. "Boredom," he adds, "is not for me."
His days start 5 and 5:30 in the morning and goes on until the work is done.
"Every day is a whole new challenge," he says.
Along the way, he and the Wysockis have surrounded themselves with a well-qualified work force.
"Seven years ago we had one other employee with a college degree on the management team," he notes. "We had other college graduates but they were in the labor force. Right now I'm working on (a job candidate) who'll be our fourth Ph.D. We have a couple with master's degrees."
The Wysocki family of companies includes RPE, which handles sales and marketing; Wysocki Produce Farms Inc, the grower; Paragon Potato Farms Inc, the grader and packer; and Paragon Specialties, specialty products; plus handling produce from other farms and partnerships with other organizations in Central Sands Dairy and Tasteful Solutions LLC, a California-based baby potato grower.
"I needed the background of sole proprietorship first to be a good partner," Jeff says. "You have to learn to make decisions as a group."
He and Kathy are the parents of two, Brett, a recently-married (to Callyn) journalist at a Michigan newspaper, and Laura, a student at UW-Madison. Both followed their dad's footsteps through 4-H and FFA and the show circuit.
Family is important to the Sommers.
"Before we were married we agreed that I'd be home with the kids," Kathy says. "We are committed to family," Jeff adds. "When I became a partner the challenge was I couldn't have the kids with me every day but regardless of whether they grew up to be farmers they have the opportunity."
His concept of family extends to the employees.
"We have 300-plus employees," he notes, "but we're still family-oriented" (taking in birthday observances for all).
The produce farm has the motto "Farming Full Circle." "It's a motto we came up with the advent of the dairy," Jeff says, "to create a farming system to be more sustainable." The farm produces feed for the cows and the manure goes through an anaerobic digester to fertilize the soil. "We want to be good stewards," Jeff says. Wysocki Produce Farm received a stewardship award from the National Potato Council. He is a past president of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, has served on the Wisconsin Fertilizer Research Council, currently serves on a manure irrigation task force, was a top ten finalist in Farm Bureau's Young Farmer recognition program and was the WPVGA's Young Grower of the Year in 2003.
The farm grows 15 varieties of potatoes; peas, beans and sweet corn for the canning industry; alfalfa and field corn for silage and grain for the cows. Jeff double crops peas and beans and plants cover crops on nearly all acres, utilizing wheat, rye, oats, tillage radishes and yellow mustard.
"We collect data similar to any ag research station," he says, and testing is done in both wet and dry labs. "We have to be prepared to deal with whatever alteration we can to maintain uniform quality and employ adaptive management. Technology is driving everything. It's as important to invest in IT as equipment."
"There are days I go home and tell myself I need this like a hole in the head," Jeff concludes, "but there's a love, a passion.... Even though we are successful doing this we know there are challenges ahead."