Spreading Their Wings

Published online: Apr 07, 2020 Articles, Grower of the Month Joe Kertzman, Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association
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This article appears as the cover feature of the April 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

Does absence from the potato farm make the heart grow fonder?

In talking to young potato and vegetable growers, most were encouraged to find their own paths before deciding on a career in farming. Like the proverbial mother bird pushing her chick from the nest to fly, 20- and 30-something potato growers say their parents encouraged them to work off the farm or attend college or tech school before making any life decisions.

“I wasn’t required, but strongly encouraged to explore options in schooling after high school, in any field I desired,” says Curtis Gagas of Gagas Farms in Stevens Point, Wis. “I knew I’d probably stay on the farm, so I looked into tech school programs, but ended up going with UW-Madison’s Farm & Industry Short Course.”

“I’m glad I attended school and went with the short course,” says Gagas, who now holds a certificate in crop and soil sciences. “They offer one- or two-year programs that run from late November through March. It works out excellent for kids who want to go to school and continue working on the farm. Getting a taste of college life is also an interesting, fun experience.”

Curtis Gagas, who holds a certificate in crop and soil sciences, says he wasn’t required, but was strongly encouraged by his parents to explore options in schooling after high school, in any field he desired.

Though Gagas recognizes the benefits of having kids work off the farm for a period of time, like learning responsibilities such as being on time, gaining a work ethic, following orders from supervisors and practicing time management, he also points to downsides.

“On the other hand,” he says, “I feel these core responsibilities are already ingrained in farm kids. Companies know that farm kids can work and are probably some of the best employees they’ll come across.”

Competing Offers

“When the time comes for the kids to leave the farm, the family may have a hard time competing with wages and benefits they can receive elsewhere,” Gagas says. “Also, you are constantly learning about farming, at any age in your life, just by farming. Any time away from the farm, you may be missing out on lessons needed in the future.”

Wendy Dykstra, the daughter of a successful potato grower in Larry Alsum, received a master of professional accountancy degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She serves as chief operating officer of logistics and maintenance for Alsum Farms & Produce in Friesland, Wis.

“I oversee our logistics and maintenance teams, continue to work closely with the accounting team, and work with the Alsum leadership team to strategically guide the business forward,” she says. “I feel so blessed to be working alongside my dad and sister [Heidi Alsum-Randall] and so many other great people within the Alsum companies. It is rewarding to be part of this incredible industry with so many hardworking individuals who grow and supply nutritious potatoes.”

Dykstra didn’t always work for Alsum Farms & Produce. Her education helped her land an internship and eventual full-time position as an auditor for Grant Thornton LLP, a large accounting and advisory firm.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with and see inside operations from clients across a number of industries,” she says. “I do agree with, and strongly encourage, getting experience outside of the family business.”

Dykstra worked in the Alsum Farms & Produce packing shed and later helped in the office during high school and college.

“Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to do my best, apply myself in school and find a job one day that I would enjoy and be passionate about,” she says.

Lessons to Learn

“Both of my parents went to college, so it seemed natural for me to plan for, but I was also encouraged,” Dykstra says. “I am thankful my dad recognized there are valuable lessons to be learned outside of a family business.”

J.D. Schroeder of Schroeder Brothers Farms in Antigo, Wis., says his parents expected the kids to go to college, and then left the choice of returning to the farm up to them.

Schroeder is not completely sold on the idea of college being for everyone, even though he is on the Antigo School Board. He cites a book he recently read titled The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Caplan argues that students are right when they think about school, “When am I going to use this?” He suggests education is 80 percent signaling and 20 percent human capital, the human capital being useful things they learn in school, like reading and basic math.

“Much of the rest of what we learn is not useful,” Schroeder says, referencing the book. “When we get non-professional degrees, we are signaling to employers our intelligence, conformity and how hard we work, along with our attention to detail.

“However, if you really want to be good at something, you have to know a lot about the field [domain knowledge],” Schroeder continues, explaining the author’s viewpoint. “With that said, I loved school. College and law school were much more enjoyable than high school.”

Schroeder holds an agriculture business management degree, a political science degree and a certificate in business from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also has a law degree from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

“I practiced law full-time for two years prior to coming back to the farm,” he says, “and I use that law degree occasionally on the farm, but I am happier to avoid any situations that would require it.”

J.D. Schroeder (top center) says his parents expected the kids to go to college, and then left the choice of returning to the farm up to them. J.D. is shown in the tractor during potato hilling with his wife, Hannah, their children John Winston and Ellie.

Practical Course Studies

Schroeder errs on the side of practicality.

“If I could do it again, and I knew I was coming back to the farm, I would have taken some welding classes in high school or electrical, robotics or truck repair classes,” he says. “I would have reduced my choir and foreign language classes down to the minimum college acceptance criteria, and maybe picked up an agronomy major at Madison at the same time.

“My cousin, Luke, spent his first year at UW-La Crosse and then transferred to the short course at UW-Madison to learn more specific farming skills. He could work during planting and harvest while going to school. That seems like a smart choice when he knows he wants to farm, and he is increasing that domain knowledge.”

Schroeder stresses that growers learn a lot of background knowledge and practical skills on the job.

“I have learned a ton from my family members, our great employees and the UW extension specialists, and I am still learning from them every day,” he says.

Going to college is something Alex Okray of Okray Family Farms in Plover, Wis., always wanted to do. There was no push from his parents, though they were supportive and happy he wanted to continue his education.

“As far as returning to the farm, they encouraged me to join the business, but I never felt forced into it,” Okray says. “My parents wanted me to do whatever I wanted in my life, but they also wanted to make sure I knew that the farm was a very special and rare opportunity that not many people get.”

Though Okray recognizes higher education as a great path, he indicates having no problem with someone choosing to go straight into the family business, “as long as they have the right attitude.”

Taking Responsibility

“Treat it as you would any other job,” suggests Okray, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “Work hard, hold yourself accountable and take responsibility for what needs to be done. I’m glad I chose to go to school before working for the farm. I really feel like I gained a lot by moving away from home for a few years and being off on my own.”

Okray currently takes care of the company financials and human resources, areas that align with what he studied in college, and says he enjoys those parts of the business.

“Of course, being a family member, I try to get involved in everything that’s going on,” he says. “Anyone who works for their family business needs to know how the whole operation works.”

Outside of his main job responsibilities, Okray spends time working in the packing shed, driving potato trucks, listening in on sales calls and discussing strategies with managers and owners.

“I am happy that I decided to work for the farm,” he says. “It’s a job, and the work isn’t always fun, but I’m aware that there are certain benefits that come along with working for your family’s business.”

Dykstra says she looks at her college degree as helping to lay the foundation for a lifetime of learning she’s yet to achieve.

“We all have so many opportunities to learn everyday through school, on-the-job training, colleagues, family and friends,” she says.

“I feel the degree I earned was just an intro to farming,” Gagas concurs. “You learn every day being in the fields, much better than you do through textbooks and pictures. I don’t regret going to school, but the best education is on-the-job experience, in my opinion, and that goes for any profession. Nobody will ever stop learning.”