American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
Seated at one end of a conference table, talking over a cup of afternoon coffee, it is clear that Michelle Stewart runs Spirit Farms like few other general managers.
Michelle is about people–about her employees, her team and how they interact within an efficient business model. Her discussion of employee management begins–and ends–with a discourse on core values. Among them are integrity, hard work, innovation and an ability to function as a team. Laying over it all is a strong Christian ethic that sets the stage for the business, for its charitable work and for its educational outreach.
"You have your values, but as you grow, how do you transfer that out to your business? How do you create a value system across the whole farm?" Michelle asks. "This," she says motioning around the room, "isn't here for [just any] reason. There is a guiding hand."
Eighty employees work Spirit Farm's 13,000-acre corn, wheat and soybean operation across 10 central and northern Illinois counties (another 2,000 acres are custom farmed). They also work for Stewart Spreading. Michelle is general manager of the farm and president, half owner and functioning general manager for Stewart Spreading, one of the larger biosolids companies in the Chicago metropolitan region. Her husband, John, is co-owner in both businesses.
Biosolids are the end product of the wastewater treatment process. The company's 30 trucks haul this material to 30 or 40 area farms, and also gather enough to treat a portion of their own land.
Moving and applying biosolids is an EPA-regulated business operating under miles of rules and, in the case of mistakes, no small amount of legal peril. But biosolids are an excellent source of nitrogen and phosphorus, and they improve soil organic levels. Trace elements in the material replenish soil micronutrients. Applications cannot exceed strict nutrient guidelines.
Stewart Spreading makes it a practice to contact every neighbor bordering every field that receives an application of biosolids. "We have found it beneficial to proactively educate every person that we can regarding the use of this type of recycling as an agricultural enhancement," Michelle says. For instance, neighbors are assured all pathogens in the material have been killed. Yet, calls from concerned citizens come often.
"When we utilize the same employees for the farm and the spreading business, [it allows] us to afford a higher caliber employee due to the opportunities we can offer for better training, steadier working hours and benefits," she says. Benefits include health, dental and life insurance, a 401K plan, paid vacations and this year, an employee wellness plan.
Both Michelle and John grew up in farming families. But Spirit Farms is really an outgrowth of the biosolids business. Instead of expanding that business into another metropolitan area, the two decided to rapidly grow the farm that had included just 1,000 acres as recently as 2007. Headquartered outside Sheridan, Ill., an hour-and-a-half southwest of downtown Chicago, Michelle and John are penciling in a 30 to 40% growth in acreage for 2013 on top of the 13,000 they now farm.
Michelle's workday revolves around managing people working at a dozen locations. At times, the scope of the biosolids business also brings union operators and their business agents into her management sphere. That takes a special level of diplomacy.
When the operation reached 50 employees, the business's human resources strategy no longer worked. "We had to change something," she says. "There were too many loose ends, too little communication. That caused mistakes and lowered moral."
Michelle is two years into overhauling the farm's employment management practices. Job categories are defined and management positions were created for the different areas of responsibilities, such as logistics and maintenance, operations, building projects, human resources, agronomy, business development and accounting. The crop-production and biosolids divisions of the farm operate with job descriptions and an employee handbook (for example, no smoking in the field; a discarded butt caused a fire in one wheat field). There are employee reviews and rewards.
Weekly meetings include a "six-by-six" discussion. Managers discuss the top six things that need to get done in the next six weeks. Managers and team-leader development occurs during monthly crew-leader training and during two annual off-site management retreats.
Michelle has an understanding of her visibility in a world largely run by men. "Two years ago, I was afraid to be myself," Michelle says. "You know, when John and I would go to a meeting, it was 'John brought his wife. Oh good!' " A hint of sarcasm hung in the air. "I do have lofty goals. But that's OK, we're just getting started," she says.
Change began at the top. "As leaders, we don't realize how destructive we can be," she says. "Integrity is an overriding factor. I really, truly want whatever I do to glorify God. So, there are no gray areas on the farm. I go to sleep at night knowing that."
The off-site meetings are an interesting exercise in management development. One gathering included discussions about core values and turning supervisors into coaches. The team engaged in an analysis process known by the acronym SWOT.
The analysis is used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats involved in a project or business venture. It involves specifying the objective of a project and identifying internal and external factors that are favorable and unfavorable to achieving that objective.
Each August, Michelle takes a group to the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in nearby South Barrington, Ill. Willow Creek is one of the largest churches in the nation. The Willow Creek model encourages strong leadership, seeing it as an important component in the vitality of the nation's churches. Those same leadership traits are critical by extension to Spirit Farms and Stewart Spreading, Michelle says. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at last year's summit.
Management and process development aren't merely academics in Michelle's eyes. She and John see a day coming where they may work with investors interested in additional agricultural or other business opportunities. Those investors, she believes, will have expectations for a high level of business and financial management. Michelle and John intend to be prepared.
"We need to have business management and business processes that can be applied to expand the farm or be used in other opportunities," she says. "But we want to be flexible. We don't know what may come down the road."
Michelle is convinced her skill and management development efforts are well received.
"The energy level is amazing," Michelle says, admitting that she does catch the occasional eye rolling at some of her management ideas. "When I first talk about core values to our truckers, they look at me like I'm a complete freak." But Michelle adds they did get onboard, eventually.
"People want to make a difference. They want to stand for something," Michelle explains. "I am truly blessed with an extremely talented and highly ethical staff, and in truth, this is the main reason for the explosive growth of our farm."
Michelle and John put resources behind their beliefs. They have decided to both finance and staff an FFA program at a local school. Michelle believes the high school program is important for students who may want to work in the increasingly technical world of agriculture.
"What's it going to take [for farming] to double production?" Michelle asks. "We have technology [to do it]. But are we getting everything out of it? Trained people will be the limiting factor." Thirty percent of jobs in Illinois are related to agriculture, she says. The program's teachers will include the farm's agronomist, managers and Michelle.
The two also have donated a 20,000-square-foot modular building and five acres to assist Parkview Christian Academy, in Yorkville, Ill., expand their classrooms. The school has 200 students and also will be home to the new FFA program.
"Our desire is to build a location for this school to benefit the rural community, as well as underprivileged children–children who may come from homes with drug and alcohol addictions, from areas that may have a high dropout risk and high suicide rate," Michelle says.
"The passion of Parkview Christian is to 'shape difference makers for Christ,' " she says. "That goes along with our underlying goal to be a family farm that works to expand the Kingdom of God in our everyday lives."