By Nancy Tarnai
January 4, 2011
For Delta Junction farmer Mike Schultz it’s the combination of hands-on field work and business tasks that makes his career choice an enjoyable one. As Schultz well knows, there is more to successful farming than putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow or feeding livestock until they are ready for slaughter. Predicting the markets and keeping abreast of consumer demands are integral to a farm’s success, and these aspects can be particularly challenging in Alaska.
Schultz, 60, and his business partner and brother Scott grew up on a farm in Iowa. Scott went into the construction business and Mike continued to farm. They were lured to Alaska in 1982 by the Delta farm sale, in which the state auctioned off land. Their parcel is 28 miles from Delta Junction in the Sawmill Creek Road area. “We thought we would get into something that looked financially feasible,” Schultz said.
They first established potential markets for grain products and decided they could supply the grain for the state’s red meat and dairy industries. The Schultz’s bought their land sight unseen. “Once my brother and I purchased our farm we thought we better go see what we bought,” Schultz said. “So we flew over it in an airplane.” Although they would face an amazing amount of hard work, Schultz still says it was a good move. “Alaska has been good for us,” he said.
One of the best aspects has been raising their children (Mike has two and Scott has four) on the farm, teaching them the responsibilities that come with the lifestyle. After the land purchase it took two years to clear the trees and stumps. “We cleaned up thousands of acres as well as raising crops,” Schultz said.
They started with 500 to 800 acres of barley. “We recognized we needed to diversify into other markets,” Schultz said. In 1996, the Schultz’s had such a big year that they participated in one of the first instances of shipping grain out of Alaska. They loaded a rail car in North Pole and sent the grain to a feed mill in Seattle–their one and only time to enter the export arena.
Deciding that they needed a better way to use excess grain, the brothers purchased 250 cattle. “We had a very difficult time marketing them,” Schultz said. “It was a one-time event but we did use our grain.” With no livestock on hand everything they grow is sent down the road, including barley, oats and canola.
Shultz is encouraged that the markets for canola and biofuels look promising, and he hopes that a canola processing facility can be built in Delta. Lately the Schultz’s have diversified even more by raising grass seed for reclamation projects. “Knowing what to grow is a hard thing to figure out,” Schultz said. In fact, he has watched some people fail because of that. “New people come and don’t always do their homework. They don’t do their research like they should. Wondering where to sell is not good. “You need to identify your market, then grow the crop.”
How does Schultz decide what to grow? “Past experience, our best judgment, talking to buyers. We keep our ear to the market place and let that be our guide.” The best thing about farming for Schultz is two-fold: “One year at a time it’s the satisfaction of the crops that are growing and you see your efforts turn into a profitable crop. In the long term it’s the overall development of the farm. You clear the fields and bring them into production. You build buildings and accumulate a line of equipment that makes the work happen.”
One thing that has always gone smoothly is the relationship between the two brothers. “That’s the easy part,” Schultz said. “We work well together.” When asked for his goals, Schultz said his wife often asks that too. “I’m wrestling with something that probably stumps a lot of people in their 60s, what to do next. But we’re going to continue for the next five to 10 years and evaluate it.”
As for the secret to success, Schultz says, “Keep at it. It’s that simple.”
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.