Editors' Notebook

Remembering Honors Professor, Extension Economist and TEPAP Founder Danny Klinefelter

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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Honors professor, Extension economist, DTN columnist, and The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP) founder Danny Klinefelter. (DTN file photo)

If you knew him, he was Danny. He could have commanded more sophisticated titles: doctor, honors professor, Extension ag economist, farm financial guru, just to name a few. But when he introduced himself, whether by sticking out a hand in an empty hallway or lifting the microphone on a stage in front of hundreds of farmers, he simply said "Hi, I'm Danny."

Dr. Danny Klinefelter, professor emeritus of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service ag economist, and father of The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP), passed away July 24 after a brief illness. He was 76.

He was a well-known instructor, speaker and author, with a reach that extended far beyond the campus of College Station, Texas, where he lived and taught.

Klinefelter was also a long-time contributor to DTN, crafting the "By The Numbers" column from 2006 until 2017. The column regularly hit on the pressures farmers face running complicated businesses. He particularly focused on how those business stresses needed to be faced with family members, not just employees. His farewell column, published in July 2017, discussed the traits he'd learned to recognize in successful farm operators.

"The top managers I have gotten to know see change and challenges as opportunities and don't tend to view themselves as victims. They don't enjoy adversity, but they recognize that setbacks are a part of life. They learn from setbacks, make adjustments and move on."

Klinefelter led a life of learning, adjusting, and moving forward. He grew up one of three brothers on a central Illinois farm, which he later co-owned with brother Skip (Kent) Klinefelter. He often said allergies pushed him from a potential life outdoors on the farm toward one more indoors. After earning degrees in agricultural economics, he began his professional career in the Farm Credit organization, where he was one of the first to realize that there was little financial standardization on how banks and other financial institutions evaluated farm businesses. The inability of lenders to spot ailing farms was like gasoline on the fire of farm failures during the 1980s, and Klinefelter became part of a small group that worked to standardize financial ratios. Those efforts would eventually become the Farm Financial Standards Council, creating a way for lenders to uniformly evaluate farm financial health, and identify farms on the cusp of distress.

Klinefelter would move on to Texas A&M where, for 37 years, he taught agricultural economics to undergraduates and to adults, the latter through his appointment as Extension ag economist. He would eventually be named an Honors Professor and a Regents Fellow by the university and was selected by students for several teaching awards.

In agriculture circles, Klinefelter was most known for his efforts to elevate the business mindset of farmers. Klinefelter taught what he called "continuous management improvement," an assertion that running a modern commercial farm was not a finite job, but required constant learning, evaluating, and changing to grow into the future. He also directly challenged the then-traditional thinking of the lone-wolf sole proprietor farmer who operated within the confines of a closed family business, with little outside intellectual or business support.

"Danny's great skill was in connecting people," said Iowa farmer Ben Riensche, a Klinefelter follower and member of the Association of Agricultural Production Executives, or AAPEX, a farmer education and networking group Klinefelter created. "Danny connected farmers with ideas, connected farmers with the right business people, connected experienced farmers with beginning farmers. Nobody was more proficient in riding herd on the flow of ideas."

His younger brother Skip saw those efforts up close and from the earliest days of Klinefelter's career. "The '80s were tough, and I was struggling on the farm. Danny would just surround you with so many smart people. He had me reading Harvard business case studies, talking with outside experts. It changed my life." The younger Klinefelter said he wasn't alone. "I can't tell you how many people have called the past few days to say just that -- that Danny changed their lives."

The drive to change lives never stopped. Klinefelter became a fan of the executive business education workshops at Harvard Business School, which gave mid-career education to corporate leaders. He also was one of the first to refer to farmers as chief executive officers, running complex, often multi-million-dollar businesses, with all the financial, human resource and business strategy needs of a Fortune 500 CEO. Yet, out on the farm, these CEOs were on their own. They lacked the support of a "C-suite" full of financial and business specialists. They also lacked the time, and the access, to develop those skills on their own.

With the support of many kindred spirits, including DTN Executive Editor Marcia Zarley Taylor, Klinefelter created TEPAP in 1991 to fill that void. It was a risky notion, asking busy, typically frugal farmers to invest two weeks and thousands of dollars in attending intensive business management classes. To date, some 2,000 individuals have gone through that program, now under the guidance of Mark Welch, fellow Texas AgriLife Extension ag economist.

To participate, farmers sign on for two week-long workshops held in early January in Austin, Texas. First-year students get an intense education on accrual accounting, strategic business thinking, human resources issues and family business succession planning. In the second year, the focus is less on the operation and more on personal development: Sessions hit on physical and mental health, negotiation techniques, ways to improve sales prowess, how to hire and retain better employees, and how to be a better employer.

DTN has been a long-time sponsor and supporter of the TEPAP program.

On the heels of TEPAP's success, Klinefelter created AAPEX, which is made up of TEPAP alumni and meets regularly for multi-day workshops. "Danny made it through the first and second year of TEPAP, and a lot of the farmers who had graduated from that were asking for something more," said Dick Wittman, farm owner, business consultant and friend who has become an anchor in the TEPAP curriculum. "They didn't want the education and networking to stop. Danny had that influence on people in terms of cultivating an appetite for life-long learning."

Wittman said Klinefelter also practiced what he preached, regularly questioning how effective TEPAP programs were working in the real world, evaluating and adjusting to meet farmer needs. A recent survey of farmers who were 10 years or more past their TEPAP graduation showed they were using 90% to 95% of the practices taught. "Typically, they're using less than 20% of these things when they start TEPAP," Wittman said. "So, we saw this massive shift in terms of the best practices farmers found necessary to their businesses after attending. That's what Danny was working toward."

Wittman said Klinefelter's focus on lifelong learning was foundational to his personality and success, but his extra edge was in going a step beyond classroom education. "Danny became personally invested in people's lives. Whenever I saw him, the first question was 'How's the farm doing?' And he knew your business," Wittman said, somewhat sheepishly. "He knew the touchy, sticky points," and wasn't shy about asking about them, testing to see if they were being addressed.

While so much of business education focuses on profitability and business growth, Wittman said Klinefelter's interest in the person ensured he never forgot the family side of the farm business. "He regularly questioned whether the practices we were promoting were not just helping make more money, but were they actually making people's lives happier and better."

While surrounding farmers with financial and business experts was at the core of his teaching philosophy, Klinefelter also understood that some of the smartest, most powerful minds in the room were the farmers themselves. He was an early champion of farmer peer groups, and worked hard to connect TEPAP and AAPEX members into smaller networks that could support and challenge one another.

"What a legacy," Riensche said, when asked about the totality of Klinefelter's career. "Yes, there are hundreds and hundreds of farmers he directly helped through things like TEPAP, the peer groups, his presentations. But Danny gave farmers the tools and connections to not just increase their success rate. His work will help those operations for generations to come. What more can you expect to have done when you leave this world?"

Of all his earned titles, those of father and grandfather were his favorite, Skip said. "Farmers and teaching were so important to him, but the most important thing to Danny was family. He always took time for family, and he was crazy about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He once stood on a table in the middle of a crowd in order to better watch one of them give a speech. That was Danny."

Klinefelter is survived by his wife, Vicki, adult daughters Christine, Julie, Carol and Patty; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and brothers Lynn and Kent (Skip).

A public funeral will be Friday, Aug. 4, at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 1200 Foxfire Drive, College Station, Texas. Visitation is 9:30 a.m.-11:00 a.m., with the service following. Lunch will be served at noon, also at the church.

For more information on the TEPAP program, visit https://tepap.tamu.edu/….

Klinefelter's final "On The Numbers" DTN column, with his thoughts on the traits of successful farmers, is here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at greg.horstmeier@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @greghorstmeier


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