Loss of Family Member Changes Farm Dynamic

When Tragedy Opens Doors

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Micik Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
Guy Schafer (left) with son, Henry, and in-laws, Vicky and Jeff Purdue (Dave Charrlin)

Guy Schafer always wanted to be a farmer but never envisioned himself owning land. Now, he's in the process of buying his first piece of ground, 48 acres with a mix of tillable ground and conservation forest.

The 45-year-old farmer never thought he'd be farming in Pendleton, Indiana. Until three years ago, he saw himself working at Lamb Farms, in Lebanon, until he retired. Now, he runs around 3,200 acres of waxy corn and seed beans with his father-in-law and will take over the business someday.

Schafer never expected that a tragic loss would bring his dreams to life, yet he'd undo it in a heartbeat.

LEARNING TO FARM

As a child, Schafer could spend all day sitting under a tree on his lawn watching a tractor in the field next door. His family didn't farm, but their family friends, the Lambs, did. Schafer started mowing ditches for them when he was 13. He was thrilled to learn how to use the backhoe until he found out he'd be picking rocks.

"I thought I'd been duped," Schafer laughs. He worked for the farm part-time through college and then in construction for a few years until the farm had a full-time position available.

Over nearly 25 growing seasons, he learned every job on that farm, which grew waxy corn and seed soybeans in a no-till system. Schafer's primary job became managing Lamb Farms' commercial composting operation. Working in that business taught Schafer how to manage bookwork and invoices, logistics and personnel needs of the business. He loved the science, but his heart was in operating equipment and farming.

While he loved his job, Schafer considered other career opportunities. After serving in a voluntary capacity as a sheriff's reserve deputy, he applied for a full-time job, but the county hired a former state patrol officer instead. A few years later, he explored an opportunity to buy an excavation business, but the seller had a change of heart.

"After that, I thought, maybe I am where I need to be," he says. "Now, I know why those doors were shut, and I'm thankful they didn't work out."

UNEXPECTED LOSS

Schafer met his wife, Amanda Purdue, on a mission trip to Costa Rica, even though they only lived 40 miles apart. Her father, Jeff Purdue, started farming in the 1970s with no debt, no employees and no previous generations to show him the way.

Purdue's son, Nathan, planned to come back to farm with his mom and dad, but he took a few years after high school to go to welding school, get married and work off the farm.

"I think that was by design, so Jeff got the farm to a size that could sustain two families," Schafer says.

By January 2019, Nathan had been working on the farm for almost a decade. The weather brought harvest to a halt in early November, and they finally had a window to get the corn crop in. Nathan was looking forward to being in the combine.

Instead, he was in the hospital. A sudden, severe illness put Nathan in a coma. The 35-year-old died a few days later, leaving behind a wife and 7-year-old child.

"When you're 35, you think you're invincible. No one thinks serious illness will happen to them," Schafer says. "Nathan's death left a hole in everyone's life, not to mention Jeff and Vicky's business. The grief is still very real."

Schafer says he doesn't know how the family would have finished harvest without the community. The co-op brought fuel, neighbors lined the road with semis, and, at one point, four combines were running in one field. Between the down corn and the mud, "neighbors were literally tearing up their machines for us. The generosity was amazing," Schafer says.

With everyone's help, Purdue Farms wrapped up harvest in two days.

Schafer joined his father-in-law's business full-time in February. He's always admired Purdue's ability to plan and adapt to change, but "how he was able to think through those next steps astounds me."

Because of all the similarities in crops and farming practices between Purdue's operation and the Lamb's, Schafer says he was able to hit the ground running.

"I am so thankful God built me up and trained me up so that I could step in, and Jeff's legacy can live on," he continues. Now, he's focused on learning the business mindset that's been key to Purdue's success.

BUSINESS MINDSET

Purdue manages the majority of the acreage, but Schafer has a few hundred rental acres of his own, in addition to the land he's buying. Purdue provides equipment and labor, but Schafer is responsible for marketing, crop insurance, input purchasing and all other decisions. The goal is to help him build equity.

The soaking wet spring of 2019â??-- one of the farm's worst growing seasonsâ??-- gave him a lesson in the inner workings of crop insurance. In a dramatic reversal, the farm had one of its best growing seasons in 2020, and it gave him his first taste of grain marketing.

Schafer's always admired Purdue's long-range planning abilities, so he's paying more attention to industry trends and thinking about how his business can adapt. He's learning Purdue's history with different landowners and working to build relationships. A graduate of Indiana's Agriculture Leadership Program, he's also considering getting involved in a state commodity organization.

"I've always told myself to never stop learning. I don't have all the answers, and I don't pretend to," he says. "My goal is to grow the best crop I can grow. If I can do that, the other things will take care of themselves, bit by bit."

Nathan's sudden death, as well as the passing of Purdue's parents this winter, have brought the family closer together. Schafer, his wife and their children plan on moving to the farm in the year ahead, just a few miles away from Purdue and his wife, Vicky.

Another family memberâ??-- Schafer's 13-year-old son, Henryâ??-- is also working for the farm this year, mowing ditches just like his dad.

"Now, I have the same hopes and dreams for my son that Jeff had, and I can't think of a better thing," Schafer says. "But, I would give it all up just to have Nathan back."

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Apply for TEPAP Scholarships:

When Guy Schafer transitioned to working in his father-in-law's business, he needed to learn how to manage the business aspects; so he began looking at options.

When the September 2019 issue of Progressive Farmer arrived, he recognized Caleb Wilson, the farmer on the cover. Wilson had received one of DTN's scholarships to attend The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers, a weeklong farm-management course for farmers.

"I thought, that is exactly what I need. It checked every box of all the things I had never done on the farm," Schafer says. He attended in January 2020 and is looking forward to completing the program this winter.

Mark Welch, an ag economist at Texas A&M University and TEPAP's director, says the program is an abbreviated version of business school for farmers, and it focuses on financial and strategic management, process improvement, macroeconomic trends and more.

TEPAP begins accepting applications in July for its next program, which runs Jan. 8 to 15, 2022. Visit tepap.tamu.edu to learn more, including how you can apply for one of DTN's scholarships.

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