Pitchforks To Pencils
(Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the summer edition of Town and Country Connection, a publication of the SD Farm Bureau.)
When Roger Schuller sits in the office attached to the shop of Schuller Farms, Inc., he gazes east over ground that generations of his family have put together over the past 100 years.
This Claremont farmer can tell stories of a grandfather, father, and uncle who worked long and hard to build the family farm that he, his wife Shirley, their son Matthew, and Matthew’s wife Audrey have continued. It’s obvious that he doesn’t take this farm’s history for granted.
“We have a nice view from this office of what our ancestors did for us,” says Roger.
Those ancestors began their Dakota story with Bert Schuller, Roger’s grandfather, who first traveled to the flat Dakota prairie from the rolling hills of Illinois in 1908. He liked what he saw and returned to South Dakota a few years later to first rent a farm near Claremont and then, in 1916, to purchase 160 acres of Brown County land.
A lot has happened since then, and the fifth generation of Schullers—Roger’s four young grandsons—are now being rooted with the stories of this 2016 South Dakota Century Farm. It’s a tale that involves an interesting past, a unique farm management plan, and a promise for the future.
The Schuller family history encompasses the normal risks of raising crops with the distinctive twist of owning a small town bank for a time. And then there’s the narrative of a son who pursued a career in banking only to return to his roots after a serious health scare. At its core, it’s a story of a South Dakota farm family’s intent to keep this farm intact well into the future.
Where the story begins
There’s only one place to begin this story, and that’s with Bert Schuller, who is described in a 1966 Aberdeen News article as “a burly old German.” With an independent streak and a penchant for speaking his mind, the article also quotes the then-Aberdeen police chief as telling Bert “There just aren’t hardly any more like you left.”
But in 1916, there were young men like Bert with plenty of spunk and drive who were traveling from the east to try their hand at farming the prairie.
With a wife, two sons, and a daughter, the young Bert began growing his farm. By 1929, he had 640 acres, a herd of cattle, and some mortgages, says the Aberdeen News article. And then the 1930s hit, bringing disastrously low prices and drought. Like many others, Schuller lost most of his land, but was able to retain his original 160 acres.
“It was a heck of a struggle for my grandfather from 1916 to the early ‘40s,” says Roger.
But then, together with Bert’s two sons, George (Roger’s father) and Robert, the tide changed.
“They were of the right age and good workers, and opportunities were so great coming out of the depression. They took a chance.”
Over the years Bert and his sons were able to purchase adjoining acres, including land belonging to George and Robert’s sister Marie. The experience of having lost land in the 30’s, however, left the burly German with a distaste for borrowing money.
“My grandfather would say that the happiest day of his life was when he could tell his banker to go to hell,” says Roger, laughing. “It was his shtick.”
Adding banking to the mix
That “shtick” took on special meaning in 1967 when George purchased the small, independent bank in the little town of Cresbard, some 90 miles away from the farm. The family’s interest in banking wasn’t a total anomaly. In addition to actively farming, George was serving on a bank board in Aberdeen, and Robert, who died in 1965 at age 51, had earlier become an investor in the Claremont bank. The banking business appealed to Roger.
“Venturing out into the banking business was Dad’s deal, but he knew it was something that would interest me,” says Roger. “I was always the bookkeeper for the farm—an inside guy. Dad took me into the bank as a partner and hired a local fellow and made him into our operating partner. He was a good businessman and a good banker.”
Roger said that the story about his grandpa never wanting to owe the banker had a lot to do with how this father-son team approached banking.
“From 1968 to 1981, farmers could come and borrow money in the spring and pay it off in the fall, but by 1981, interest was high and things had changed,” he recalls. “It concerned my father. We had been successful in the bank, but he wasn’t fired up on the banking business anymore.”
They ended up selling the bank in 1981.
Forming unique partnerships
In addition to owning a bank while running a farm, Roger and his father made another unusual decision in 1978.
“Dad was 64 or 65 years old at that time and we both knew I wasn’t a real hands-on farmer,” says Roger. It was Shirley, he insists, who had always been the one who was outside working alongside his father, while he handled the farm’s books, sold farm insurance and, for a time, did bookwork for a neighboring farmer and cattle feeder. “Shirley and I had a good partnership,” he says. “I was the paper work guy and she was more of a hands-on farmer.”
And so, Roger, his dad and Shirley looked for a new management plan that would allow them to be involved in a less physical way.
“We decided it would be better to have partners rather than hiring people to work for us,” he says. And the traditional cash rent or share crop agreement, with no other involvement from the land owners, didn’t appeal to the Schullers.
Instead, the family formed individual partnerships with six neighboring farmers—an arrangement that’s lasted with some of the same families for the past 38 years.
“They all have their own farm operations and we are in a separate partnership with each of them for our property that they farm,” explains Roger. “We share 50/50 in expenses, risk and profits. We consider ourselves farmers that don’t own any equipment.”
An added benefit, says son Matthew, who became president of Schuller Farms this year, is the relationship built up with these neighbors over the years.
“These partners are our neighbors and our friends,” says Matthew, “and they care about the land.” Roger agrees, adding, “It’s unique in that these people are not related to us, but our relationship is almost like family.”
Coming back home
Matthew especially understands the importance of family, relationships, and the Schuller Farms’ heritage. Roger and Shirley’s only child, he headed to Sioux Falls after high school to attend Augustana College. Upon graduation he got the banking bug like his father and grandfather. He eventually took a job with Wells Fargo Bank. And then, in 2006, Roger was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Matthew, by then married and with one child, came to visit his father at the United Hospital in St. Paul, MN. One week later the young banker had a seizure and doctors discovered a brain tumor.
“After I recovered we went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester to be with Matt,” says Roger. Both men had successful surgeries and Matthew, who was always the kid riding around in the pickup with his grandfather George, made a life-changing decision to come back to the farm.
“I think he always wanted to do it,” his father says, “but this quickened the schedule. It kind of brought everybody home.”
Today, Matthew and his wife Audrey have four sons: William, 11; Nathaniel, 7; and Charles, 5; and Leo, 1. The family lives in Britton where the children don’t have to make a long bus ride to school and Audrey is active in their church. Matthew drives to the farm each day where he maintains the grain inventories, handles the books, and manages the crop land easement and CRP acres.
Roger and Shirley still live on the original quarter that his grandfather purchased a century ago.
“Shirley and I are shifting out because we’re in our early 70s,” says Roger. “I hung on longer than my father did, although you know how that works, dads hardly ever let go, but we’re transitioning into that phase.”
Moving into the second century
As the Schullers move into the second century of farming, they are optimistic about the future of keeping this family farm an ongoing entity, but also realistic about the challenges—especially with four grandsons.
“How will it work for them?” asks Roger. “We’ve tried to tie it up into a family trust so that they can operate it as a unit. My hope is that they would hold it together and be able to get along.
“We’ve lived a good life on account of our ancestors,” says Roger. “We’ve been conservative and we’ve always been willing to work with whatever Mother Nature dealt us.”
That attitude has been integral to the family’s success as well as the Schullers’ well known stance on property rights and water issues—especially important to farm land that sits in the drainage area of Brown and Marshall counties. It began with Roger’s grandfather fighting against the Oahe Irrigation Project long ago and continues today.
“I guess like most Farm Bureau people, we’re concerned about the balance of government involvement and our personal freedom on the farm and how it will affect the future,” says Roger.
One thing is certain, Matthew’s four sons are learning about the stories and their family’s love of the land.
“My grandfather’s and dad’s dream was to never sell the farm, and that was engrained in me,” says Roger. “I know it’s engrained in Matt, and so the next question is, can we pass that onto this next generation.”
The Schullers have found ways—albeit non-traditional— to keep that dream alive. Perhaps a slogan that they used on a float in a local parade says it best: “Pitchforks to Pencils.”
“Pitchforks built this farm,” explains Roger, “and pencils keep it going.”