The year was 1980, and the country was still feeling the sting from high unemployment and inflation rates of the previous decade. Joel Koch had graduated from high school and immediately started farming full time with his father on their farm near Elkton, SD. It was a natural progression, as Joel explains, “I started driving tractor at a very young age. I Ioved being outside alongside my dad, working with the livestock or out in the field. I never wanted to do anything else.”
In the early days, Joel and his dad increased their cow herd each year, while also farrowing pigs and feeding them out. At one point, the father and son team’s farrowing operation included 100 sows. Later, they quit farrowing to concentrate on Isowean pigs and for a few years, they sold 2000 fat hogs each year. Joel married his wife Leslie, and she rolled up her sleeves to help facilitate the success of the Koch operation. As the years went by, Joel and his father evaluated each venture against trends in agriculture. By the early 2000’s, their facilities were showing their age and the Kochs were met with the increasing difficulty of competing with large mega farms. At that point, they decided to cease the swine side of their farming operation. This allowed them to concentrate on their cattle, row crop and hay endeavors.
Growing a business and a family
Over the last forty years, the Kochs have built their cattle herd from 150 to 500 head. In addition to the cows, the family operates a feed yard and finishes approximately about 2500 head a year, including their own calves. Joel explains, “We purchase Montana calves for October delivery and buy some grass yearlings in July and August.” Most of their cows are artificially inseminated (AI) with a synchronization program, followed by the releasing of the bulls to impregnate any non-bred females. The procedures the Kochs rely on for first calf heifers are a little different than cows. At weaning, heifers are developed and bred by an AI tech.
In addition to raising livestock, the Koch family farms approximately 2000 acres. Joel breaks down the crops grown by saying, “Most of our crops are corn, and we have some small grain, soybeans and alfalfa grass hay. We grow all our own feed.” An operation of this size requires many hands, which is the reason that the business became known as Koch & Sons Farms, Inc. Joel and Leslie welcomed the addition of their oldest son Tom to their team as Joel says, “He is the driving force behind the operation. Along with understanding the technology so much better, he works with the rations for the feedlot and calves the cows in the spring and plants all the crops.” Besides Joel, Leslie and Tom, the business employs two full- time and one part-time farm hands. Then, on particularly busy cattle days, Joel and Leslie can count on a few more helping hands. Luckily, their youngest son Bill and their youngest daughter Molly make the time to come home and assist their parents and older brother in the large task of working the livestock.
Advice based on experience
The year 2020 marked the 40th anniversary of Joel’s commitment to farming full time. In those four decades, he says he learned a few things about farming and working with people. To those in business for themselves, he advises, “Be careful who you form partnerships with. Even within your family.” To build strong business relationships, Joel says that it is important that all parties are working toward the same goals, as otherwise each party risks the loss of both money and relationships. Becoming an entrepreneur is challenging enough, and Joel reminds young producers building their own businesses that they should be prepared to work very hard. To increase their chances at finding success, Joel says, “Surround yourself with smart people.” He is often heard saying, “Don’t be afraid to hire your brains.” The Koch and Sons operation depends upon an agronomist for assistance with their crops, a cattle buyer to both procure feeder cattle and market fat cattle, and a nutritionist whose work is extremely important to their cow/calf and feedlot operation. In addition to those experts who provide hands-on support to the operation, Koch and Sons, Inc also obtains risk management advice from financial professionals. According to Joel, this practice has kept them in business despite the volatility of the markets. Rounding out the team of professionals who work with the Kochs are an accountant who provides monthly projections and analysis, and a trustworthy banker who stays current on the operation’s financials and trends. Regular meetings with the banker, accountant and risk manager are important to the upward trajectory of most ag businesses, and Joel says, “Keep the banker up-to-date with everything.”
Remember what is important
Tom is the 5th generation on the family farm, and Joel and Leslie find great satisfaction in that. Both Joel and Leslie say, “Our children are our pride and joy, and we are most proud of them than anything else in our lives.” The couple have five children. Their oldest child Sara is a sheriff ’s dispatcher with a master’s degree in mass communications. She is married to Isaiah and they are raising their two children in Invanhoe, MN. Tom is the second child in the family and he and his wife Lexy have 4 children who they are raising near Elkhorn, SD. The Koch’s third child Lisa graduated from Black Hills State University with a degree in Art, which she uses as she owns and operates 183 Ink, a tattoo parlor in Winner, SD. Lisa is married to Cole and they are raising their 3 children in Colome, SD. Molly is the fourth of the Koch children, and she completed her business degree from Lake Area Tech in Watertown, SD. Molly married her husband Tyler in the summer of 2020 and she works for Sioux Nation Ag Center in Scotland, SD. The fifth child in the family is Bill (William), who is engaged to be married to his fiancé McKenzie in the summer. He received his civil engineering degree at SDSU, and is employed as a structural engineer for Rise, Inc. in Sioux Falls, SD.
Life on the farm keeps the Kochs very busy, yet they try to enjoy as much time as possible with their kids at their lake home in Ottertail County, Minnesota. While the children were growing up, Joel and Leslie enjoyed watching them participate in high school and college sports. To stay involved in the community, Joel served on the township board, and was a board member for the County Conservation District. He is currently an advisor to the board.
Joel and Leslie Koch feel grateful for having had the opportunity to raise their children on the farm and watch them grow into outstanding young adults and parents. Looking back on the legacy of their lives, Joel comments, “Next to raising a family on the farm, the second greatest reward from this lifestyle has been seeing the continued growth of the operation.” He adds, “Farming with Tom is everything. We enjoy seeing him manage more of the operation every year.” Looking toward the future, Joel and Leslie are grandparents who hope that one or more of their grandchildren will become the 6th generation to run the farm.