The number one draft pick for a professional athletic team is highly sought after and can often choose almost any team to join. They are highly coveted, and there is a lot of excitement about where they will end up. The excitement of the draft seems to subside more with each subsequent round. The players are still very talented in the later rounds, yet they will need to work extremely hard and prove themselves more than those drafted in the earlier rounds.
Starting off farming independently without immediately joining a family operation, Mike Johnson of rural Flandreau feels like a player who was drafted in those later rounds and worked very hard to get established. Growing up, his family participated in what he calls hobby farming, yet his father, Dwaine, was the service manager at the local car dealership. Mike recalls, “I loved driving a tractor and tinkering around with farm projects at night or over the weekend.”
As a freshman in high school, Mike went to work as a hired hand for a large farmer who was Dwaine’s friend. He worked for them throughout high school, while attending vocational school, and afterward. He was allowed to utilize some of their equipment for his small operation; as Mike says, “They took me under their wing.” In a short time, he purchased his own tractor and started to string together his line of equipment one piece at a time as he could afford them. He married his wife Sally in 1987 and continued to add to his operation while Sally cleaned homes for a while before adding school bus driver to her routine. Luckily, she grew up on a ranch and understood the demands associated with running an operation. In 1996, Mike’s father-in-law Fred had started contemplating retirement, leading Mike and Sally to purchase an acreage a mile from his ranch. By that time, Mike had become integrated into Fred’s operation and was farming full-time on his own. Since Dwaine passed away when he was 19, Mike was grateful that he could discuss operation and business decisions with Fred. According to Mike, “My father-in-law grew up with seven siblings during the depression. That experience taught him the value of hard work and using caution when spending. I appreciated his perspective.” Mike says that he was more concerned about what Fred would say than what advice his lender might offer when making business decisions like upgrading equipment.
Words of wisdom passed from Fred have stayed with Mike, as he remembers being told, “If you’re going to be in cattle, then be in it. You’re either in or out. If you think you are smart enough to decide the right time to be in or out, you’ll never make it.” For this reason, Mike advises, “If you truly love feeding cattle, you’re probably better off leaving your pencil and calculator in your pocket because you are better off not concentrating on the small nuances of the operation instead of seeing the big picture.”
Over the years, Mike was careful with spending, tried to make operational purchases and upgrades that he could justify financially, and, as he says, “Chipped away at all aspects over time.” He was able to partner with his brother Brian to purchase land, and Mike remembers working with Sally to scrape together every dollar for the down payment. With both brothers having the last name Johnson and the deal was held together precariously as if with band-aids, the operation became known as the Band-Aid Ranch. Mike says with a laugh, “That little slogan stuck for 25 years.”
The timing of land deals can be amusing, as Mike chuckles, “Just after we made the last payment and got our land deed, the quarter next to it became available. We used the deed to secure a loan for the new land!” As the land base expanded, so did the number of livestock as eventually, he acquired Fred’s herd on shares in 2018.
Mike and Sally are the proud parents of two daughters and the doting grandparents of four grandchildren. He says that the couple has been cutting back lately to spend more time with the little ones as they love visiting the farm.
There are about 1450 acres of cropland between Mike and Steven, and they share responsibilities and equipment. Their brother Brian often comes home in the spring and fall to help with planting and harvest, which is very helpful. Mike was also able to trade efforts with a friend who managed the school bus schedule; as he explains, “I would come in to drive the bus as my friend was in a bind. When I would return home at 5:00 p.m., he would show up and help me combine.” Mike was running 400 cows on the livestock end and is now cutting back to 300. He usually feeds the calves in the NHTC program and buys western calves in the fall, feeding as many as 600.
Mike says that he often reminds himself not to become too busy that he takes his lifestyle for granted. He says, “It’s amazing to me when people visit the farm not knowing anything about the industry and don’t realize that their food doesn’t come from the grocery store.” He has relatives that he says are fascinated with the farm. Mike explains, “They see how free we are and how open our space is, compared to the cubicle they work in and the tight, limited space they live in.”
Looking back, Mike says that one of the reasons his operation survived was the relationship with Mark VanderWerf at Farm Credit and that the lender believed enough in their plan to take a chance on them. Others that Mike says have been crucial to his operation are his crop and livestock consultants. “I’m like a Jack of all trades and a master of none. This is why I hire smart people that I can trust. Being associated with the right people is the only way to survive in this business.”
As a father and a grandfather, Mike reflects on his journey and wishes he could share it with a few special people. “My brothers and I talk about how much we would like our dad and grandpa to see what we’ve built.” He also would love to share the farm with his father-in-law so that Fred could witness how well all the hard work has paid off.
Entering the farming industry can be a challenge if one has family resources to use when first starting, and lacking those resources makes the goal even more difficult. Mike says, “Starting on your own, be prepared to make sacrifices to keep everything going and put as much money into the business as possible. There are a lot of long days and smart decisions to be made along the way. You have to love it, or you won’t be successful.” Being willing to sacrifice, especially initially, is crucial, yet Mike also advises younger producers to be patient, as the equity necessary to grow an operation doesn’t materialize overnight. He explains, “This is a little like growing a tree. It takes time to establish roots, but within five to ten years, that tree has flourished.”