Leisa Boley Hellwarth grew up on a farrow-to-finish hog farm near Celina, Ohio. Although her dad worked a job in town, his passion was taking care of the 30 hogs the family raised every year. Because of poor market conditions, her father eventually gave up hog raising, but Leisa held on to her determination to one day be a farmer.
After earning an agriculture degree from the Ohio State University, Leisa moved to Austin, Texas, to take a job with the Texas Department of Agriculture. After three years, she became the first woman in the state of Texas to be hired onto the state legislature’s budget board. Leisa said she enjoyed her time in Texas, however she did get tired of working for government and longed to be self-employed, so she decided to go back to OSU become a lawyer.
Leisa became an attorney in 1994 and married her husband, Kent, in 2000. The couple currently own and operate a conventional dairy near Celina, Ohio.
So what was your exposure to organic agriculture while you were in Texas?
“Well, I worked in Texas during the 1980s farm crisis, so we could very easily see that normal conventional crops were not making a profit at all. My boss, Jim Hightower, was very interested not so much in organics, specifically, but more sustainable agriculture in general. Although soil quality in the Upper Texas Panhandle was superb, to grow crops there you need irrigation—and water sources were running low. There was also a very high dependence on chemicals just to get any crops to grow.
“While the farmers themselves were not necessarily interested in organic farming, there was a huge interest in organic foods in the cities. Stores like Whole Foods took off in Texas long before anyone in Ohio ever even heard of organic.”
So what about the future of organics?
“For one, Organic Valley is a great co-op because of the bottom-to-top leadership style. Most large ag corporations only care about the big guy making the profit and couldn’t care less about the farmer.
“I think what will make organics stay popular in the stores is the ability to think outside of the box. The organic industry is always very innovative, and that is a huge advantage in the marketplace.
“Sustainable agriculture is going to be needed anyway. For instance, even though we are conventional, my husband and I still avoid using antibiotics and instead focus more on preventing the illness in the first place. We also use crop rotations with plenty of cover crops to promote soil health and longevity.
“So the organic guys have an advantage in the fact that you are already starting the steps toward sustainability.”
What’s some advice that you would give to young people aspiring to be farmers?
“You always have to be in touch with reality, so decide what you want to do and work with the real world to make it happen. Just because your neighbors are building big new barns and buying fancy equipment doesn’t mean that you have to, too.
“That’s another thing I love about the organic community—they always seem to support one each other instead of always being cutthroat competitors.
“I honestly believe that anyone can farm if they can find out a way to do it. The beauty of this age is the amount of information available at your fingertips. One person with a good internet connection can almost get a college education just sitting in their house. So go online and do your research. Just the other day I saw a video about a dairy in Ireland that was using robots with a grazing system, and that was awesome! So go online, see how people in New Zealand, Ireland and other countries find ways to make a living farming.”
Now for the ugly—what would you suggest for starting to transition the farm from one generation to the next?
“First of all, never ever sign a loan with a cognovit clause which authorizes automatic passing of an adverse judgment in case of a breach of contract or default. A cognovit clause gives the bank the right to take everything of yours if you even miss one payment. The bank doesn’t have to go to court or anything; they can just walk up and take it.
“You need to have a fully legal paper trail documenting everything so that there is no disagreement between family members. A farm succession plan could wind up being as simple as a percentage accounting of the milk check every month, or even that you own land, equipment, livestock, etc., that your parents rent from you.
“Make sure that your relation with the farm owner/parent is more than that of just a farmer and a hired hand.”
So what would you say to young farmers who are already off on their own?
“Stay positive! If you listen to the ‘Negative Nancys’ on the news and internet every day you are not going to make it very far. The future is very bright for organics and niche markets alike. You have to be realistic in your goals, and you have to have the understanding that dreams don’t always come true like you want them to.
“Have a good insurance policy and plenty of crisis planning. In my years as lawyer, it always seemed like the people who had a plan never had a major disaster on the farm. But you still need to have a rainy day account and plans that can be executed in case of a major injury or disaster.
“It may not be completely necessary, but it is still very smart to have some kind of retirement investment account. Whether that would be investing in stocks and bonds or real estate, make sure you have money invested in things outside of agriculture so that your income is not dependent on one source.”
“Nobody is an expert on everything, so always have a good relationship with your vets, nutritionists and accountants. I’m not saying that you need a team meeting every month, but keep in contact with these people and do not be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions. I’ve worked too many cases where a farm that was filing for bankruptcy could have easily avoided the situation if the farmer had simply been more willing to work with their accountant.”