"That's what I wanted to be, a farmer or a trucker, just like my dad."
Photos by Travis Dewitz
Mat | Curtiss, WI
“My parents lived in the Chicago area. They had always been more or less city people...until they found an ad in the classifieds. It was the 1970s, and the ad was for something called a city/country exchange. My parents thought it sounded interesting. They spent a week in the country with a family and then the family spent a week in the city with them. It was after that experience that my father said, ‘This is what I want to do. Let’s move to the country!’
Dad was a truck driver at the time. He had a lot to learn about farming. He went out to Kansas to a cattleman's school and my mother started taking business classes in the evenings. Then, they started looking for farms in Wisconsin.
They couldn't afford a farm in the southern part of the state close to their family, so they started looking up in Clark County and Marathon County. All the neighbors thought they were going to fail as new farmers, but they succeeded. They made it through some tough years.
I really loved the farm as a kid. I remember I wore out a lot of knees on my jeans, playing with my toy tractors and trucks. So growing up, that's what I wanted to be—a farmer or a trucker, just like my dad.
As soon as I could, I was feeding calves, then feeding cows. When I was 11, I started baling hay. My father also trusted me to spread manure on my own; it didn't really take a lot of skill. But that graduated into doing fieldwork.
Growing up, farming taught me the value of how to go out and work. We worked every day and on the weekends, too. We only went on two family vacations the whole time I was growing up.
I remember one time, I had a choice of going to the seventh-grade dance or going to a tractor auction in Minnesota. I picked the auction. My dad and I went together and got a fairly new John Deere. You couldn't get me out of that thing. It had a heater and a radio, lights all over. On many nights, I would be out in the fields, tractor lights on, harvesting hay and filling up wagons. My Dad had to come and holler at me, ‘Okay, we gotta shut down!’ ‘No, I gotta keep going,’ I’d holler back at him.
In high school, I would wait every week for the new Ag Review or the new Wisconsin State Farmer and page through with the classifieds. I'd find a piece of equipment for sale. I'd think about how I could get some cash flowing if I bought a combine and I became a custom operator. I'd do the same thing if I saw a truck that was for sale, just start playing with the numbers and show them to my parents.
Eventually, the scales started to tip a bit more toward trucking. Our neighbor had four operating dairy farms, but he also had trucks and needed some help. So that's where I first learned to 'drive truck' over land. That was the beginning of trucking for me.”
“Right after high school I started as an apprentice mechanic at a large trucking company out of Marshall, Wisconsin. Around that same time, my Dad approached me and asked if I had any intentions of taking over the farm.
I was young and dreamed about seeing the rest of the country. I remembered all of those years growing up and not being able to take vacations. I said, ‘No. Sell those cows. I don't want to milk cows.’ At that time I saw the farm as something that was gonna hold me back.
So, my parents dismantled the dairy operation on the farm. It was a 100 percent registered herd of Holsteins. The herd was sold off and moved to different state. Now, it hurts my heart that those cows left Wisconsin. None of us, especially me, saw the operation for the jewel that it was at the time.
Meanwhile, our neighbor was starting to buy more trucks and was just getting into the business of ‘over-the-road,’ or long distance, trucking. I drove for him for a couple of years, but I always knew I didn’t want to work for somebody else. I started thinking maybe I should set out on my own, buy my own truck.
At this point, I was 24 and married with kids. My wife, Terese, absolutely hated the idea of me trucking, of being gone from our family, and definitely didn't like the idea of going into debt for a truck.
But eventually, it seemed like our best choice to make a living. We paid $15,500 for my first truck. For the first two months, I was just running loads, working for my neighbor, but I had to follow their schedule.
One day I was on my way home when Terese calls and says,’ I'm taking over dispatching you.’ I said, ‘What? What do you mean? Why?’ She says, ‘I leased a step deck (trailer). Go return all your equipment to Henry and go hook on that trailer. I got you booked.’ I'll never forget that first load Terese booked for me. lt was a load out of Osceola, Wisconsin, and went all the to the east coast.
Even though she disagreed with me getting into trucking, she booked my first independent job for me. It's pretty awesome that she had my back like that. That’s how the business got started.
A little later on a local guy, an owner and operator, approached us about subleasing his truck to us so we could put our name on the side. We'd dispatch him, take a percentage. That turned into a couple of guys like that, which turned into getting another truck of our own. From there, we just kinda kept on building up.
But it was hard. I missed birthdays, sporting events, anniversaries. It was lonely a lot of the time. There are things I love about trucking. I've seen all the lower 48 states and Alaska. I've seen Canada. I know my way around the country. I can leave California on Monday and be home on Wednesday for supper. My kids have seen the country, too.
At the end of the day, the trucking industry has built a home for us. It has fed our family. No matter where I travel, I'm always proud to be from here. I’m proud of Wisconsin. Proud of to be part of it. Anywhere I go, I'm a farm boy from Wisconsin.”
“Things were going well. In fact, we'd grown our trucking business enough to where I wasn’t even driving the truck anymore. That was the dream. I was home, able to see my family and full-time dispatching from our kitchen table.
We were growing so much, I needed more room. Room for more trucks, space for an office. As we were thinking about that, my mom offered for us to move the business out to our family farm. So we set up shop.
The window from the new office looks out at the old barn. I would often find myself just staring at the barn. I hated to just see it sitting empty. We used to talk about repurposing it different ways, you know, maybe converting it into a shop or something. But I didn’t have much time to think about it back then, because 2008 hit.
The inflation, at first, was hard. But, it wasn't only the inflation. Remember gas prices went up so high? So did diesel. It was costing us $1,000 to $1,100 to fill up those trucks. You fill up once every day, or day and a half. You can fathom the cash flow on just that alone. But that's only one of your many outputs. Even the tires were more expensive to replace because they are made of petroleum. What hurt us was when freight rates dropped substantially, like 50 percent. Overnight.
We had expanded, over-expanded, and it was tough to dig ourselves out. We had gone from one truck to six trucks, and then the recession sent us back down to two. We were doing loads out of the west, coming back here for pennies on the dollar just to make payroll, and we couldn't keep on doing that. I had to jump back in and drive truck again.
When it got really bad, there was just two of us driving truck, me and Bruce. Then one of the two trucks broke down and we couldn't afford to fix it. For a little while we shared the truck; I'd run one week and then Bruce would run it for one week. And then Terese kinda put her foot down. She said, 'If our family is gonna survive this, we're gonna have to lay off Bruce.'
I knew she was right and I hated to do it, but I did. Bruce was a trooper, he stuck it out to the end. When we started growing again, he was the first guy we hired back. There were no hard feelings. He understood we had to do it to survive.
It was really, really tough stuff to get everything dug out and paid off. I was worn out. I felt like I could no longer take the stress of running my own business. I eventually sold my truck, I sold my trailer. I said, ‘I'm never driving a truck again.’ I was off the road, officially.
I took a job with a local company. It was supposed to be a management job—no driving, just managing and teaching new guys how to do trucking. But then it was, ‘Hey, can you run a load to Milwaukee for us, quick?’ Sure. Then it was, ‘Can you run a load to Nebraska?’ ‘Can you run a load to Texas?’ I said no. And when I said no, they couldn’t give me as many hours as I needed on the management side. I needed more money to survive and I didn’t want to drive truck for someone else. So I started thinking about getting my own truck again.”
“In 2010, prices starting coming back down, and business started coming back up. I bought a truck again, but with a different mindset this time. The idea was to just truck for a little while…to run as hard as I could, to make as much money as I could, as fast as I could. I had to build back our savings.
We hired Bruce back first thing. My cousin joined up. Then we hired another guy, and then we hired another guy, and I kept on hiring guys. My idea to do it short-term blossomed back into a full-blown business again.
The great thing is, now I have more support. My whole family is involved these days. My mom does all the permitting, and my sons work for us now. Nolan, our oldest son, started helping out when he was in high school. I had to fire him twice ‘cause his heart just wasn’t in it.
But he started college last year and he wrote me a letter in November, saying that he really wanted to be a major part of the business. We sat down, had some conversations, talked about it. I said, 'I really want you to get through school first. I'll let you start learning a bit more and filling in and we’ll see.'
Then in February, we had a driver fall off the trailer and break a shoulder in Oregon. We flew that guy home, and I flew up there to recover the truck. Nolan had to run our office all on his own, and he really stepped up. The owner-operator guys were even calling me and saying, ‘He's doing a good job!’ One of them said, ‘No offense, but I'd just rather have Nolan book my loads for me.’
Now Nolan’s still in school, doing well in all his classes, and does most of the dispatching. He's got a business sense. He's smart with numbers. He can do cost analysis, and he's a very good negotiator. He is 19 and while most of his friends are thinking about buying snowmobiles, he just made an offer on a house, and it was accepted!
Our youngest son, Anthony, does all of our IT. If there's a problem, we call Anthony. He's in eighth grade. Anthony set up IP phones for us, a skill he learned from watching YouTube videos! He wants to build our website next. He thinks it’s something he might want to do more of as he gets older, stay around the farm and do it. As a parent, I feel proud.
I'm a little bit older and wiser, got different ideas now on how to make things work. I actually haven't dispatched a truck since February. I've assisted. I've booked some loads. But Nolan does a fine job with that, so it’s really freed up my time to think about what I want to do next.
I'm feeling this calling to get back to our family land. When I drive through the countryside and see empty dairy farms, silos or barns that fell down, it just kinda makes my heart hurt. I think about the families that built these barns by hand. My family’s barn will be the next thing that falls down. I don’t want to see that happen. I want to preserve this property and see it working as a family farm again.”
“I spent a lot of my life being out on the road, and I just don't want to be gone anymore. Now I want to preserve my family’s property for what it is, a working family farm.
Back when I was a kid, I was always playing with tractors and trucks. I knew I wanted to be a trucker or a farmer. It’s finally time for me to get out of the truck and follow my other dream, being a family farmer.
I might have thought about dairy, but with situations like contracts disappearing for small family-owned dairy farms for the first time in probably 100 years, a young person cannot become a dairy farmer anymore. Because, how can you, if you don't have a market? That's a scary thing. We're the dairy state, and you can't become a dairy farmer unless you buy an existing farm.
There was a long-term lease on our land that was up last year. We’re getting started slowly on some small-scale farming right now. We actually plowed up all the pastures a couple of years ago. We've been just kind of dabbling in small cash crops like corn. We don't make any money off of our farm as it is now, but I’m learning and preparing for our next steps.
I think that it would be easy for me to go buy a new corn planter, buy a new combine and join the group of everybody else that's, you know, farming conventionally. But, I think that if I went the more organic direction, it’s just a better market in the long run. It's a smarter way for us to go.
A big thing I'm noticing is more and more erosion in the area, and I don't like that. You know, the whole world survives on six inches of topsoil, you can't let it blow away. To me, organic farming treats the land better. It just feels more aligned with what I want for our farm.
We're slowly doing it. We bought a couple of pieces of farm equipment. Then we formed an LLC. Starting next year we have to plant 100 percent organic and we have to fertilize 100 percent organic. Even though we're planting that way, we will still have to sell in a conventional market for three seasons.
Eventually, maybe the kids will want to take over the farming. I got four of them, there’s a chance. I just don't want to see our farm go by the wayside, because if somebody doesn't do something, it will. I want to see it taken care of for generations. It's very close to my heart.”
-Mat | Curtiss, WI