|Michael Daniels is the first winner of the Tomorrow’s Top Producer Horizon Award, which recognizes outstanding young producers under 35 who demonstrate excellence in the business of farming. As winner of the SFP-sponsored award, Daniels will attend the Cereals Show in the United Kingdom with the 2012 Top Producer of the Year, Gregg Halverson of Black Gold Farms.
This Wisconsin farmer credits his success to his employees and innovation
If you had to use only one word to describe Michael Daniels, it would be "humble."
He is a mere 35 years old, but has already achieved his dream of owning and operating a family farm in the rolling hills of southeast Wisconsin. There’s no denying that Daniels’ success largely rests on his shoulders, as he’s now the sole proprietor of Crane Grain Farms in Salem, Wis. But if you ask him the secret to his success, he quickly responds, with a genuine smile, "My employees."
Daniels’ 3,000-acre farm operation and custom farming business employs four full-time and up to
11 seasonal individuals, who range in age from 22 to 65.
"On the farm, I never use ‘I,’ I always use ‘we,’" Daniels says. "Being part of a team is not the same as being an employee."
A self-described perfectionist, he says it was difficult to give up control of some decisions, but his capable workforce has made that easier over time. "You can’t get to the size of operation I want to be at without trusting your employees," he says.
Creating a team atmosphere where employees know their role and realize their importance is an ongoing goal for Daniels. He works to keep morale high by providing Crane Grain Farms shirts to wear at work and treating his employees to several fun outings every year, such as bowling, golfing and catching a seed-company-sponsored Milwaukee Brewers game. Daniels also has a yearly steak dinner for employees and their families. During the busy season, his wife, Erica, provides a hot meal for everyone most nights.
This past fall, Daniels’ father-in-law led the effort to build a new office center that includes a lunchroom. Now all employees can dine together, and Daniels and Erica can use it as command central for the operation. Erica works off the farm four days a week in the pharmaceutical industry and one day a week on the farm, where she assists with paperwork, bills and payroll.
The new office center also allows the couple to separate the farm from their family, which includes two energetic boys, Noah, 5, and Jacob, 2.
Family Support. Crane Grain Farms’ name comes from Daniels’ father, Bob Crane. In 1993, the operation included 250 acres and was run by Crane, Daniels and his brother Rob Crane. Daniels attended the University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course for two years and then returned to the farm. In 1998, the brothers took over the operation and began expanding acreage and the custom farming operation.
In 2004, Daniels bought out his brother and continued expanding to the current level, which consists of 40 acres owned and 2,960 acres rented in Wisconsin and Illinois. His custom farming business includes 1,800 acres of planting, 2,400 acres of harvesting and 10,000 acres of spraying each year. Crane Grain also provides trucking services for grain, a Precision Planting dealership, custom forage chopping and baling, and excavating.
Daniels says the custom side of the operation has grown rapidly because he doesn’t say no to potential customers. "If someone wants us to do something, we do it," he says.
After Daniels earns a custom job, he makes sure he’s always available and treats his clients with the utmost respect. "When you’re hired to produce someone’s crop, you want to make sure it’s done correctly," he says. "Besides our employees, our second priority is our clients. We treat their farms as if we owned them and treat them as if they’re family."
- March 2012