|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."
In his part of Wisconsin, which is less than two hours north of Chicago, available land is scarce and in small chunks. When an 80-acre field goes up for sale, it can easily turn into two 40-acre fields. "You have to be able to adapt to that," Daniels says.
This go-get-it attitude is something he learned early on. "When we were growing up, our parents were firm believers that if you want to do something, do it on your own," he says.
That motto encouraged Daniels to rent his first piece of ground when he was 15 and also motivated him and his brother to purchase a second combine for his family’s operation when Daniels was 18. "What’s the point of buying a kid a new combine? All you’re doing is moving up the size of the toy," he says.
|Michael Daniels (left) works with Tyson Benway, a sales rep for Fertilizer Dealer Supply, to make sure he uses the best products on his custom-farming acres.
Cutting Costs. By knowing the true value and costs associated with farm machinery, Daniels strives to control costs as much as possible. "We use our manpower and employee knowledge to rebuild equipment and fix what we have versus buying new equipment."
Having such a large custom business also helps with machinery costs, as the costs can be spread out over more acres. Additionally, he says, his clients can benefit from the same high level of technology he uses, even if they own a smaller tract of acreage.
As the size of his operation has grown, Daniels’ responsibilities have moved away from most of the production tasks to the business side.
He controls the day-to-day activities, finances, buying and selling and serves as a mentor and team leader.
In addition, he is solely responsible for marketing the operation’s grain. "A few years ago I was listening to a market adviser and got burned," he says. "So I took a completely different approach."
He now takes the total average number of bushels produced by the farm and divides it by three.
He hedges a third of the crop by the time he starts planting, then sells another third on a weekly
basis from planting to harvest.
After harvest, he sells the rest.
"We’ve done quite well with this strategy," he says. "When you take all the emotion out of it, you let the market do its job."
The growth Crane Grain Farms has experienced during the past decade is proof that the operation has the support of local financers.
"Our banker believes in us, which means a lot. They have allowed us room to expand and are always there to answer questions," Daniels says.
Scott Squire, ag relationship manager at Talmer Bank and Trust in Burlington, Wis., has been working with Daniels for 13 years and says he’s proven to be a great investment. "Michael has a good handle on his cost of production for every part of his farming operation," Squire says. "He has a strong will to succeed and do a good job."
Living a Dream. Daniels is quick to say he’s blessed. "I’m 35 years old and I’ve built a successful business."
That level of success can only be achieved by hard work. "My wife says I’m a workaholic," he says. But when you love what you do, he says, it doesn’t feel like work. "Since I can remember, I have always wanted to be part of agriculture," says the man who has a painting of a red tractor he made when he was 5 years old hanging above his office desk.
Chris Gorman, owner of Racine Grain Company in Union Grove, Wis., has been one of Daniels’ mentors for years. "When I first met Mike, it was quite apparent that between his thirst for knowledge and work ethic he would accomplish any and all goals set before him," he says.
Gorman says Daniels’ skills and willingness to take risks has been an asset to all who partake in his services. "To put it simply, I know no other young farmer who has accomplished so much so quickly in such a professional manner."
In the near future, Daniels says, he wants to maintain a good quality of life for his family and employees while growing his land base and diversifying. Ultimately, he wants his operation well-established so that 20 years down the road he can be the tractor driver and his sons the managers. But they won’t get to do that right away. Daniels wants his kids to work off-farm for two to five years before returning to farm.
If they don’t want to return, he’s OK with that too. "If my kids find their passion is for something other than farming, I’ll support them. That’s what life is about, finding your passion."
Crane Grain Farms Snapshot
Family: Michael and Erica Daniels have two boys, Noah, 5, and Jacob, 2. Daniels’ parents, Bob and Susan Crane, and his brother Rob Crane were originally part of the operation. He bought his parents out in 1995 and bought his brother out in 2004.
Business Structure: Daniels is the sole proprietor of the operation in Salem, Wis. In total, he farms 3,000 acres, 40 of which he owns and the remainder rents.
Custom Work Opportunities: A rapidly growing portion of Crane Grain Farms is custom services. It plants 1,800 acres, harvests 2,400 acres and sprays 10,000 acres. Additionally, it trucks commodities, provides forage services and operates a Precision Planting dealership. Daniels says it’s a challenge for young producers to maintain a good debt-to-asset ratio. "This is where the custom work helps out a lot; we have a constant cash flow."
Strength From Others: Crane Grain Farms consists of four full-time and up to 11 seasonal employees, who range in age from 22 to 65. Daniels says the operation receives its strength from his employees. He also credits his success to his many mentors, who include his parents, neighboring businessmen, the local elevator owner, landlords and his banker.