Family Focus Drives Century-Old Operation

February 27, 2018 05:28 AM
Gruhlkey brothers

For the Gruhlkey family, farming thousands of irrigated acres in two states and eight counties is the easy part. The hard part is worrying about how to keep doing it so successfully without shorting their families.

There are three brothers: Braden, 30, Brittan, 28, and Cameron, 25. They’ve been partnering in an ever-growing operation since the oldest was in high school. Farming has been their passion since pre-school. The long hours on the farm, even as they worked through college degrees, probably seemed easy. But then came marriage and babies and a competing passion.

Talk to them about the short-term future and they worry about commodity prices, input inflation and staying current with the flood of new production technology. But ask about their long-term challenges, and they fret about how they’ll find time for the kids and how they’ll develop a structure that will keep everybody happy and working toward the same goals.

While not uncommon, these are big worries for the trio of brothers, especially since the oldest of their next generation—the generation they’re thinking about—is just starting T-ball, for goodness’ sake.

Deep Rural Roots. This family focus on the future’s future is what Hank Williams Jr. might call a family tradition.

It goes back more than 100 years. If you’ve ever done the old Route 66 trek through the Texas Panhandle, you might have noticed near Adrian—which bills itself as the historic midpoint of the iconic byway—a “Gruhlkey Road.” That would be the family name, adopted after William Henry Gruhlkey bought a piece of land there in 1916.

Today, the Gruhlkey brothers worry about cheap corn. Their great-granddad faced the prices of the Great Depression and did it from the dustiest middle of the Dust Bowl. And he probably pondered as hard about borrowing a few hundred dollars to buy a new-fangled Hoeme sweep plow as they do penciling out the cost of precision planters and stubborn rental rates.

The decimals come much farther to the right of the dollar signs now, but it’s the same kind of problem. While their great-granddad wondered if that first Hoeme would really stop the blowing dust, his great-grandsons wonder if they can justify, you know, really justify, the expense of bigger and more expensive farming equipment.

Without knowing for sure about their forebear’s bookkeeping, you can bet they’re doing their worrying today with more precision.

Farm Lineage. Here’s how William Henry’s little place stayed in the family so long and continues to grow and prosper. Roger, the boys’ granddad, was raised on the farm. He loved it, but farm boys of that age foresaw limited opportunities. He went to college and took a degree in petroleum engineering and ended up running a successful insurance business in Amarillo, 50 miles to the east. In 1983—as the ’80s farm bust neared its end—he bought a farm near Wildorado.

They lived in Amarillo but Bill, the brothers’ father, spent his summers with his grandparents at the home place in Adrian, helping out and loving it. After college, he spent some time as a high school math teacher. He liked that, too, he says, but he knew he wanted to farm. When his dad was diagnosed with cancer, Bill quit teaching to see to the Wildorado place. By then, he had the three sons and not enough help. So the boys helped—“all three of them in the truck cab with their mother”—Bill recalls. And they must have liked it because none will admit to having ever thought seriously of any other career path.

All three brag on their experience in Vega High School’s stellar ag mechanics program classes and teacher Jay Newton. They made good grades, but they also learned to weld and fix. They wanted to farm.

Successor Trifecta. So there was Bill’s predicament: One farm; three would-be farmers. “I didn’t pressure them either way. I told them if they wanted to do it, they should go for it,” he shares.

So while Braden, the oldest, was still in high school, the three bought their first farm. They borrowed some of their dad’s equipment and started custom farming. When Braden went off to Texas Tech University, 130 miles away, he drove home on the weekends and his brothers saw to the day-to-day responsibilities.

Brittan was right behind, and for a while it was just the youngest, Cameron, at home. Brittan graduated and moved home and then Cameron was off to college.

Gruhlkey Family

Meet the Gruhlkeys: Farming is a family tradition for the Gruhlkeys of Wildorado, Texas. The fifth-generation row-crop operation includes Bill and Timma Gruhlkey, center, and their three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Braden and Lauren, middle, have four children; Brittan and Michelle, left, have two; and Cameron and Kaylee, right, have two.

This kind of farming takes a lot of hours. Most of the land they farm is irrigated, meaning constant attention to pumps and sprinklers. They raise cotton, corn, milo and winter wheat, which is usually grazed in the winter. That means ice-breaking, electric fence and cattle chores.

The brothers stayed busy and did well. Prices were good. Yields were phenomenal. They quickly developed a reputation in the neighborhood as good farmers and responsible stewards. They worked with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to make their irrigation more efficient. The brothers sought expert advice and consultation on crop production and soil management.

To improve operational profitability, they do their own maintenance and work as much as possible.

And Braden says, “we rat-holed money.” Easy enough for young, committed, single men. But maybe, they worry, not as easy for their expanding family tree. The three brothers and their wives have eight children between them—with the oldest being 4. That is a bunch of little Gruhlkeys, tired mamas and daddies who want to be home.

This tug between farming and family, the three brothers separately volunteer, is a whole different challenge than just farming efficiently. And, Bill says, a more serious one. Communication, not just among the brothers, but among all the family members, is the key to keeping “this in the family for another, I hope, hundred years.”

Two crucial facts: The Gruhlkeys are religious. They use prayer as a management device and the Bible as a road map in both life and business decisions. And they are organized, and trying to get more so. Budgets and a business plan help them keep objective road marks.

Defined Roles. The father-and-sons team divide and conquer key jobs for the operation. Braden is the business manager. “He likes to think and study on everything,” says Cameron. Brittan takes the lead on irrigation as well as marketing and risk management. Cameron operates a separate farm at Hartley—a place with more, nearly abundant water and a whole different set of challenges than the water-poor country around Wildorado faces.

Often, the brothers agree. Sometimes not so much. For instance, last year, Cameron fell in love with an opportunity to farm in Arizona. It’s irrigated, and they know irrigation, and it’s useful for the same crops they know. “I was like, ‘Let’s do it,’” Cameron says. His brothers had concerns. It was a big place in Arizona. And it was blessed with an over-abundance of curious soil types that, Braden says, are proving hard to manage. By the time the planter senses a soil type or yield history, it’s already on something different.

“We’ll get it worked out,” Cameron says. “We’ll work it out,” echoes Braden, though, perhaps, with a bit more furrow to his brow. But the fact remains Cameron pushed it. How they approach success or failure will be important.

“We all mess something up sometimes,” Braden says. “But as long as we know he was doing his best, it’s OK.”

Bill, later, was glad to hear Braden said that. There, he says, is the key to the future: communication. And understanding. And, when necessary, forgiving. Not just among the brothers, but among the wives and kids—the whole family unit.

Sage Advice. These days, Bill’s guidance centers on those families. Braden’s son Easton started T-ball this year. Bill and his wife, Timma, were dutiful about attending sports and school events with their sons, and they hope the sons will keep that tradition. Anybody who knows how busy school kids are these days can foresee challenges.

Bill worries about the impact of farmer-hours on families. “I tell them to go home,” he says. “It will still be here tomorrow.” The family is trying to hire more people, although that isn’t easy in their part of the world, where farm labor competes with dairies, feedlots, wind farms and oil fields. They have four full-time employees at the 8,000-acre Wildorado-area operation.

Labor management, tough grain prices and choosing which new technologies they really must have will be challenges the brothers face for the rest of their lives. Brittan will make wrong decisions on marketing and risk management. That’s a given. Cameron’s enthusiasm might lead them somewhere they’ll wish they hadn’t gone. Braden’s caution might grate from time to time.

But for Bill and Timma’s dream to remain true in the year 2118, they’ll need to power through all that. They’ll need that business plan their dad talks about. They’ll need to follow their budgets. But everybody needs that stuff. The Gruhlkeys will need more. They’ll need patience and brotherly love. But that’s the family tradition. It’s what they’ll need most. And they know it.

Dissolve Family Disagreements

Family businesses, like all businesses, will encounter conflict. The leaders at Gruhlkey Family Farms, in the Texas Panhandle, focus on clearly communicating and showing support to reduce disputes. They have also learned how to resolve and move on from conflict. That’s vital for a harmonious family business, says Lance Woodbury, a farm management consultant in Garden City, Kan.

“You can’t remove all conflict from a family business,” he says. “The key is to engage in conflict sooner rather than later.” This includes admitting the discord exists and having constructive discussions to manage the issue. ~Sarah Schafer

During these meetings, Woodbury suggests everyone follow these ground rules:

  • Be willing to listen and be open-minded.
  • Don’t interrupt, dominate or be combative during the meetings. Encourage others to share and participate.
  • Don’t interrupt others.
  • Assume the best, and give others the benefit of the doubt.
  • Show respect to everyone.
  • Be on time and turn off your phone for the meeting.
  • Share your view at the meeting, not later when the group cannot all hear it.
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