Covered in grime, Jim Schippert methodically drills bolt holes into an air compressor base, while over his shoulder and through open doors, 500 acres of grain on the cusp of harvest beckon for a combine. Surrounded by ordinary fields of corn and soybeans, the farmer crouching on a concrete shop floor and working with the patience of a stone has passed into the realm of the extraordinary. He is 92 years old—a living legend. Young farmer beware: Jim Schippert is still rocking the rows.
In June 2018, when Jimmy Sindelar posted a video of his grandfather, Schippert, the Twitter world went insane. The 13-second clip featured a determined Schippert rising up 7-feet on a self-built elevator to connect with a combine platform. Roughly 1 million impressions and 400,000 views later, the online response was remarkable. Yet, the video was the tiniest of windows into the hidden story of a phenomenal farmer. Simply, Shippert’s life is woven into the fabric of American agriculture.
Stirring up Ghosts
In southcentral Nebraska, just outside the tiny town of Republican City (pop. 150) and seven miles from the Kansas border, Schippert works the ground of his childhood. On an early weekday morning with July heat beginning to build, he rises at 6:30 a.m., drops a doughnut and glass of orange juice in the tank, defies age, and heads for the farm.
Thirty minutes later, Schippert parks a side-by-side along a turn row to check a corn crop and exits onto dirt. Out of the vehicle steps a 6-foot-tall nonagenarian grower sporting a gray moustache and black cane. Once broad-shouldered, time has eroded a powerful build, but dressed in his mainstay farming gear—button-up plaid shirt, Orscheln blue jeans, Velcro loafers, and a navy “Huntley Service” baseball cap—Schippert passes for a man many years his junior.
Green corn in the rear-view mirror, Schippert cuts across his operation and pulls up beside the shop. He slides a captain’s chair across the smooth concrete floor, places his cane against a metal stool, and prepares to map out 92 years with razor-sharp acumen. In a soft voice layered with deep humility, the last of a farming breed begins to stir up ghosts.
“I was born in 1926, right here on this land. We farmed by hand and horse, but hard work was no problem because it was just what everybody did,” he says.
A half-mile stretch of corn handpicked before sunup and the school day was the norm. Schippert walked between two rows and picked every ear, tossing the bounty into a 3-foot wide by 10-foot long horse wagon. A booming yield was 35 bu. per acre, but Schippert recalls 25 bu. averages in his family fields. The strongest hand-pickers collected 100 bu. per day, and when not subject to the schoolhouse, Schippert averaged 80 bu.—40 bu. a day on either side of noon.
Witness to the Dust Bowl decimation of the 1930s, Schippert says the scenes of farmland ruin were even worse than popularly depicted. “There was dust piled over the tops of fences and you couldn’t get a crop to grow. Somehow my family managed to hang on and it turned out to be the right decision. We got our first tractor in 1940; no umbrella, but it was ours.”
Model T and PTO Posthole
Seventy-eight years after the purchase of the new tractor, Schippert is still in the fields, actively farming. Planter, combine, grain cart, pivots, or precision technologies, Schippert’s blade remains sharp. “Grandpa personally farms 500 acres of his own ground,” says Sindelar, 25. “He just keeps a slow, steady pace and gets it done. He probably has better blood pressure than the rest of us.”
Molded by the hardship of youth, Schippert’s farming career was driven by an iron will combined with a relentless innovative streak. Even at 92, Schippert cannot accept failure, period. “I had to learn the value of a never-quit attitude. Maybe it’s because I can’t stand being a loser. It’s inside me and maybe it came from watching my dad.”
“He’s phenomenal,” Sindelar describes. “It’s one successful project after another, one top design after another, and he never, never gives up.”
In the mid-1940s, prior to electricity access, Schippert’s family ran plumbing drainage into a cesspool, and the requisite pits required substantial manpower: Schippert to dig the hole and fill a bucket, and his father, Ike, to hoist out the dirt from above. Schippert detested the system and built a far more efficient method derived from the rear-end of a Model T truck. “I used the power takeoff. I cranked one side and the other would turn like the differential in a vehicle,” he details.
Weeks later, during an afternoon of digging, a local insurance agent walked up on the scene to find Ike in the hole and Schippert manning the digging contraption. “I was on top holding the levers, hoisting dirt and dumping the bucket. The insurance guy asks, ‘Ike, why don’t you make Jim go down in the hole?’ My dad yelled up, ‘Because I can’t figure it out and I don’t know how to run his machine.’”
Several years onward, Schippert grew tired of the incessant repetition of posthole digging, and devised an automated technique. He stripped the gearbox from an old combine and built a PTO-driven posthole digger, charging 10 cents per hole to a line of waiting customers. “It was the first one invented or at least the first I’d ever heard of,” he recalls.
Nestled in the corner of a storage building, the posthole digger still occupies a spot in an endless inventory of old equipment, antiques, cars, tools, and a lifetime of farming paraphernalia. Bottom line: Schippert keeps everything. Everything. “He’s been around 92 years and thrown nothing out, so he’s acquired an unbelievable collection,” Sindelar explains. “But it’s more than possession. Grandpa actually knows each item’s history and where it came from.”
“Maybe I keep everything because we had nothing to build with when I was a kid. I remember trying to build a soapbox car and not having a 2x4,” Schippert says. “I love the challenge of building something useful.”
Elevator to the Top
“Useful,” indeed. In 2017, after a bad knee turned a John Deere 9510 combine ladder into a tough proposition, the Nebraska producer set his mind to the challenge and let the sparks fly. “You have to understand: I needed to pick my corn so this was going to get done.”
Schippert had recently built two shafted elevators in separate utility buildings and believed the concept would work in a combine if he could make the right fit. “I looked on the Internet for something commercial, but everything was too expensive. There was no point in not building my own. It was a fairly easy build, but I knew it would take a few days.”
“Grandpa told me he was going to remove some rails off the side of the combine and I was hesitant, at first, but I got out of the way. At 91, he finished the whole thing in a week, and I still can’t believe how well it works,” Sindelar says.
Beneath the combine platform, Schippert mounted an ATV winch, running it over and under several pulleys. He cut grooves into two pieces of pipe to hold the elevator steady, and mounted them on the side of the combine. Last, he built a riding platform to carry him up or down, operated by remote control. (Schippert has two remotes—one in his pocket and the other hanging in the cab.) Built almost entirely from spare parts in the shop, the elevator expense equaled the cost of a new winch from Harbor Freight.
“At first, it seemed like another day at the office and nothing out of the ordinary. Just one of those ‘Grandpa invented something else,’ days. The reality is he’ll never cease to amaze you. There may be a thousand things on this farm that he’s built.”
Brody Molzahn, 24, grows corn and soybeans outside of nearby Huntley, and is a close friend to Sindelar and Schippert. “At first I didn’t think anything about the combine elevator because it’s so normal for Jim. He’s already built two on his own and this next one didn’t strike me as unusual except it was on a combine. But then when you step back and really realize what he did, it’s so cool and incredible.”
“I never even knew how old Jim was for the first three years I knew him, and assumed he was 20 years younger than he is. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone his age working at this level. He’s probably got four or five projects going in his head right now,” Molzahn adds.
Roughly a year after elevator construction, Sindelar posted a video of his grandfather ascending to the cab. It was a short, in-action clip, meant to offer family and friends a quick look at Schippert’s ingenuity. Sindelar watched in shock as the video shot out of the Twitter gate: 1,200 views climbed to 12,000, and flew past 100,000. “The response came from literally across the world. It was on local news and foreign news, and the numbers kept growing. Grandpa had never even heard of Twitter. It was a phenomenal response and he deserves it. At 92, he’s an amazing man, but he just doesn’t realize it.”
Over 400,000 views and 1 million impressions later, Schippert still can’t believe the attention: “I had no idea anyone would be interested. I’ve always got a project and I’ll never stop.”
“Plans for me yet”
Despite the adulation generated by the video, Sindelar is insistent: Far beyond innovation and farming, his grandfather is a man of integrity and character. “When you meet my grandpa, you know you’re talking to someone special and genuine. He’s a great guy, selfless and always looking out for others. If I can be half the man he is, I’ll be doing well.”
Sindelar, 25, began full-time farming at 18, around the same year Schippert’s wife, Marjorie, began a slow decline, confined to the walls of a nursing home. Sindelar watched as Schippert attended religiously to Marjorie, faithfully visiting the care facility three and four times every day across an arduously painful four-year span. “Grandpa threw farming to the wayside until my grandma passed. I watched him stand by her side until the very end and it was phenomenal. It was the same devoted, never-quit attitude I’d seen from him all my life.”
Faith, family and farming, Schippert is the picture of a contented man. His farming cohorts have passed on, leaving him as the last of the breed and a living vessel of agriculture history. “I had a good life and I’m grateful for everything. Great kids and grandkids—just like Jimmy. It’s hard for words but it’s satisfaction to know I’m where I’m supposed to be, on the same land of my grandparents.”
And what of Schippert’s farming future? Sindelar expects his grandfather to ride the combine elevator for a long while. “I don’t see why he won’t be actively farming five years from now. Like Babe Ruth said, ‘You just can’t beat the person who doesn’t give up.’”
As the weight of forgotten memories takes a toll, Schippert chokes up and his soft voice begins to fail. “I have no complaints, only thanks for what I’ve seen in my life.”
Trying and failing to fight back tears, Schippert closes with poignancy: “When I lost my wife, I became lost myself, but God kept me here and I know he has a reason. It’s the greatest comfort to know God put me here to farm and he has plans for me yet.”
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