The next generation
Jacquelyne Leffler wasn’t always planning to be a farmer. A star athlete in track and field, the Kansan had originally set her sights on a career that would build on her passion for sports.
Trained as a college athlete throughout high school, the gifted competitor won eight Kansas State High School Association Championships in throwing events and set numerous records in shot put, discus, and javelin. Heavily recruited by Division I schools, Jacquelyne accepted a full-ride scholarship to Kansas State University, where she pursued degrees in kinesiology and family studies and human services.
“As a kid, I saw how hard my family worked on the farm,” she recalls. “When I went off to college, I really didn’t want anything to do with agriculture.”
Graduating in the spring of 2013, Jacquelyne found herself back on the farm while she searched for a job. That summer, she began working full time on the farm, helping wherever necessary.
“Basically, I was my Grandpa Wayne’s gopher, and I learned a lot from him. It was great to have three generations on the farm at one time,” she says, adding that she had also accepted a coaching position at Emporia State University.
Two years in, the long hours that both jobs demanded, coupled with the low pay, made her realize a change was needed. “Anyone who knows me would never have guessed anything would top track and field, but the farm won out,” Jacquelyne says.
The farm for the win
As the fourth generation to return to the family operation, Jacquelyne works alongside her dad, Bill, raising corn, soybeans, wheat, and cattle.
Although her grandpa and mom, Cindy, loved the idea of Jacquelyne becoming a part of the business, her dad was hesitant at first. “With rising input costs and low commodity prices, I was concerned whether another generation could make it in ag,” Bill admits.
The Leffler family, which also includes daughter Natalie who teaches full time, spent a great deal of time talking through topics like finances, housing, roles, and responsibilities. “What’s fair is not always equal, and what’s equal is not always fair,” Jacquelyne says, noting that those discussions were critical so everyone’s voice could be heard.
“At the end of the day, we must realize we are not transitioning the day-to-day operations. We are transitioning the assets of the legacy for future generations,” says Duane Hund, a farm analyst with Kansas State University Extension.
As the Lefflers formulated a plan, having an open line of communication as well as being transparent were key. Identifying strengths, as well as weaknesses, is also important, according to Transition Planning: 12 Steps to Keep the Family Farming. Developed by Kansas State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, the document notes, “People must be in positions in which they can thrive and contribute to the operation’s success.”
While Bill concentrates on the nuts and bolts of the operation, he admits keeping up on technology is tough. Since it’s an area where a millennial shines, Jacquelyne oversees the farm’s technology and data.
Letting go of the reins can also be difficult. Because Jacquelyne is still learning, her father carries about 80% of the weight when it comes to decisions. “However, he always makes sure my opinion is heard and that I know it is valued,” she says. “To me, that’s everything.”
That reliance carries over to the people they do business with. “Whether it’s a mechanic, feed supplier, or seed salesman, they can talk to either one of us,” Bill says.
Wisely training a successor, Hund says, is one of the biggest challenges the retiring generation encounters. “Not only do you protect yourself so you can have a well-earned retirement, you also enhance the continuation of the family legacy.”
Safeguarding that heritage also means putting the transition plan in writing, which Hund recommends doing no later than a year after it has been agreed to.
“You have to keep revisiting it every year or so, because things change. It’s never a final plan,” Bill says, stressing the importance of designating a family spokesperson, so there is a unified voice. “You are all coming together and having a discussion, but someone has to make the final decision on which way to go.”
As the Lefflers’ transfer strategy continues to evolve, the younger generation also brings a fresh perspective on future opportunities.
“We are so used to planting corn, wheat, and soybeans, as well as running cattle,” Bill says. “Because Jacquelyne has gotten into selling beef, our farm may look completely different a decade from now.”
Launched in 2015, Leffler Prime Performance is a value-added business that combines Jacquelyne’s love of livestock and sports. Prime represents the custom beef for butcher she sells directly to consumers. Performance stands for the private coaching sessions she offers athletes.
When COVID-19 began making headlines earlier this year, both sides of her business were impacted. As coaching sessions decreased, consumer concern over food shortages at grocery stores increased demand for beef.
“Typically, I’ll sell about 20 head a year,” Jacquelyne says. “By the end of December 2020, I’ll have put 170 cattle through Allen Meat Processing. I’m seeing repeat customers, which is encouraging, and I already have about 15 orders for 2021.”
She credits Shop Kansas Farms, a Facebook group that connects consumers to farmers in the state, for the bump in sales.
“Having a social media presence and being engaged with followers is especially important for farms that are direct marketing because consumers want local food and to support local businesses,” says Sarah Conelisse, senior Extension associate, Penn State University. “Social media is today’s version of word of mouth.”
Because many customers were first-time buyers, the encounters also opened Jacquelyne’s eyes to how little consumers know about buying beef directly from a farmer, noting that along with a sale came a lot of education.
“The idea of having a freezer full of meat and thawing it one piece at a time was a new concept for a lot of them,” she says, adding that a link on her website answers myriad questions first-time buyers may have.
As the next generation to grow our food, Jacquelyne is an important source of education. “How can a consumer understand what we do if I’m not sharing our story of what we grow and how we grow it? I tell everyone I sell a Whole Foods product at a Walmart price. I’m just trying to put out a really good product at a price people can afford.”