THOMPSON, N.D. — Go ahead, call him “Farmer Nick.” A growing number of his friends and acquaintances do.
Nick Schlief, now 15, farmed 20 acres in Minnesota this past summer with the help of his grandfather, parents and a $5,000 youth loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.
“Some people were already calling me (Farmer Nick). And now even more are,” Nick said with a pleased smile.
Schlief isn’t a typical farm kid. He doesn’t live on a farm. Though he and his family live in rural Thompson, N.D., his parents, Nate and Deb aren’t farmers themselves.
Nick’s interest in farming grew because of the farm simulation game he plays frequently on his computer. And more significantly, his grandpa, Doug Schlief, farms near Glenwood, Minn., about 200 miles from Thompson. Nick had spent time on the farm with his grandpa in the past, and greatly enjoyed it, so Nate and Deb wondered if Nick could somehow take on a bigger role there.
Deb, a Farm Service Agency loan officer in Hillsboro, was familiar with the program and thought it could be a good fit for her son
“He’s shown a lot of interest in agriculture, so it was in the back of my mind that, if he got the opportunity, I’d really like him to be able to utilize this program,” Deb said.
“She told me it would be a good opportunity for me to farm for the first time. And I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And I’m glad I did,” Nick said.
Though Deb helped her son understand the process and details, the loan was handled through the Glenwood FSA office to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.
Doug, 66, was happy to get involved. “Nick was always doing this computer simulator. And I thought, well, let’s get him a real tractor,” Doug said with a smile.
In the fall of 2017, Doug learned that a neighboring farmer was going to give up some land and decided that a portion of it would work well for Nick to farm using Doug’s equipment.
“I was familiar with the land and knew the previous operator had taken good care of it. And the rent was reasonable,” Doug said.
Nate, a home-based territory sales manager for Machinery Pete, a marketplace for buyers and sellers of used farm equipment, was determined to let Nick make his own decisions about the 20-acre field.
“I wanted to help him understand the alternatives and how things work, but not to tell him what to do or not to do,” Nate said.
An example: “The thing I thought I could help him with the most this year is the marketing. It’s what I’ve been learning about,” Nate said. “I get these text updates on my phone about prices. I’m not going to call him and tell him when to sell corn. I’m going to send him a screenshot (of prices) and he can pick and choose what to do.”
Nick’s biggest decision, other than marketing, may have been whether to plant conventional or Round-Up Ready corn seed. With input from his dad and grandpa, as well as his Peterson Farms Seed dealer, JT Nelson Seed, and his local Peterson Farms Seed representative, he evaluated what to plant on his field.
Nick went with conventional seed, which he thought was most likely to give him the best economic return.
On May 5, Doug, Nate and Nick planted the 20 acres of corn.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool. That’s awesome to have three generations in the field at the same time,” Doug said.
Doug, like Nate, was determined to let Nick make his own decisions. “Though it was kinda hard after having been the boss all these years,” Doug said.
The growing season went reasonably well, with no major weather events to hamper the corn. Nick, his parents and his 11-year-brother, Austin, who also enjoys agriculture, made a number of trips to see his crop.
Harvest, celebrity status
Nick wasn’t on hand to help combine his corn field; Doug, with the family’s agreement, harvested it on a day that fit the weather and crop maturity. But Nick did help his grandpa harvest other corn on the farm.
Nick's corn averaged 142 bushels per acre, “about average for that area,” Doug said. “We were hoping for a bit better, but we’ll settle for that.”
Nick’s 2018 farming experience has made him something of a celebrity at Grand Forks Red River High School, where he’s a freshman. Nick often hears questions, sometimes involving ag basics, from fellow students there.
“They ask me things like, ‘What’s a combine?’” Nick says with a huge grin.
Nick requested the full $5,000 FSA loan, but ended up borrowing $3,945 at 2.5 percent interest, paying total interest of less than $50, his parents say.
His check from the elevator for the corn came to $8,200.
“When we got the check, I said, ‘The first thing we do is go to FSA and repay the loan,’” Nate said.
Nick’s profit is going into a college fund, as the family agreed on when he launched his farming project.
Though supportive, Nick’s family is careful not to try to push him into farming.
“We tell him, ‘If, long-range, you don’t want to farm, then don’t. If you want to be a chef or doctor or whatever you decide to be, that’s fine.’ But right now he has an interest in (farming), so we’re supporting it,” Nate said.
Doug, 66, is phasing out of farming, but will happily help Nick again in the 2019 crop season. The tentative plan is for Nick to plant 10 acres of soybeans and 10 acres of wheat.
Doug raises corn, soybeans and a little alfalfa. Though he hasn’t grown wheat in many years, he still has the equipment to do so. The family might use the wheat straw in its straw bale business.
If Nick does farm again in 2019, he’ll apply for a new annual operating loan through the FSA youth loan program, Deb said.
The 2018 farming experience was good for Nick, Deb said.
“He already had a passion for agriculture. But this has taken it to a different level, helping him to realize it’s more than just the tractors and the fields — there are the things in the background that go into making it a successful business,” she said.
She and Nate strongly encourage other young people with an interest in agriculture, as well as their families, to check out the FSA youth loan program. Deb described it as flexible and relatively uncomplicated.
Nick recommends the program, too.
“If you have an opportunity like this, like I did, just do it. It’s a good experience,” he said.
To learn more
If you’re interested in obtaining a U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency youth farm loan, or who know someone age 11 to 21 who might be, here’s the place to start: