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Rice brothers: A Nebraska legacy in the making

Erica Louder for Progressive Forage Published on 31 August 2018

For the Rice family, farming has always been a family affair. With the sixth generation coming back to the farm, there is no denying farming is in their blood. Brothers Scott and Steve Rice operate a production alfalfa farm in Wilsonville, Nebraska, the town where they were born and raised.

While they were born into farming, Scott and Steve have found a way to carve their own path in production agriculture.

Building a farm

Scott and Steve joke that while their dad and uncle ran a feedlot, they didn’t want to be cowboys; they wanted to be farmers. After high school, Scott purchased a combine and began a custom operation. When Steve returned to the farm, he joined Scott’s venture. SR Farms was born. By the mid-1990s, their dad and uncle split the feedlot operation, and Scott and Steve began leasing the original homestead.

Steve says, “In those early years, we really struggled to be farmers. It was our dream, but we grew grain in the wrong couple of years, and we couldn’t really afford to just farm.” Like a lot of new producers, they picked up work in the winters. As a handy mechanic, Scott took a job at a John Deere dealership.

Eventually, both took to the road as truck drivers, something that paid dividends for their business in later years.

By 2000, they saw the value of really focusing on a hay operation and sold off their row crop equipment. When it came to the hay equipment, they started off with the bare basics – a 3X3 baler, 1586 International tractor, one loader and one truck. Laughing, Steve says, “The kind of equipment we could afford was just enough to keep us going.”

Today, the Rice brothers’ operation includes newer equipment and impressively encompasses 1,500 to 1,700 acres of alfalfa. Annually, they rotate in 100 to 200 acres of oats and often pick up additional acreage in the fourth and fifth hay cuttings from neighboring farms.

Their customer base consists of dairy operations, but theses dairies range considerably in location. To date, they have shipped hay to 27 different states all over the country. Alongside their hay operation, they run the trucking end of the business with the moniker Husker Hay Haulers.

Building relationships

In those early days, Scott and Steve spent time on the road delivering their own hay, and this helped them build relationships with their customers. Scott says, “I think some people forget the value of face-to-face relationships. There is no better way to build a relationship and a reputation than kicking the dirt on a customer’s farm.”

This motto has served them well. Steve told of one dairy customer in eastern Tennessee. He says, “This dairy was a small operation that focused on genetics, essentially a seedstock operation. He didn’t do anything fancy for us, but when other dairymen came on his farm to look at cattle, he would mention where his hay came from. We had 12 or 13 different customers come right from his referrals. No doubt, there is value in good relationships.”

While they continue to drive the trucks when needed, they have pushed their marketing into another avenue. That avenue is involvement in their commodity groups – the Nebraska Marketing Alfalfa Association, now called the Independent Forage Growers Association. Scott says, “We have been involved with them since day one – and we didn’t just join, we got involved.” Steve adds, “It was other farmers in the associations that really brought us into the industry.”

On behalf of the association, the Rice brothers travel to trade shows all over the country, always making an effort to be at World Dairy Expo. They are often seen behind a trade show table, swapping industry news and jokes with dairymen and fellow farmers.

Steve and Scott say as the industry has changed, so have their marketing efforts. Scott says, “As freight rates have gone up, our area has shrunk, and it gets harder and harder to find reliable drivers.” He adds, “The dairy industry, too, has changed the way we market. Historically, the small- to medium-sized operation has been our primary customer – with dairies closing and consolidating dairies, the larger commercial dairies are becoming the norm, and the dairy industry in Nebraska is growing. Today, we deliver a lot of hay within 150 miles of home.”

Still, the Rice brothers say they pick up new customers every year. Clearly, they are doing plenty of things right.

Building a legacy

When asked what makes their operation unique, Scott simply replies, “The way our family works together.” He adds, “We have all seen farms broken up by big family fights. That’s just not how I want to work. We may disagree, but we always find a way to work things out. We are really proud to work together.” Steve adds, “The family dynamics allows each of us to really shine. We have learned to do everything, but we settle into the work we are best at.”

That’s something Steve has taught his three sons, Austin, Ryan and Spencer – the sixth-generation farmers finding their way back to the operation. He says, “I have questioned my boys multiple times to make sure they really want to farm. It’s not an easy lifestyle; it takes a love of agriculture and, probably most importantly, a love of work.”

It seems like the family is up for the challenge. Today, Austin, the oldest son, is back on the farm full-time after graduating from the University of Nebraska. And from the looks of it, his two younger brothers plan to follow in his footsteps.

For the Rice family, it’s not just family that encompasses their legacy; it is a community effort. Steve says, “Whenever possible, we try to hire local guys for truck drivers; they just seem to work out better for us. And our one full-time employee is a local guy who started with us when he was just 16. He has definitely worked out.” Scott adds, “When we get busy, it’s not hard to find friends and neighbors ready to jump in and help. It’s just how we like to do business.”

At the end of the day (and often a long day), neither Scott nor Steve would change what they do. They say their least favorite days are the days they are stuck behind a computer – but add, “Even those days aren’t too bad.”

They relish the variety. Steve says, “One day I may be driving a truck across the state, the next morning I may be swathing hay, and that afternoon I may be on the phone with a customer. At the end of it, I am just happy to be working outside with my family and good friends in my hometown.”

The Rice family certainly represents a farm family legacy in the making.  end mark

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho. Email Erica Louder

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