“An early decision me and Brenda had to make was we were never going to let Rolan’s cancer control our lives. That's carried forward anytime we see somebody oppressed or something like that. That's why we're not afraid to throw ourselves out there and help people.”
— Loran Steinlage, 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow, West Union, Iowa
Key to the farming philosophy of West Union, Iowa, no-tiller and 2023 No-Till Farmer Operator Fellow Loran Steinlage is serving as a networker and bringing people together for the benefit of the community.
In early February, No-Till Farmer managing editor Michaela Paukner visited Steinlage at his farm and met a host of his special guests at his house that day, including No-Till Legend Dave Brandt, who will be a guest on an upcoming podcast.
In this episode of the podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, hear from Loran Steinlage and Rolan, his son, about the crisis that became a pivotal day in Loran’s career and the reason why connection and mentorship are so important to his operation.
No-Till Farmer's podcast series is brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment.
Yetter Farm Equipment has been providing farmers with residue management, fertilizer placement, and seedbed preparation solutions since 1930. Today, Yetter equipment is your answer for success in the face of ever-changing production agriculture challenges. Yetter offers a full lineup of planter attachments designed to perform in varying planting conditions, multiple options for precision fertilizer placement, strip-till units, and stalk rollers for your combine. Yetter products maximize your inputs, save you time, and deliver return on your investment. Visit them at yetterco.com.
Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment. I'm Michaela Paukner, managing editor at No-Till Farmer. This episode of the podcast is the first in a series you'll hear throughout the year, featuring Loran Steinlage, a West Union, Iowa, No-Tiller, and No-Till Farmer's 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow. I'm going to be following Loran throughout the year, illustrating the realtime decision making needed to make no-till and conservation practices work in real world conditions. I visited Loran's farm in early February and quickly saw one of the keys to his farming philosophy, serving as a networker and bringing people together for the benefit of the community. He had a host of special guests at his house that day, including Dave Brandt, who you'll hear from in the coming weeks. But first, you're going to hear from Rolan, Loran's son, about a crisis that became a pivotal day in Loran's career.Rolan Steinlage:
Hello, I'm Rolan Steinlage. I live in Waterloo, Iowa, at a brain injury rehab center, because I had brain cancer when I was 12 years old.Loran Steinlage:
What's your biggest accomplishment?Rolan Steinlage:
My biggest accomplishment would be beating cancer, would be a big accomplishment because I wasn't supposed to make it. Well, 2008 was the start of everything because I started having eye troubles where my eyes were starting to wander, go crazy. So we went to the eye doctor in Iowa City and they thought it was a loose muscle. They just did the facial CT and thought it was a loose muscle or something. So they went in September and did surgery. Thought they had it all fixed. But by November, it had already started doing it again. The same thing. January 7th comes around when we go back to school. I woke up with a severe headache that morning and I decided to take some Tylenol and just try going to school. Well, I was back from school by 9:30 that morning because of my headache.
And well, this guy was talking to my dad that day, and Dad was just telling him that I was home and I had a headache. And this guy was talking to Dad and he's like, "I have a question for Rolan. And he comes in and asks me a question. And he's like, "Is your headache pushing in or out?" And I'm like, "Well, it feels like it's going to explode." I handed the phone back to Dad and he's like, something like, "Get your son to the nearest biggest hospital [inaudible 00:02:27]. There's something wrong." And so I still call this guy to this day my guardian angel. He is the one that saved my life. Because I was within hours of dying.Loran Steinlage:
If we wouldn't have been where we were at the hospital at that time, he wouldn't have made it.Rolan Steinlage:
Because when we made it down there, we didn't even go to the ER or anything. We made it down there, and what normally takes us about an hour and a half, two hours, we made it down there in, what? An hour and 10 minutes?Loran Steinlage:
We set some speed records out there.Michaela Paukner:
Oh my gosh. But necessary, in this case.Rolan Steinlage:
Yeah. And I got across the skywalk. We parked in a parking ramp, and walked across the skywalk. And my body... All the crackers and Gatorade-Michaela Paukner:
He was convulsing.Rolan Steinlage:
Convulsing, and my body started to shut down, and my body was throwing everything up.Michaela Paukner:
Oh my gosh.Rolan Steinlage:
And the guy, the maintenance guy there, he was working on something with his little electric golf cart that runs through the hospital and stuff. And he dumps all his tools off. He gets me on that thing and rushes me into emergency surgery because that was pretty much... I mean, it took them... My veins were starting to collapse and all that. And the neonatal intensive flight nurse, emergency flight nurses, it took them three hours to stick an IV in my vein.Michaela Paukner:
Oh my gosh.Rolan Steinlage:
And during that, the whole time, I was confirmed in my church that the whole year leading up to this. And I told them the Lord's Prayer. I said Jesus was going to bring me through it, no matter what. They were telling me I had a 20% chance to make through it, make it through this surgery. And I'm like, "Well, that just gives Jesus an 80% chance to show his miracles." My faith is what got me through it. And I'm thankful for it every day. But going into surgery, they didn't know if I'd wake up. But I woke up saying, "I like chicken."Loran Steinlage:
That's fact.Rolan Steinlage:
And then it's like they went in and flipped the switch in there from my mom's personality to my dad's personality, because I used to be more reserved and shy, timid. Hard to believe, I know. But then I went into telling jokes. And someone had sent the game Operation down. And so I had that sitting in my window saying, "Taking applications for the doctors," that had played it with me before they could talk... Or come in with a joke. And that's still, to this day, they still use that because I was in PICU. This was in PICU. And I was the life of the party up there. Let me tell you. There was never a dull moment in the hospital, that's for sure. Never cried the whole year of 2009. I guarantee there was not one tear shed because I lived my life to the fullest and I did not let this sickness hold me back.
It's still hard to believe I made it through that without crying or even any negative thought about it. And today I fight depression and anxiety and I don't know how I did it back then. But I wish I still had some of that in me. I think I do. It's just, I got to find it deep within myself to motivate myself every day. So every day's been a struggle ever since, pretty much. And I've gotten to go on a Make-A-Wish to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr. I got into tours of John Deere before I was of age. And when we got down there, the head of each department had a gift for me and we had to have people help us haul it all home.Michaela Paukner:
Oh my gosh.Rolan Steinlage:
And then the head forklift driver during the tour and stuff, he was like, "Sorry I didn't make it to the meeting." He pulled us to the side and he's like, "Sorry, I did not make it to the meeting this morning. But here's my personal company credit card. Go to the gift shop and buy whatever the heck you want." So I'm like, "Okay." I didn't spend a lot.Loran Steinlage:
You were pretty reserved on it.Rolan Steinlage:
Yeah, pretty... I bought a-Loran Steinlage:
He bought a tractor, but-Rolan Steinlage:
I should have.Michaela Paukner:
That's why you needed someone to haul it back for you.Rolan Steinlage:
You got the tractor.Loran Steinlage:
Just one of the many times you've seen the good in people. Make somebody's day is what we're after. And it's what Dave did yesterday. We make people's days.Dave Brandt:
What did you do yesterday?Loran Steinlage:
Oh, we surprised Rolan. We went and picked him up-Rolan Steinlage:
Scared the shit out of me.Loran Steinlage:
And his aide there at the facility there... I was signing him out and the one asked me something and I was like, "Yes, it's the guy in the meme."Rolan Steinlage:
Because there's a meme about Dave.Michaela Paukner:
You've seen it?Michaela Paukner:
Yeah. I have.Rolan Steinlage:
It ain't much, but it's honest work.Michaela Paukner:
Next thing you know, we're having pictures with all the staff there.Michaela Paukner:
Because they couldn't believe it was the guy and it's like, "Yes, it's the guy."Rolan Steinlage:
"It's the legend."Loran Steinlage:
And I tell you what... So Dad was part of Ag Talk. 90% of my support was through them.Michaela Paukner:
When we first started going around talking, a little know in fact is, anytime I had the chance, I would pay attention to people that donated to his fundraiser that time. I would make sure I had time to go thank people. A lot of the early interviews I did, if somebody wanted to do an article on us, I would make them agree to do an article on special needs situation, or the kid's deals and stuff like that. They would have to give some press time to that before we'd do an interview on that.
I'm thinking about bringing that back. It's a big part of our story. Early decisions me and Brenda had to make through that whole deal was, we were never going to let his cancer control our lives. That's carried forward. Anytime we see somebody oppressed or something like that, that's why we're not afraid to throw ourselves out there and help people.
And we know what it's like to be that way. We've seen so many families tore apart, and he told you a little about the kids in the ward. There's a lot of times people at home would feel sorry for us. And it's like, "No, you got to go see the kids down the hall." Probably one I'll never forget, there was a young kid there. His mother was going to donate something. She was going to have the surgery and then he was going to be the benefactor of it and receive it. But that kid's there in the hospital by himself. Next thing you know, we got him in the room playing Wii. We had all the nurses in the room playing Wii, and all that. You've seen the impact you can have by just helping people through tough situations and taking their mind off stuff.
The whole journey has been... I mean, it's made us who we are today. And full circle, last... Not this January, but the year before, when we were at the No-Till conference, I was asked, would I fill in with somebody in Ukraine? We didn't even hesitate. If I can go help them, I'll be there. Any place. It's not a death wish or anything, but when you see the impact you can have helping people learn, and I won't say sharing knowledge, because I don't feel like I'm as smart as some people think I am. But the ability to help somebody learn from themselves is probably the biggest attribute I offer, I guess. Paying attention to detail, helping people make the right connections, versus... Right now I see so many people, "Ooh, the shiny bell's over here. We got to go that way. We got to go this way." No, just stay down the path that you believe in.
I mean, that's how Dave got... and I can only imagine the years... The criticism and stuff like that. Because I know the ridicule and the weird looks and all that that we've experienced over the years, to now, to be in the position where we're comfortable where we're at.Rolan Steinlage:
Through his whole deal, we learned money's not the solution. But if you can-Rolan Steinlage:
Money can't buy happiness.Loran Steinlage:
Well, but if you can sit down and figure out how to make something work, it's that personal satisfaction of making things work. And we've had to do things I've never fathomed over my life. I really hope we never see anybody else do that, have to do what we've done. But the meeting we were just in the last two days. When you see everything we've been working for coming together before your eyes, if we can just keep everybody's head on straight. And you also get to the point where you realize egos have done a lot more damage than they've ever done good. That's one of the proudest things... I think it was... What year did you get the No-Till Innovator Award, Dave? '16?Dave Brandt:
2016 was the first time I was nominated for the No-Till Innovator Award. At that point, I had never had time to go to the conference because of his whole story. Everybody asked me how I got to where we were at today and it's just like, we were focused on survival and doing what we thought was right. Then all of a sudden your peers nominate you for that award. I hadn't a clue what happens at that event. I've always wanted to go...
The year he got sick, I was coming to the conference the first time. Never had the chance because we were in the hospital. It's just them things you never forget. But how we saw the world pitch in to help us, it's pretty humbling. And I see a lot of the young people coming up right now and it's pretty cool what you see. But you also see a lot of the bad in... I don't want to say the bad in them, but you can see-Rolan Steinlage:
The greed.Loran Steinlage:
We talked about that. Yes, the greed. His exact words were, "We've seen that." We talked about that yesterday, and all of a sudden they start seeing the dollar figures in that and they just-Rolan Steinlage:
They do it for the fame.Loran Steinlage:
The fame and the fortune. But I'll go back to 2016 there, it was in Indianapolis and that was the year I started figuring out people were paying attention to what we're doing. Yet we left [inaudible 00:12:33] that day and I told my wife, "If any of this starts changing me, shoot me." She's a pretty good aim, and I ain't dead yet. But we don't do what we do for the fame and fortune, and we've took a lot of heat for some of that, I guess. Staying sound and true to what you believe in is probably the most critical thing I look for in people. I see a lot of people right now, they want to impress everybody with what they know, how they know it. If you've ever been invited to my peer group, the first thing you'll figure out quick and right on the headline of the peer group, we talk about it. I don't care how many acres you farm. I don't care what equipment you got. We talk about common sense things. Your knowledge will show.Michaela Paukner:
I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Yetter Farm Equipment. Yetter is your answer for success in the face of ever-changing crop production challenges. Yetter offers a full lineup of planter attachments, like row cleaners, closing wheels, and planter mounted fertilizer equipment. And check out Yetter's highly popular stalk devastators, cover crop rollers, and strip till equipment. Yetter products help you maximize your inputs, save you time, and deliver a return on your investment. Visit them at yetterco.com. That's Y-E-T-T-E-R-C-O.com. Now let's get back to the conversation.Loran Steinlage:
I'm a farmer, I'm proud of it. I'm proud of what we've always been able to do. But it all comes down to the contact or the people we've been able to work with over the years.Rolan Steinlage:
Well, when you think about a root system, how a good root system reaches out and grabs different nutrients from different... from bits of knowledge from this place... I mean, our network of people is our root system, what holds us together. It's like grabbing bits of knowledge from his brain, grabbing bits of knowledge from his brain. And when you join together as a team to build... What they're doing right now with that soil health thing, that takes a lot of brain power and will, motivation to do that.Loran Steinlage:
Bigger picture.Michaela Paukner:
I mean, that's what we're-Rolan Steinlage:
We're always looking at the bigger picture, trying to figure out... The last two days I sat in awe of the people we were with. And I told Dave on the way home last night, "I think I held my own." And like I said, that's all I ever care to do, is hold my own and help people learn. And right now, it seems the minute people start getting a little attention and the fame and fortune kicks in, I worry about them. I know the minute... Brenda's went with me for quite a few of the events, but now all of a sudden we're hitting the next frontier of life and the grandkids take a little priority, so she's not with me as much, and people notice that. No different than the first time Dave and Kendra showed up here. When Dave Brent shows up on your farm...Rolan Steinlage:
That's pretty... He's like the Godfather. He's the granddaddy of all farms.Loran Steinlage:
I think we've had a pretty good relationship ever since [inaudible 00:16:07]. I think the ultimate high was this summer when I got promoted to [inaudible 00:16:11].Michaela Paukner:
Oh, very nice.Rolan Steinlage:
He's like my uncle.Dave Brandt:
People don't understand, it's them little things that drive us. And over the years, we've been able to accomplish a lot of cool stuff. But it's paying attention, learning from them little instances, the details. And that's what I'm worried right now. I'm very comfortable... I'll go back to [inaudible 00:16:38]. I had the chance to speak behind her one time. And I walked on stage and I was like, "Apologize folks. You might be able to understand her better than you'll ever be able to understand me." She's French. She spoke better English than I'll ever speak.
Take that all the way forward, we were fortunate enough in our travels, we got to go right to her home farm and all that. And that's one of those instances when you walk onto her property, and we went all the way down to the lake, and you could walk to the fence line and see the difference. Management makes a difference. I mean, you could stand on the fence line, grab a handful of that soil and grab a handful of that soil-Rolan Steinlage:
And see the difference.Loran Steinlage:
... That's management. It's nothing, no fancy... Anything fancy. It's just, it comes down to the mindset and the management. The whole mindset I would say we're in right now. Everybody wants to buy something to make things easier. You've got to take your time and reason it out. And as we're out there speaking, people think Dave and I have all the answers. One of the first criticisms I got from a friend when we were first starting to hit the road speaking a lot, is he's like, "Why the heck are you out there telling everybody exactly what you're going to do on your farm? I can guarantee it's not going to work. If they don't take it and internalize it..."
Probably the best asset I ever acquired was the ability to have the answer before the question's asked. Now think about that. The brain never stops. Every time I'm in the field or looking at a crop, I'm always trying to figure out what's next. When I'm running equipment, I'm constantly trying to figure out, how can I make that better? I've described it in the past, if I put my mind to it, I can see fluid motion. I'll just look at a piece of equipment, I'll start staring at it and studying it, and I can see how the soil's going to react around that piece.
But when you start understanding how the soil's going to flow and stuff like that, and what really compounds it is, the deeper we get into the system, it's constantly changing. So you've got to-Rolan Steinlage:
Be able to adjust.Loran Steinlage:
You hear people say, "We're doing this." I'm like, "Well, what's next?" It's them intricate little details of never getting a closed enough mind where we did it this... We all say it. "We've always done it this way. We're going to keep doing it this way." And a lot of us say, "We're going to change that." But I've also seen over the years, we get sedentary. The minute we get comfortable... And I mean, I've felt that the last couple years myself as my health has faltered a little bit here. It's easy to settle into plan A. And Rick and I a lot talk about, we get into the small alphabet every year.
We don't only have the large letters, we got the small letters, and I'm going to say there's a few years we probably got into the numbers. But it's them constant adjustments we're not afraid to make, is why some of us can make it work and some can't. You try to factor that with... I'm not saying that to be arrogant, it's just, I enjoy getting called in to help people that can't make it work. And then go there and just sit down and reason it. And the first thing I tell them right off the bat, "We might hurt some feelings today." Because a lot of people have that hard time admitting that they failed.
Pride goes out the window if you really want to make this work. That's the fun part where we're at, I guess I would say. And just seeing that glimmer of somebody that gets a little bit of hope, "Hey, we can do this." But then we also try to back it up, "Well, if that didn't work, call us before it's too late." Because recognizing success and failure is another deciding factor, I would say. It's them incremental gains where you're going to start seeing things. And right now, there's an awful lot of people shooting for the holy grail. I don't think any of us really know what that is yet. I'll go back to, a lot of the field events we've hosted on farm, when you get comfortable showing people things going wrong, you can show them a lot easier what's right. And there there's been instances, and I would say, that's probably why we have a hard time growing sponsors for a lot of our events anymore.
The first time we got comfortable, we did hybrid rye. And where we agreed to do the plot just looked horrendous for their hybrid rye. And I tried to tell the people, "Hey, we shouldn't even go to the field that day. Let's just show people where the field is. The other end of the field looks phenomenal. Let's go there." But the place we were going to do it, we had the hybrid rye, we had oats, we had barley, we had plenty of stuff to show them there. But the hybrid rye was terrible. I said, "Let's not even focus on the hybrid rye. Let's bring them back to the barn. They can do their PowerPoint and all that. It'll look good." But nope. Too many rigid minds getting in the mindset, "We got to do it." And we did through it. And as I introduced the guy, I said, "What you guys see here, right here, is not representative of the company or the product."
And we did very good that day, I thought. But we learned we could show people what not to do. Now last year again, we had the hybrid rye in that. We learned a lot more. They learned a lot more. This year, we could showcase things. But then on the flip side, some of our organic testing and that, everybody thinks that's easy. But we're pretty good at failing there. And the scary part is, we've seen 200 bushel [inaudible 00:22:41], zero inputs. It can be done. Can we scale it yet? No. And that's probably a term that gets misused or misnomered. I just had that conversation a week or two ago with some of the young people we were with down at Des Moines there. And we talked about scalability. They're like, "In your mind, what's scalable?" Because these are young farmers trying to make it go.
And I looked at them pointblank. I said, "I've seen people make more money on an acre than I've seen on 1,000 acres or 100,000 acres." So it's not exactly size, but it goes back to what I mentioned about in our peer group, it's the knowledge and the sharing, and can you make a living on that? If you can make a living on it, to me, that's scalable. Through Rolan's whole deal there, we know the ups and downs of farming. And at our peak, we were pushing close to 2,500 acres. And probably one of the hardest things to swallow is through his deals, the vultures started circling and within two years we were down to 600 acres. Nothing we did wrong. I see a lot of people get bitter about stuff like that. But I looked at the optimistic side, and that's when I started realizing they went after our poorest ground. We're left with the best ground we got. I just need to figure out how to be a better farmer.
The future for [inaudible 00:24:07] Farms, the daughters have both made it known that they want to come in here and take over the farm. I'm waiting for that. I'm looking forward to that. Is it going to happen the way I want it? No. We've had to adjust and overcome a lot. And I have talked about it in public, with the son-in-laws and that. They both come from very strong, successful careers. One of them is part of a very successful farming operation. Very conventional.
I think that's helped me become a better person, realizing that we can't be so black and white. When we're out there talking, the people we're trying to help, I hear a lot of people hurt. Because they'll come right out and say, "That's wrong." No. A lot of us were there once upon a time. Let's figure out what we did wrong, why we changed... We've got to look back at ourself and figure out why we changed. And for me personally, that's helped me speak to the son-in-law's family better and helping them, because if I had to said what I wanted to say early in the game, some of the things I see happening, I probably wouldn't be talking with them.Michaela Paukner:
Thanks to Loran and Roland Steinlage, and Dave Brandt for today's conversation. You'll hear more from Loran and Dave's conversation later this month. All episodes and transcripts of each episode are available at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. You'll also find some of the previous podcasts we've recorded with Loran and his guests there too. Many thanks to Yetter Farm Equipment for helping to make this No-Till podcast series possible. From all of us here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.