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Michels Family

Michel Family - FCS Financial Member-Owners

Leon and Kathy Michel's operation is built on hard work but grounded on faith and family.

By Joann Pipkin, published in Heartbeat magazine.

This late fall morning, the four lane leads us east from the Queen City of the Ozarks. Commuters scurry along Highway 60, anxious to begin the day. As the hustle and bustle fades in the distance, we’re led to simpler ways in the quiet Ozarks countryside. 

From the thoroughfare, our journey sends us down a windy path deep into the Ozarks hills. While beef cattle graze in valleys, the sunlight glistens; dense timber beckons a sawmill…. or two…. or three.

Nearly hidden in the hills and hollers, we leave Texas County in the shadows for the tiny metropolis of Hartshorn. Across the Shannon County line, sheer hard work is as every day as the faith that binds Leon and Kathy Michel’s family farm. 

Starting from Scratch
Leon Michel and five Michel sons

While Leon Michel was raised in the Hartshorn area, he ventured to Colorado for a time. There, he met Kathy, his bride-to-be. No stranger to agriculture, she was a western Kansas wheat farmer’s daughter, well-accustomed to driving tractors and the like.

In 1978, early on in their marriage, the couple headed back to Leon’s roots where purchasing land was more feasible. Leon’s father, Harold, offered to sell him 40 acres. Only an old barn and house stood on the property. 

Starting from scratch with three of their five sons, Leon and Kathy began building what has become a commercial beef cattle and custom hay operation on about 1,000 acres of Texas and Shannon county land. 

The 1980s followed with drought and tough times for farmers.

“1980 was a very dry year,” Leon recalls. “We lost a lot of grass here because it got so dry it just died. We replanted in 1981. I had two cows and two heifers in 1979. And then, I saved and grew my herd.”

Michel's cattle

Over the years, Leon purchased small groups of cattle from area farmers to help build his operation. Still, the patriarch is quick to credit what truly helped grow the farm: hard work from his wife and five sons.

Like a number of farmers today, to help make ends meet, Leon worked an off-farm job at United Parcel Service making deliveries. Kathy operated a small quilt shop, home-schooled their sons – Brad, Jeff, Mark, Gary and Tim — and tended to the cowherd with the boys in tow. Lacking what Leon calls “good equipment,” the boys instead helped clear the land of timber and brush. Their handiwork has since, he says, become beautiful pasture. 

While some might stray from farming the rugged hills often filled with dense forest, Leon is quick to point out the strengths of doing so. 

“We think (the trees) are a good thing because cattle need shade,” he says. “That’s why this part of the country is such a good area. You’ve got shade, wind breaks, and then you’ve got your good grassland. If you keep it fertilized and take care of your property, it will do good for you.”

Now more than 40 years later, the Michel family farm includes five different cattle herds located on acreage within a few miles of the homestead.  The Michels’ custom hay operation harvested more than 2,500 bales of hay this past summer as well. 

Michel's tractor moving big round hay bales“We started just doing our own hay and a few neighbors would want us to put up their hay,” Leon says. “Now, we are putting up a lot of the hay (in the area).”

And while their sons are now grown and married with families of their own, the farm remains an operation centered around hard work and family. Even with the custom hay operation, family is the farm’s only workforce. That includes sons, daughters-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters: Brad and wife, Megan, along with their children Lindsey, Neil and Brent; Jeff and wife, Becky, along with their children Lauren, Dustin, Anna, and Grant; Mark and wife, Jennifer, and their children Wesley, Marcie, Chloe and Kelsie; Gary and wife, Marissa, and their children Ella May and Noelle; and Tim and wife, Britney, and their children Westin and Macy. 

All of the sons live within a couple of hours of the family farm, so once hay season rolls around, it’s all-hands-on-deck.

“The grandsons are out there fueling tractors and greasing machinery early in the morning,” Leon says. “We’ve got all the drivers we need, and everybody’s out there. The daughters-in-law help with bringing food in and help prepare. Everybody is here because it takes a huge operation in the house to keep everyone fed and running after parts.”

Leaning on Faith
While certainly a father and five sons bring a wealth of differing personalities and opinions to an operation, Leon is quick to point out that the family gets along quite well.

Leon Michel checks pasture

Credit for that comes from only one place. “The Lord,” Kathy quickly chimes in.

“The Lord has blessed us with good health,” Leon says. “Everything just fell in place. It was hard work, but we sure don’t want to leave the Lord out of it.”

Not to dismiss the fact that no one is perfect, Kathy says as a whole the family really does get along very well. “They’ve been taught from the Bible while growing up to honor their parents and they’re very, very, very respectful to us,” she explains. 

“We were taught respect and that’s carried on,” son Jeff adds. “We just have a mutual respect for one another. Just because my idea seems the best way to do it for me doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way or the only way.”

Although unsure whether or not all five of Leon and Kathy’s sons will eventually live near the family farm, all have expressed an interest in the operation. 

“I’ve explained it to them, and not in a bad way, but there’s a certain amount of responsibility that they need to put forth in this time of their life,” Leon explains. 

Together, the five sons purchased about 400 acres – including their grandfather’s farm — and manage a small cattle operation of their own in addition to helping their parents. 

Bound by their faith, the pride they have for the legacy they helped create on the family farm is what keeps them coming home, son Brad explains. 

“It keeps us all close, doing stuff together all the time,” Mark adds. 

Jeff chimes in, “We have kids coming up, too. And, it teaches them a work ethic. It adds some common sense to a kid’s life that they might not gain from somewhere else.”

Staying in the Family
While many farm families struggle with generational transfer because they don’t know how to begin the conversation or because they simply don’t want to, the discussion has already begun at the Michel farm. 

Leon Michel with hay bale in front of John Deere tractor

“We had a conversation around this table with all five sons here to ask them what their interest was in retaining farm ownership or being a part of the farm,” Leon explains. “And, they all expressed interest.”

At nearly 66 years old, Leon realizes he’s working harder now than he really wants to. He hopes to work a few more years before he and Kathy put a farm transition plan into action. 

Having read a number of articles on generational transfer, Leon admits a lot of criteria should be considered. But in this case, he says the task is not as complicated because all of his sons have expressed an interest in the operation. 

The generational transfer plan has Leon and Kathy owning the farm as long as both are still living. Through a lease agreement, their five sons can operate the farm. 

“They’ll never have to buy it,” Leon explains. “That will allow them to expand their own farming operation and buy more land of their own while leasing this farm.”

Although the arrangement is still to be finalized, Brad says the key is that the arrangement must work for all parties involved. 

“We’re all interested in this farm,” he says. “I think we can all come to an agreement on how to make the lease part of it work.”

Finding a Partner
When Leon Michel came to FCS Financial, he was seeking a farmer-friendly lender with whom he could build a relationship.

Working first with now-retired Randy Pace, Leon built a steadfast working relationship with FCS Financial, one that has carried over now to Cody Whorton. The connection led Leon’s sons to work with FCS Financial as well for their own cattle purchases. 

“What I appreciate about FCS Financial is that they’ve always been there,” Leon explains. 

And when times are tough like they have been this past year, Leon says it’s important to tighten your belt. 

“My (mission) has always been – from the start – to find a way to move forward a little bit all the time,” Leon says. “Keeping your input costs down is the main part of making farms work.”

For FCS Financial, the Michels bring a quiet confidence to the table.

Cody Whorton, FCS Financial loan officer, with Leon Michel.

“As a lender, that’s huge,” Cody says. “It’s easy to work with them. I love to see young guys get into the business (too) because we need more of them (in agriculture).” 

Changing the Landscape

When Leon started his operation back in the late 1970s, he never really intended to grow it to the extent it is today. As time progressed and opportunities presented, though, gradual expansion in the operation has now helped the family map a plan for future generations. 

On the cusp of the Ozark National Scenic Riverway, recreation has become a key driver in south central Missouri. The price of land in the area has risen over time. But like the Michels, other area farmers are improving the landscape. 

“We don’t have much soil erosion anymore,” Leon says. “Property grows good grass, and it’s just becoming pretty productive. This part of Missouri is known for poor ground, but it’s good cattle ground, good hay ground. If you take care of it right, it’ll work out for you.”

And with a lot of hard work, faith and family, it has worked for the Michels.

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