Pull up a chair. Pour yourself an iced tea in the cool of the evening. And listen to what Lin Warfel has learned over a lifetime of farming and community involvement.
The Tolono, Illinois, farmer and land-owner will tell you how a tragedy helped form a special relationship with his grandfather. He’ll tell you how he saw a niche early in his farming career that set him apart from others. Plus he’ll tell you what he looks for in farm renters.
“To me, farming is family and community,” he says. “It’s not living somewhere way off and then coming for two to three days and then going away.”
Warfel’s farm history is rooted in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. His great-grandfather, H.J. Bialeschki, used money saved from helping to rebuild Chicago to buy the home farm near Tolono in 1882.
Years later, Warfel’s father, Orville (Hank), graduated from the University of Illinois (U of I) and taught vocational agri-culture before taking over the farm in 1940.
“When my dad graduated, he was also commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the [U.S.] Army,” Warfel says. The farming career ended with the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eventually, his father land-ed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He was killed in action in France on Aug. 3, 1944.
“My mom was a widow at age 29,” Warfel says. “I was 3 years old, and my sister was 4½. My grandparents moved back to the farm, and my grandfather [Alfred Warfel] became a surrogate dad to me.”
The two bonded. “I loved him, and he loved me, and he treated me so beautifully,” Warfel says. “He was extraordinarily frugal. If a hammer or saw fell off a truck, he’d pick it up and use it for the rest of his life.”
His grandfather once splurged and bought a new pitchfork. “I was up in the barn, throwing down hay with this brand-new pitchfork. Since I was so little, the handle was long and kept banging into things. So, I went into the shop, put it in a vise, and cut the handle so it would fit me. Grandpa never said a thing, but someone told me years later that he about cried when he saw what I did to his new pitchfork.”
Warfel’s mother remarried when he was 9. “My stepdad was terrific,” Warfel says. “He could have easily been an engineer because he was gifted with machinery. After Sunday dinner, we would also debate. I would argue one side, and he’d argue the other, and afterward, we would switch sides. It was wonderful preparation for being involved in farm group and school board work.”
Warfel began farming in 1962 during an era where crop surpluses and low prices ruled the day, with much grain put in government storage. Still, Warfel leapfrogged from farming 160 acres his first year to 500 acres the second.
“One thing jumped out at me,” he says. “If I got into seed production, I could increase my corn income, and do the same thing with seed wheat and soybeans. Within a few years, 100% of my 500 acres were in seed production. It was extra work, but it helped catapult my farming operation.”
Profits continued to grow in the go-go 1970s, when crop and farmland prices boomed.
Times changed, though, in the early 1980s. To curb double-digit inflation, the Federal Reserve Board cranked up interest rates that peaked at 19% to 20% (23% in Champaign on farm operating loans). Meanwhile, grain and farmland markets plunged.
“My wife [Kay], God bless her, understood,” Warfel says. “Her dad was an accounting professor, which led her to understand dollars and cents. We bought no new clothes, took no vacations, no anything.
“It was the only time in my life where I lost sleep,” he adds. “I ended up taking my books to a banker I got to know through Farm Bureau. He told me I still had some net worth, but in another six months it could be gone.”
Not all news was bad, though. “He also told me, ‘I think you can make it if you hang on just a little longer. I’m seeing some positive recovery signs, and interest rates are coming down. That’s going to help farmland values rise. The general business economy is also coming back in that people are once again buying things. There are no guarantees, but if I were you, I would hang on. Good luck.’ ”
Warfel recovered. “Things were still tough in 1984 and 1985, but the value of my farmland started to come back.” Later in the decade, commodity prices also began to bounce back.
Warfel, though, was always interested in more than farming. “I’ve really had three careers, one in farming, one with Farm Bureau and farm policy, and one with education administration.” Besides serving on a local school board, Warfel was a trustee at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, for 24 years.
Warfel learned much from civic activities. “One time, I was chairman of the school board and we were having financial difficulties,” he says. “It was during the era of [former presidential candidate] Ross Perot, who loved to use charts. So, I used a chart to show income and expenses heading in opposite directions. A lady in front popped up and said, ‘Mr. Warfel, those are the facts. I don’t care about facts. We know what we want.’
“Well, the room erupted in laughter and cheers. It was a fantastic lesson in that understanding that while you can lead with emotion, it’s real work to sell the facts. Whether it’s the stock or grain market, emotions play a huge role. Eventually the facts rule, but you need to also consider emotions.”
At his peak, Warfel farmed 2,000 acres with his brother-in-law. “We were farming like crazy when I hit 55 to 60 years old. I started backing off on the farming side and paying more attention to the long view. I became a new trustee at our local community college [Parkland College],” he says.
That’s when Warfel rented out his farm to two neighboring brothers, Jason and Brian Wishall. “When I was younger and moved to this farm in 1972, I tried hard to grow seed corn here. My neighbor Mike, who was a really sharp guy, helped me deliver my seed corn to the plant. Mike quickly realized, ‘Hey, there’s extra money in seed corn,’ ” explains Warfel.
This relationship blossomed into Mike’s two sons now farming Warfel’s farm. “They’re sharp young fellows,” he says.
Renting to local farmers appeals to Warfel. “There are farmers who come in this area from far away with a bunch of machinery and then they are gone,” he says. “In the long term, they don’t buy anything here. They’re not drainage commissioners. They’re not school board members. They’re not Lions Club members. They’re not church members. They’re not here.”
At 82 years old, Warfel still retains the enthusiasm of a major league rookie on opening day. He’s fascinated by what Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote in their book “Revolutionary Wealth.”
“They note that mankind’s first revolution was a shift from being hunter-gatherers to farmers,” Warfel says.
“The second was the industrial revolution. We’re living in mankind’s third great revolution now, driven by computers. Wherever you are on planet Earth, you can buy, sell, teach, and learn if you have high-speed internet. It’s having a tremendous impact of lifting everyone’s [economic] boat.”