Farm Leader of the Year: Dan Schaefer

Farm Leader of the Year: Dan Schaefer

TOLONO — He’s not a farmer, but past News-Gazette Farm Leaders had no problem selecting Dan Schaefer as this year’s Farm Leader.

And while he’s not a farmer, he grew up on a farm, always wanted to be a farmer and has been in the business of helping farmers his entire career.

And after inheriting about 20 acres recently from his parents, well, now he is a farmer.

“They had a small farm down in Crittenden Township where I grew up, and me and my two brothers each got a part of it. I got 20 acres that I’m actually farming now,” Schaefer said. “So I guess I kind of am a farmer.”

After 31 years selling fertilizer for Illini FS, and now as the director of nutrient stewardship for the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, he’s regularly on farms setting up test plots and different experiments for University of Illinois researchers.

“I’ve always farmed,” Schaefer said. “They were more or less almost like my hired men because I was making all the recommendations and having them do all this stuff. The only thing is, I didn’t have to pay the bills.”

He travels across the state to work with farmers and share his work, and for the past three years, Schaefer’s been teaching part-time at Parkland College.

He truly wants farmers to succeed.

“Every time they harvest their field and had a success, that was my success,” Schaefer said.

It’s that attitude that’s allowed him to earn the trust of farmers and researchers alike and build a bridge between the two. 

And with his tireless work ethic and passion for sustainable farming practices like cover crops and strip till, he’s considered by many to be one of the most influential leaders in agriculture in the state, if not the entire Midwest.

“I think that Illinois, among all the major ag states, is really viewed on the national scale as a true leader in nutrient stewardship, and that’s because of Dan,” said Jean Payne, the director of the IFCA. “He took a program that never existed in 2012 and built it to what it is today. It’s recognized throughout the U.S. and set an example for other states to follow.”


‘Lifelong goal’

Schaefer grew up on his parents’ farm in Crittenden Township near Pesotum with his brothers John and David.

“My lifelong goal was always to farm,” Schaefer said. “That’s just what I wanted to do.”

He graduated from eighth grade in 1967 from St. Mary’s Catholic School, which had a “low room” for first through fourth grade and a “high room” for fifth through eighth grade.

“I was the last class to graduate from St. Mary’s,” Schaefer said.

Then he went to Villa Grove High School, where he was active in 4-H and FFA, and graduated in 1971.

“All I really wanted to do is farm, so I went to Parkland and started in ag production,” Schaefer said.

At Parkland, instructor Paul Curtis encouraged him to get into the ag supply business.

“He said, ‘If you’re ever going to farm, ag supply would be really good training to have.’ So that’s what I did,” Schaefer said.

After graduating in 1973 from Parkland, he went to work for Illini FS, where he helped sell fertilizer.

That’s where he got to know farmers around the area.

“I first knew him at Illini FS. He sold products, provided advice, and over time, he became someone you could really rely on,” said John Reifsteck, the 1991 Farm Leader. “He knew what was happening in my field. I could ask for advice, and I built up trust in him.”

Steve Stierwalt, the 2004 Farm Leader, said he also got to know Schaefer when he was at FS.

“And I guess we could go farther back than that; our daughters played basketball together from fifth grade through high school,” Stierwalt said.

And that’s how Dirk Rice, who farms near Philo, got to know Schaefer.

“I worked with Dan back when he worked for Illini FS as a salesman out of Tolono, at least 20 years ago,” Rice said. 

“The more I work with Dan, the more I realize he either knows everybody or is related to everybody, or some kind of combination,” said Eric Miller, who farms near Hammond.

When he was at Illini FS, Schaefer was already known for being a hard worker.

“When he was a salesman, we weren’t sure when he ever went home,” Rice said. “He was always experimenting, trying to find a better way of doing stuff. He was never satisfied with what you were currently doing. If it was working, he always thought of a better way to do it.”


On-farm research

Schaefer’s desire to experiment and figure out better ways of doing things led him to the next step in his career.

In 1994, Schaefer became a certified crop advisor, and as part of that, he had to continue his education.

“Every year we have to go to a certain amount of training, and I found that I loved that. The training was really cool and good,” Schaefer said. “I started thinking about how do I take my two-year Parkland degree to a four-year bachelor’s. And then I really wanted to get my master’s.”

But with four kids — Matthew, Michael, Mark and Melinda — and his wife Lynn, and a full-time job, he knew he didn’t have time for a regular master’s program.

“So what I did was, Parkland had an arrangement with Eastern Illinois University to do off-campus bachelor degrees through Parkland, and some of the classes had to be done at Eastern,” Schaefer said. 

He got his bachelor’s degree in 2003 from Eastern and master’s in 2006 through the University of Illinois’ off-campus master’s program.

“After I got my bachelor’s, Howard Brown and I talked and he said, ‘You know, you might want to think about doing the off-campus master’s program,’ and he would become one of my advisors,” Schaefer said. “That really set my desire into doing this kind of work.”

He learned about plant physiology and soils and fertility.

“I’m learning about all these things in a deeper mode through that off-campus master’s program,” Schaefer said. “That’s when I really … started getting into this actual on-farm research.”

After 31 years at Illini FS, Schaefer retired when he was 59.

Around that time, farmers started facing more pressure to reduce the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico caused in part by the nutrient runoff from farms.

“Illinois is the No. 1 contributor to hypoxia, and we wanted to be proactive,” Payne said. 

Also in the 2000s, Illinois was figuring out how to fund efforts to reduce runoff.

While Illinois has funded nutrient research and education since 1989, the funds were regularly diverted.

In 2011, industry groups proposed a way of protecting these funds, but this died in committee, Schaefer said.

So the next year, the ag groups teamed up with a couple environmental groups, Schaefer said, and the proposal passed, creating the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council in 2012.


‘Takes someone like Dan’

That’s also the year Schaefer retired from Illini FS and joined the IFCA, where he’s been helping connect University of Illinois researchers with farmers willing to do on-farm research.

“He finds the cooperators around Illinois to conduct these on-farm N-rate studies,” said Emerson Nafziger, a UI researcher who uses data from tests Schaefer sets up around the state. “He helps get the studies done.”

Nafziger said having someone with Schaefer’s experience in the industry is key.

You need “someone like Dan to get them up and running and to keep attention on the right things and keep people interested in them,” Nafziger said. “It takes someone like Dan.” 

Nafziger gets the data from these on-farm research projects and has created an online model that farmers around the Midwest can use to calculate the maximum nitrogen they should apply to their field.

“I get his data from these trials, and I work them up and produce findings from them,” Nafziger said. “We want to see how the farms respond to nitrogen. We’re at about 45 to 50 sites around Illinois.”

He said the data from Illinois is much better than from other states, something he credits Schaefer for.

“No other state comes even close to doing that. I would give Dan a good chunk of the credit for keeping this running over the past few years,” Nafziger said. “It takes someone who knows how to talk to farmers and convince them that this is a value to themselves and other farmers around Illinois.”

Nafziger said he once tried to manage the on-farm trials himself.

“But I was always a little bit wondering, did this happen the way it was supposed to happen?” He said. “When Dan is involved, we trust the quality of the work, which means we can trust the quality of the results.”

Historically, farmers tended to put much more nitrogen on their fields than they needed, beyond what was actually increasing yields.

With this calculator, farmers can see a curve indicating the optimal amount to use.

“We’ve reduced the amount of nitrogen we’re applying and have gotten more in balance with what the crop really needs than ever before,” Schaefer said. “And that’s really, really a good thing.”

UI researcher Lowell Gentry said he’s worked with Schaefer on several on-farm studies, where farmers may apply the fertilizer at different times.

“He’s out there making sure all this happens smoothly, while making his best judgment on the weather and the soil moisture,” Gentry said. “He adds credibility. You can trust the data because Dan was there.”

Like Nafziger, Gentry said that when he’s worked directly with farmers, the on-farm research doesn’t always go as planned.

“I’ve put flags out there where I want zero nitrogen there. Well, that farmer went out, but his brother drove right through those flags,” Gentry said. “With on-farm research, there’s lots of little mistakes. … When Dan’s involved, it removes any of those problems.”


‘Very dedicated’

One of the farmers Schaefer works with is Eric Miller, who farms in southern Piatt County. He also helps with some trials in Douglas County and Champaign County.

“It’s a lot of work, lot of detail. It definitely needs to be prepared ahead of time, which is why Dan is so good at it,” Miller said. “I tell him he reminds me of my mother … very determined, very dedicated.”

Miller said Schaefer is “probably the No. 1 fan” of practices like cover crops and strip till, where only a portion of a row is tilled.

“Sometimes when someone’s done something for 30 years, they maybe just stick with that path,” Miller said. But “he is so open minded to these practices that we’re trying and having great success with. He’s willing to tell anyone.”

Miller said Schaefer once drove three hours to a group of 30 people to talk with them for about 10 minutes.

“He will go to any meeting or field day or seminar or class and talk about what we’re doing,” Miller said.

And for the past three years, Schaefer has been teaching classes at Parkland College.

“He brings so much knowledge and practicality to these students,” said Jenni Fridgen, Parkland’s ag program director. “It’s exciting to see him in the classroom and how students like him in the classroom.”

While it may seem odd for a former fertilizer salesman to be encouraging farmers to use less fertilizer, Brown said it makes sense, as Schaefer both wants to do what’s best for farmers and the environment.

“Yeah, it is twisted, but the key is, he’s right,” Brown said. “Most fertilizer people may lack the confidence to tell a farmer they need less because if they use less and the farmer loses, they lose your trust.”

But “Dan and I both have the confidence and are willing to accept the risk,” Brown said.


‘Farmers are listening’

In 2015, Illinois adopted the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, with the goal for 2025 of reducing nitrogen loads by 15 percent and phosphorous loads by 25 percent.

Eventually, the goal is to reduce both nitrogen and phosphorous loads by 45 percent.

One of the reasons farmers appreciate Schaefer’s work is because it’s kept the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency off their farms so far.

They don’t want to end up like farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which stretches from New York to Virginia. The EPA set various regulations for farmers in 2010, which were challenged by the American Farm Bureau but ultimately upheld.

But so far, Illinois has avoided that fate, and Schaefer’s work appears to be working.

“There’s been a report out that the nutrient flow out of the Illinois River has been reduced by 10 percent, and that’s a real positive,” Schaefer said. “Farmers are listening. They’re making changes.”

Like Brown, Payne said Schaefer’s work at the IFCA fits with his career at Illini FS.

“He’s not just being a salesman, but he’s being an advocate who’s passionate about helping farmers get a better return on their investment,” she said. “This is his way to give back, not just to farmers, but to society and to science.”

And to Schaefer, his work has never really felt like work.

“I know it’s a cliche, but you know, I’ve never really worked a day in my life,” he said. “I just loved working with farmers in ag retail, and I love working with farmers in this research arena that I’m in.”


Past Farm Leaders


1972 — Lyle E. Grace

1973 — Richard H. Burwash

1973 — Kenneth M. Kesler

1974 — Eugene Curtis

1975 — W. Stanley Wood

1976 — John H. Mathews

1977 — Gerald Compton

1978 — Jay Wallace Rayburn

1979 — Maurice Gordon

1980 — Keith C. Kesler

1981 — W.T. Hodge Jr.

1982 — Eldon Hesterberg

1983 — Charles L. Ehler

1983 — Luke M. Feeney

1984 — Richard C. Rayburn

1985 — Tom Barker

1986 — Paul E. Curtis

1987 — Fred Werts

1988 — W. Stephen Moser

1989 — Linden Warfel

1990 — Lloyde Esry

1991 — John Reifsteck

1992 — Lyle Shields

1993 — Lee Eichhorst

1994 — Jerry Wallace

1995 — Kent Krukewitt

1996 — Donald Wood

1997 — David Downs

1998 — Ray Aden

1999 — John Albin

2000 — Gary Grace and Roger Grace

2001 — Terry Wolf

2002 — Wayne Busboom

2003 — Lowell Heap

2004 — Steve Stierwalt

2005 — John Jay

2006 — Gary Luth

2007 — Dennis Riggs

2008 — Eric Rund

2009 — Paul Compton

2010 — Ronald R. Warfield

2011 — Dale Stierwalt

2012 — Jack Murray

2013 — Gerald Henry

2014 — Rick Nelson

2015 — Chris Hausman

2016 — Mark Pflugmacher

2017 — Jon Schroeder

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