Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published December 14, 2010, 09:17 AM

Liechty families have grown Great Plains ag enterprises

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Faith, farming and family. These are these are three priorities for the Liechtys, a notable North Dakota family. They say that focus has allowed their far-flung, multistate farming operations to flourish, even as they’ve diversified into real estate, housing and farm equipment.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Faith, farming and family.

These are these are three priorities for the Liechtys, a notable North Dakota family. They say that focus has allowed their far-flung, multistate farming operations to flourish, even as they’ve diversified into real estate, housing and farm equipment.

Brothers Jonathan “Jon” and Silas “Si” Liechty have spent a lifetime pursuing a dream to farm in nearly every state in the Great Plains. In tandem, sometimes with other relatives, they’ve developed Liechty Homes and other businesses that provide middle-class housing in the region. Until three years ago, the Liechtys also ran a custom combining operation that worked across the Great Plains for nearly 60 years.

Today, the farming partnerships are impressive on their own. The Liechtys own 17,000 acres in nine states. Si and Jon in the past two years have share-rented another 80 quarters of land beyond that, mostly in North Dakota. At ages 84 and 78, respectively, the Liechty broth-ers say they’re enjoying their biggest farming years and have no plans for stopping, as long as they can.

“We thank the Lord for good health,” Jon says.

In addition, the Liechtys have parlayed businesses into part-ownership in Amity Technology, in Fargo. They’ve also offered loans and bridge financing for sometimes stressed farmers and individuals, and benefactors to churches and church-related colleges.

Entrepreneurial genes

Entrepreneurship and adventure run deep in the Liechty family.

Their father, John Liechty, was one of 40 German Americans from Indiana who were lured to North Dakota in 1914 by an enthusiastic elevator operator from Brinsmade, N.D. The group chartered a train and moved animals and supplies to Benson County, west of Devils Lake.

John’s father, Peter Liechty was Amish and stayed in Indiana. John, 22, had changed to the Mennonite faith so he could farm with more modern equipment. In his first year in North Dakota, John married Clara Witmer, who had come with the Indiana group. John bought his first farm in 1920. It was a challenging time to farm. John bought second farm in 1928 but lost it in 1935, in the midst of the Dirty Thirties.

While the farming took root, the John and Clara Liechty family began to grow. First, there were older brothers, Adam in 1918 and Ezra in 1921. Jon Liechty was born March 8, 1926, and younger brother, Paul, (1927), was followed by Silas “Si” (1932) and then twins Reuben and Ruth (1935).

Christianity was central in the Liechty family’s life — and, they believe, in their financial life.

Christianity, always

John and Clara Liechty were part of the Christian Missionary Alliance church, and later, the Assembly of God. Jon and Si remember that their father started every day with prayer and Bible reading. There also were visiting evangelists and summer camp meetings.

In the 1930s, the family was frugal and largely self-sufficient. They raised a big garden. They ground their own wheat at the flour mill for flour. Every year, their father would buy a big 50-gallon barrel of frozen northern pike fish from a peddler.

“We’d eat them all winter with canned vegetables and beef and pork,” Jon recalls.

They ate a lot of cornmeal mush and there was a yearlong supply of potatoes in the basement.

“Dad was an entrepreneur,” Si says.

He ran two horse- and two tractor-farming “outfits” — complete for planting, cultivating and harvesting. Eventually, John bought Case tractors to take the place of horses, which Jon “hated.” At one time, there were five tractors, “each one a different model to fit a particular job.” John also ran a custom threshing crew on the side, which his sons worked on.

The Liechtys remember missing “a lot of school” to help on the farm. Jon recalls milking the family’s 20 cows and driving horses in the field after school until dark. The Liechty boys shoveled wheat, oats and corn into granary bins by hand. Jon and his brothers trapped skunks and fox and shot jackrabbits for spending money.

Education of the road

Unlike the stereotypical farmers of the early 1900s, the Liechty family didn’t confine themselves to home.

In 1936, the John and Clara took the children to visit their Amish grandparents in Indiana. The families went on to Plant City, Fla., east of Tampa. There, they picked strawberries for grocery money. They didn’t get back home to North Dakota until March 1937.

In 1937, grasshoppers were thick back in North Dakota.

“They would fly in droves like clouds in the sky,” Jon recalls.

In 1938 and 1939, the family wintered in California, and the family picked oranges to make money.

“Us kids never did stay in school for a year,” Si says. “Dad felt we learned enough by traveling — a lot about business, out in the moving world. Our school teachers often mentioned that we didn’t lose a thing by traveling in the winter. The farm house didn’t have running water and Dad said it was just as cheap to buy fuel for the car as fuel to keep the farm house warm through the winter.”

Service and college

In 1943, Jon Liechty was 16 when we went to Minneapolis to enroll in North Central Bible College. He went just one year before he was drafted into the Army.

Back home, elder brother Ezra married and went farming on his own. Adam was drafted into the Army and served in the Battle of the Bulge. (His commander asked Ezra to read Scripture and pray before the battle, and the unit didn’t lose a man, Jon says.)

Jon was drafted in February 1945, at the close of the war, and served in Austria and Germany, and returned home to farm in 1948. He admired neighbors who farmed, flew airplanes and did custom combining.

“I was hoping I could maybe, someday, get there,” he says, of that kind of life.

A local banker loaned $3,000 so Jon could seed his first crop.

“I had nothing for security, but on my dad’s reputation, they loaned me the money,” Jon recalls.

His father helped him with machinery. He also recalls an encounter with God — a conversation, “out behind the barn,” on a Sunday afternoon, where he told the Lord that “if you help me be successful, I’ll give you 20 percent of my profits. It’s something I’ve never forgotten.”

Liechty in 2008 wrote an autobiographical book, “Out Behind the Barn,” which is in its third printing.

Custom combining

In 1949, Jon and brother Ezra bought a self-propelled combine. They went to Kansas to do custom-harvesting, following the example of a neighbor. In 1951, their father bought a combine and joined them, although they kept separate operations.

In 1950, their father bought the John Deere business in Leeds, N.D., from a man named Hobson, who traded the dealership for a farm. Eventually, Jon would rent the farm back, and the family started its loyalty to green equipment.

In 1952, Jon met Fern Johnson, a Swedish girl from Kulm, N.D. His younger brother, Paul, had married a Kulm girl. Jon and Fern married on June 9, two days after brother Silas had married Martha Peltz in Glen Ullin, N.D. Martha had been classmate at Lakewood Park Bible School in Devils Lake, N.D. (later Trinity College of Jamestown and then Ellendale, N.D.). Coincidentally, both couples honeymooned at the same place in Yellowstone National Park.

Initially, Jon farmed and helped at the implement dealership, where Fern did bookkeeping. Eventually, she worked there for Ezra, who ran the John Deere store and eventually a Ford dealership that John purchased in about 1954.

Silas, who had military deferments, instead was called to the ministry in Jamestown. There, he bought a mobile home, which was large for its day — 25 feet long and 8 feet wide.

“It was a travel trailer with a house-type stool,” he says.

The unit had a promotional sign on the outside and people started came in and wanted to see it. So Silas asked to become a dealer. He bought 11 mobile homes in two years and turned them for a profit. Liechty Trailer Sales later became Liechty Homes. After eight years as a pastor, he made his living in home sales.

Selling homes, buying farms

On a trip to visit Silas in Jamestown in 1956, Jon and Silas started a partnership and bought a 960-acre farm near Jamestown. In the 1920s and 1930s it was called the “Chicago Ranch,” headquarters for a 4,000-acre bonanza-style farm, owned by some Chicagoans. It was about 20 miles southeast of Jamestown in the Montpelier, N.D., area.

Jon now farmed in two in the two locations — Jamestown and Brinsmade — while Silas continued with the mobile home business.

“Dad told us we were going to go broke — too much land for too much money,” Silas recalls. “Land was selling for $35 an acre back home at Brinsmade, and we paid $50. He’d lost land during the 1930s and knew what that was like.”

In 1954, Jon and Si bought their first Model R John Deere diesel tractor, through his father’s dealership. Of course, it was wholesale. It was a big advantage to buy vehicles and equipment from the family.

In 1957, Ezra and Marguerite moved to Jamestown to help Si in the home business. Jon, Si and “Ez” built a feedlot that Ez ran near Eldridge, seven miles west of town. The three brothers, then — Jon, Ezra, Si and their wives — formed a loose partnership.

In 1958, the three brothers bought another 480 acres near the Chicago Ranch land. The farm got too large for the Minnewaukan, N.D., bank with which they’d been dealing, so they went to Jamestown National Bank, where a new officer had come from the Cando, N.D., area. In 1959, they created a corporation which covered just the mobile home business. In 1961, they bought another 720 acres and then another 1,000 acres.

Mobile homes, harvests

In 1959, Liechty Mobile Homes built a second mobile home sales lot in Bismarck, N.D. The partners established Holiday Park Village that year and later Western Park Village in Jamestown. Most of the time they used their farm equipment to do the dirt work for the lots. Eventually, they bought or built 12-plexes in Jamestown as well..

In 1961, Jon and Fern moved from their Jamestown apartment and built a home on the Chicago Ranch place. Near the Chicago Ranch, they acquired another 1,120 acres in 1963, and then another 960. In about 1960, Jon built a Quonset-style building under a government grain storage program, and it later became an equipment shed. He built a sophisticated seed handling facility for the day.

“It was state-of-the-art at the time,” he recalls. They acquired a parade of other land parcels in the late 1960s and early 1970s., taking 720-, 480- and 320-acre bites.

They bought a 600-acre farm near Eureka, S.D. — traded in on a mobile home and later bought a 700-acre spread and rented another 300 acres near Blunt, S.D.

Meanwhile, the farming partnership was sending crews and machines to Kansas for the harvest run.

Certainly, the parts of their businesses were growing.

“I think the combination of them made them successful,” Jon says. “We could go into banks and get about anything we needed for support.”

Flyin’ through ’60s, ’70s

On the housing side of their businesses, the partners built Skyway Mobile Home Park and Capital Park in Bismarck in 1966. In 1970, they started a partnership with Si’s brother-in-law in 1970, building a 180-unit Kirkwood Apartments complex in Bismarck. They the 172-unit Park Apartments in Jamestown, a 120-unit mobile home park in Devils Lake, and 50-unit mobile home village in Dundee, Fla., where they were spending winters.

Paul and Si had been flying airplanes since the 1950s, but in 1978, Jon got his private pilot’s license at age 52. The partnership owned two planes during some of those years, using them to shuttle crews and parts among their farms.

The 1980s were a period of financial crisis for farmers. In 1980, the Liechtys bought 1,980 acres near Jud, N.D., that had been owned by Virgil Rott, a then-outspoken victim of the credit crisis.

Somehow, with their diversification, the Liechtys weathered the storm. In 1982, Jon made a $250,000 loan to North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where his children had gone to school. Jon went on the Board of Regents for the college and still is there today.

1980s farm crisis, air seeders

In 1983, the Liechty partners were selling Concord Air Seeders — a new technology taking over Great Plains grain farming.

Jon’s son, Jeff, started selling the newly invented air seeders, developed by the Dahl families of Fargo.

“We owned one ourselves. It was a new concept and some neighbors bought them,” Jon recalls.

The Liechtys became one of Concord’s best dealers.

In 1986, Howard Dahl, president of Concord, traveled to Florida to see Jon and Silas. Like many ag machinery companies of the day, Concord had overbuilt its inventory as a recession took hold. Dahl was looking for financial partners.

“Being investors in farms and mobile parks and now giving 40 percent of our profits to church and charities, we didn’t have piles of money lying around,” Si recalls.

But the Liechtys had a contact at Metropolitan Federal Bank in Fargo and were able to secure the entire funds with just our signature — no collateral,” Jon recalls. Jon and Si Liechty eventually became 16 percent owners of the Concord and went on its board of directors.

In 1983, the Liechtys kept expanding — Century Park mobile home in Bismarck with 530 spaces and the 96-unit Pheasant Run Apartments in Williston, N.D., in 1987.

Jon acknowledges not every business decision was a winner. In the mid-1980s, they sold a farm in Blunt, S.D. They’d tried for three years to three raise crops there, but they’d dried out each time. The next year, the Conservation Reserve Program started the next year and would have made the land pay off.

Trying to retire?

The Liechtys claim they’ve tried to retire from farming several times.

In 1986, they had their first equipment sale — the first of five. A funny thing happened.

“For some reason, I hadn’t notified the landlords of 4,000 acres we were renting,” Jon says.

In the end, the Liechtys continued farming the rented land.

In 1988, the Liechtys bought land that had been run by Freddie Mutschler, a large farmer from north of Spiritwood, N.D. They bought the land from an insurance company.

“Si and I bought a total of 2,400 acres, giving John Mutschler, a brother of Freddie, an option to buy back 480 acres,” Jon says.

They still operate in a share-crop deal with some of the Mutschler family.

Jon and Si often had talked about buying land from North Dakota to Texas, to fit with their custom harvest run. An ideal number of acres in another state would be a section — 640 acres of land in each state from North Dakota to Texas, they thought.

“We’d dream about that when we were down south, combining,” Jon says.

They worked out a trade deal with John Mutschler. He bought some Kansas farmland and then they traded for land back in North Dakota.

“That left Silas and I with 1,920 acres of the Mutschler farm,” he says.

In the early 1990s, the Liechtys started renting some of their farmland to insurance man Duane Huber of Wimbledon, N.D.

“He, along with the Mutschlers, was going to farm the ground,” Jon says.

Jon moved into Jamestown. One of the Mutschler crew moved onto the 36-acre Chicago Ranch farmstead.

In 1991, the Liechtys had a second farm auction, selling “everything except the harvesting combines, trucks and trailers.” Still, they bought more farmland, including 1,260 acres of the Bob Reimer land north of Courtenay.

In 1995, the Liechtys held a third farm auction sale. Also in the mid-1990s, Jon became a Pioneer seed dealer, to go with a farm chemical dealership.

About the same time, Si and Jon traveled to Ukraine with Howard Dahl, as part of the Concord board. In 1996, Concord was sold to Case-IH, at a price that delivered 10 times the original investment. Jon describes this as a “pay-off miracle” for his both family and for his church. The Dahls immediately formed Amity Technology, which moved ahead with an emphasis on sugar beet harvesting equipment. The Liechtys remained on the board.

In 1996, Si retired from Liechty Homes and his son, Curt, became its president. The company since has expanded into the Prairie Bluff development in Minot, N.D., among other places. Along the way, they’ve bought a retail sales company in Rapid City, S.D., that gave them five retail outlets.

Jon’s son, Jeff, joined the company in 2000 and became farm manager for the owned land. Jon and Si on the side have managed the 80-quarter share-crop deals. Jon and Si are mostly focused various charities and college boards with the Assemblies of God, and others, and do consulting as needed for the family businesses.

Meanwhile, their dreams of owning farms in other states have kept coming true: 600 acres in Eureka, 800 acres of land near Suzanne, N.M.; 640 acres near Dalhart, Texas; 320 acres near Bassett, Neb.; a 640-acre farm near Stratford, Colo.; 970 acres near Ulen, Minn.; 1,200 acres in Yakama Valley, Wash.; and 720 acres near Wellington, Kan.

Jon says it never has been his goal to be wealthy as much as to simply continually expand.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been wealthy,” he says, smiling. “I do know that I’m having a good time. When I die, I’ll quit. It’s not a miracle that we acquired this property, but it’s a miracle we’ve been able to give millions away to charity and still acquire it.”

Si has his own take on the source of their success.

“We like to think that the good Lord has blessed us for being faithful,” he says, adding, “We’re not that smart.”

Tags: