Agricultural Economics Distinguished Alumnus in 3 part series of Kansas Profile feature

Steve Irsik

Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University, has written a 3 part series about Steve Irsik for the “Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural” features.  The three articles are listed below.

Steve Irsik was honored in 2008 as the Department of Agricultural Economics 2008 Distinguished Alumnus.  For more information about that honor, click here. We hope you will take a few moments to read these articles and learn more about one of our many Distinguished Alumni!

Steve Irsik – Part 1

Pioneers. They were the brave men and women who came west and settled the state of Kansas. Today we honor those pioneers, but we also honor the modern-day entrepreneurs who have pioneered modern approaches to agribusiness. One such entrepreneur has built a remarkable agribusiness enterprise in southwest Kansas.

Steve Irsik is an agricultural entrepreneur whose family has built a remarkable ag enterprise. His family has deep roots in western Kansas. In fact, it is a true story of pioneers.

“My grandmother came to Dodge City in 1880 on a stagecoach,” Steve Irsik said. It sounds like a western movie, but it’s true. The Irsik side of the family came west to Kansas in the 1920s. These pioneers settled in southwest Kansas and built homes and farms.

Steve Irsik’s father served in the south Pacific during World War II and came back to the farm. Steve was born and raised near Garden City. He went to K-State, studied agricultural economics, and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era.

When Steve came back to join his family in the farming operation, the irrigation and feedlot industries were beginning to be developed. The Irsiks were pioneers in this type of agribusiness.

“My dad bought a farm which had the second irrigation well in western Kansas,” Steve said. “My father and two brothers started feeding cattle in 1961. That was just the second or third feedyard in southwest Kansas.”

Before that time, farmer-feeders had been raising a few head individually to be butchered or sold. Feedyards became a more efficient way to produce finished cattle. Then beef packing plants were built in western Kansas so as to be close to the source of production.  The agribusiness complex boomed.

The Irsik family was a leading part of the agribusiness growth. Their first feedyard built in 1961 had a capacity of 2,000 head. Today that feedyard’s capacity is 40,000 head.

Irsik Farms is now a dryland and irrigated farming and ranching operation with ranches in Kansas and Nebraska, including a 1,800 head cowherd. Irsik & Doll is a related business with feedyards and grain elevators across southwest Kansas. Irsik & Doll elevators are located in communities from Hutchinson to Sublette. The feedyards are in rural locations in southwest Kansas, near towns such as Garden City, Scott City, Cimarron, Hugoton, and Pierceville. Pierceville has a population of perhaps 300 people.  Now, that’s rural.

Part of the success of the Irsik family farming operation has been to integrate the various elements of the beef value chain.

“We go all the way from beef cattle genetic development clear to the meat cooler,” Steve said.

Steve was also part of pioneering initiatives to market agricultural products such as the 21st Century Alliance grain processing cooperative and U.S. Premium Beef. These farmer-investors bought a flour mill in Texas and an oat-milling company in Nebraska.  “If you ate granola, you probably ate some of our oats,” Steve said. “If you ate a tortilla in New Mexico or west Texas, the flour probably came from our flour mill.”

In the process of building these businesses, Steve got to know private equity investors in Dallas and elsewhere. He joined them in other investments such as a steel pipe company in Vermont, a food manufacturer in Massachusetts, and a wholesale vegetable distributor in Florida. The food manufacturing company, for example, produces products that are marketed under major brand names such as Hersheys and Nestle.

“These companies want to market their brand, but they don’t want to do the manufacturing,” Steve said. So, this company produces the powdered chocolate drink, but it is sold under the Hersheys brand. These are innovative ways of marketing.

Pioneers. Those brave men and women came west and built the state of Kansas. Now modern pioneers such as the Irsik family are leading the way in innovations of modern production agriculture. We commend Steve Irsik and family for making a difference as pioneers of today.

And there’s more. Steve Irsik was also a pioneer in another form of the cattle business – but not beef. We’ll learn about that next week.

Steve Irsik – Part 2

Beef. That’s the four-letter word which has been at the heart of a growing economy in southwest Kansas for decades, as beef cattle production and processing have expanded.  But now there’s another kind of cattle production going on in southwest Kansas that centers on a different four-letter word: Milk.

Last week we learned about Steve Irsik, the entrepreneurial agriculturist whose family has helped build the ag economy in southwest Kansas. For decades, their family operation has centered on the irrigated grain production and beef cattle feedyards which have been the hallmark of agriculture in southwest Kansas.

One day Steve and his banker were on an eastern Kansas agricultural tour which visited a modern dairy. Steve said to his banker, “Do you think I should have one of these?” His banker replied, “You bet.” Steve answered, “Well, call me if somebody comes along who can run one.” Six weeks later, Steve got a call. A man with large dairy experience in Washington State was coming to Kansas.

That led to the creation of Royal Farms Dairy in the year 2000. Today, Royal Farms Dairy milks 6,300 head of dairy cows. Another 7,000 head are in heifer development.

One of the striking things about Royal Farm Dairy is the innovative way that water and nutrients are used in the operation. For example, the dairy cattle generate 30,000 tons of manure per year. The dairy is using that manure as organic fertilizer to fertilize the crops.

“We don’t buy any commercial fertilizer,” Steve Irsik said. “It is a win-win situation.  Yields are increasing, organic matter is increasing in the soil, and we are cutting costs.”

Use of water is another innovative practice at Royal Farms Dairy. At the beginning, the dairy moved 1,000 acre feet of water allocation from crop production to dairy use.

The dairy minimizes water usage by using each gallon multiple times. Water that is used to cool milk is also used to flush pens and holding areas. Ultimately, this nutrient-enhanced water is then stored in a lagoon until it is used to strategically fertilize and irrigate 1,600 acres.

“All the lagoon water comes back to the farm,” Steve said. For its efforts, Royal Farms Dairy has been honored with the Kansas Banker’s Association Environmental Stewardship Award.

“We know a bunch of people in the dairy business around the U.S.,” Steve said. The Irsiks have also added a second dairy, called the Noble dairy, located south of Garden City. “There we are milking 2,400 cows twice a day.”

What are the keys to success in agribusiness today? “It’s really important for ag operations to think multigenerationally,” Steve said. The Irsiks have organized their operations as businesses with family members involved.
“You must keep your capital together, work together to develop a shared vision, and nurture and protect what preceding generations have built,” he said.

Over time, the beef and dairy production businesses in southwest Kansas have led to population growth, in contrast to the general population loss found in most of the rest of rural Kansas. After feedyards began in the 1950s and `60s, major beef packing plants were built in Ford, Finney and Seward counties. Then came large dairies and milk processing. From 1971 to 2007, the population in Ford, Finney and Seward County grew by 64 percent. During that same time, the metropolitan counties of Kansas grew by 48 percent and other rural counties fell by 19 percent.

That’s significant, because Royal Farms Dairy has brought growth to a rural community.  The dairy is located between Garden City and the rural community of Ingalls, population 331 people. Now, that’s rural.

Beef. It’s the four letter word which is at the center of the agribusiness complex in southwest Kansas, which has now been joined by milk. We salute Steve Irsik and all those involved with Royal Farms Dairy for making a difference by building this business while conserving water and resources. Beef and milk have helped create another four letter word: Grow.

And there’s more. The Irsiks have also helped bring about a new way of implementing an old organization. We’ll learn about that next week.

Steve Irsik – Part 3

“Prometo: Mi cabeza para pensar claramente, mi corazon para mayor lealtad, mis manos para mejor servicio…”  No, I don’t speak Spanish, but I have learned that those are the opening words of the 4-H pledge in Spanish. Today we’ll meet an innovative 4-H club which is helping extend the benefits of 4-H to a new dimension of Spanish-speaking families.

This is the last profile in our three-part series about Steve Irsik, an agricultural entrepreneur in southwest Kansas. We have previously learned about how his family developed their farming operation, including the creation of Royal Farms Dairy east of Garden City. Kyle Averhoff was brought in as manager. A key element to the success of such large, modern dairies is the workforce – many of whom are Hispanic.

In October 2012, Steve Irsik contacted Debra Bolton, the K-State Research and Extension family and consumer sciences specialist for the southwest area of Kansas.

“We were brainstorming how 4-H could reach more families,” Debra said. Specifically, they discussed how the benefits of 4-H could be applied to the newly immigrated families who had come to work in southwest Kansas.

“Royal Farms Dairy is home to over 14,000 cows and heifers and about 65 employees, many from El Salvador, Guatemala, and many other countries throughout Central America, South America and up through Mexico,” Kyle Averhoff said. “Southwest Kansas is an economic empire in how it’s developed and grown. Without the Hispanic culture and the culture of many other immigrant populations, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

K-State Research and Extension faculty in the southwest area developed a pilot program to reach out to this segment of the population. It was supported by state 4-H leader Barbara Stone and the Kansas 4-H Foundation. Bertha Mendoza is a nutrition specialist in the southwest area of Kansas, and her existing relationship with several Hispanic families was a major help.

These families and those of the workers at the dairies became a target for this innovative 4-H program. Alejandra Romero and Ruddy Yanez were hired as summer interns to assist with the project.

The goal was to create one club of 25 to 30 youth, but the interest grew faster than expected. The end result was four clubs involving 90 youth, with hundreds more on a waiting list. The clubs are located in Finney, Gray, and Kearney counties. These new 4-H members live in or near rural communities such as Garden City, Ingalls, Pierceville, and Deerfield, population 892 people. Now, that’s rural.

The 4-H organization has been around for a long time, but it was new to these immigrant families. Club meetings were implemented bilingually. For example, the 4-H pledge would be said in Spanish and then in English. The club involved youth, parents and even grandparents.

“The concept of 4-H caught on,” Debra Bolton said. “This 4-H club is more than youth development, it is family development. It’s family, it’s education, it’s learning, it’s all the things that integrate a family into a community.”

“They are very family focused,” Kyle Averhoff said of his working Hispanic families.  “We think that 4-H is a nice add-on to that, to help their children have opportunities to develop. We can look at countless stories of how our employees have grown and how their children have grown and become successful members of society.”

“It’s created such a great learning community,” Debra said. “It’s even received national recognition. The National 4-H wants one of our 4-Hers to sing at the national gala.”

“The more we can do for the children, that’s going to lift up the whole family,” Steve said. “It will truly lift up these families.”

“Mi salud para mayor bienestar, para mi club, mi comunidad, mi patria, mi mundo.”  Those are the closing words of the 4-H pledge in Spanish. We salute Steve Irsik, Kyle Averhoff, Barbara Stone, Debra Bolton, Bertha Mendoza, Alejandra Romero, Ruddy Yanez, and all those involved who are making a difference by helping more families experience the benefits of 4-H in a whole new way. I believe this is very good: Muy bueno.





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