Have you ever had one of those experiences where you were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? I can recall of few of those times in my life, and those experiences had a significant impact on me. Tom and Laura Field also experienced being in the right place at the right time, and they share about some of those times on today’s episode.
Tom’s career includes time at Colorado State University and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He currently serves as the director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Laura is very engaged with the Engler students, as well, while also serving as the legislative coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. She previously worked for Nebraska Cattlemen and, prior to moving to Nebraska, she was a partner in the Denver-based lobbying firm Williams and Locke. Together, Tom and Laura make a great team, investing in the lives of the Engler students, while also balancing the various aspects of their careers and family.
Life has taken Tom and Laura on an interesting journey, and they say they have been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time when doors open to new opportunities. In today’s episode, Tom and Laura share about growing up on their family’s cattle operations – Tom in Colorado and Laura in Texas – and how that was a pivotal time in their lives. They talk about their career experiences and the valuable lessons they have learned along the way and provide insight into how they keep everything in balance.
Tom and Laura are passionate about agriculture and are committed to serving young people. I am thrilled to share their stories on this episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture.
Episode 13 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity
Jessie Topp-Becker: Hey, Trailblazers. It’s Jessie, and it’s time for another episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture, a podcast for anyone interested in hearing the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators.
Today, you’re in for a special treat as we welcome two special guests to the podcast, Tom and Laura Field. Tom currently serves as director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Laura is also very engaged with the Engler students while also serving as legislative coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Together, Tom and Laura make a great team investing in the lives of the Engler students while also balancing the various aspects of their careers and family.
While life has taken Tom and Laura on an interesting journey. They say they have been fortunate to be at the right place at the right time when doors open to new opportunities. In today’s episode, Tom and Laura share about growing up on their family cattle operations and how that was a pivotal time in their lives; they talk about their career experiences and the valuable lessons they have learned along the way; and they provide insight into how they keep everything in balance. Tom and Laura are passionate about agriculture and are committed to serving young people, and I am thrilled to share their story on this episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture.
Tom and Laura, thank you so much for joining me for the podcast today. I’m excited to visit with both of you and get started here. As we get started, can you each take some time and tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
Laura Field: I’ve always considered myself an agricultural person. I grew up as a sixth-generation member of a seedstock cattle operation on the Texas Gulf Coast. My family’s been in the ranching business for well over 100 years down there and I grew up very involved in FFA, showed cattle and always knew that I wanted agriculture to be a big part of my life. I went to college and have an animal science and ag education degree from Texas Tech University (I’m a very proud Red Raider) and a master’s in agriculture from Colorado State University, where I was fortunate to get to study a little bit more specifically about the cattle industry.
I know we may talk about this down the road too, but I kind of accidentally happened into public policy. But I’ve really enjoyed being able to stay engaged and involved in agriculture, specifically in public policy for about the last 20 years.
I’ve got two sisters and a brother. Tom and I together have five kids. We have our little set of twins who are 9 years old and are fourth graders, and I consider being a mom a pretty important part of my life. I always tell people that I’m generally trying to find balance between work and home and all the other things that come with it.
Jessie: Tom, I’ll let you jump in next and then we’ll follow up on some of that, Laura.
Tom Field: I grew up in western Colorado. Our family has been ranching in Colorado since just a year or two after the conclusion of the Civil War, so we’ve been there a long time. We started in Grand County and ended up in Gunnison County. A great growing up – I mean a chance to grow up in a community that was very ranching oriented, also very education oriented. My family has been in the seedstock cattle business predominantly. Over time that morphed into the commercial cow-calf sector, which is what we do today.
I’ve stayed involved with the ranch throughout the majority of my life. I’m a co-owner with my two brothers and our families. I’m really fortunate. I grew up with parents with different thoughts about what was most important. My dad thought hard work and staying focused on the ranch was the most important thing. My mother thought the most important thing was reading and having experiences outside the ranch. And so, fortunately, they were able to give me the best of both those things, which made a massive difference.
You know, there’s no straight line to what I do today. But I think anybody who pursues things that are just interesting and they let their curiosity get the best of them, they tend to have these sort of tortured, zigzag, up, down, fall down, get back up sort of lives, and I think that would pretty much describe mine. But you know, just in in the big picture, I’ve always been very, very thankful to have had a career in agriculture in a lot of different venues: association work, university research work, education, practicality of production ag. So, all in all, I think I’ve always thought about myself as somebody who was mostly in agricultural who just happened to do a bunch of other really interesting things.
Jessie: You both talked about your family operations and growing up on those operations. Tom, you mentioned that you’re still in business with a family operation today. Can you talk a little bit about that operation and what that involvement looks like? Obviously, you’re in Nebraska and the operation is in Colorado.
Tom: When my dad passed away, we’d done a little bit of preparation, and we had a reasonable succession plan and estate plan put together, so we were able to transition through that reasonably well. But it was clear, you know, the first ag loan I took out was in the 1980s, early in the 1980s. And if I remember right, the interest rate I paid was 17 percent, so right in the middle of the farm crisis, the ugly ’80s. It became apparent after a period of time that the best way for the ranch to thrive was going to require that part of us actually lived off ranch and pursued alternative careers. And there’d be the sort of generation skip kind of approach, which has worked reasonably well.
We’ve been really fortunate, throughout my life, my dad always had good help. He had had a guy that worked with him for a pretty long period of time, that was really the operational guy on a ranch, and he was willing to stick with my two brothers and I, which, hopefully he doesn’t regret. And he’s the key to our day-to-day success.
We split responsibilities amongst the three of us. My brother, Mike, is a lifetime banker, and is really the right guy to manage the financial side of our business. I handle a lot of the genetics and putting the data together and keeping track of really what’s going on on the production side. And so, it works out pretty well.
But you know, now we’re in that place, we’re trying to figure out the next generation and what they really want. Does it make sense to stay in a region that’s so dominated by recreation? Can we really functionally manage a ranch in an area that progressively is less and less oriented to what it is that we do? So, like many families in the country, I think we’re trying to figure out what the next step is.
Jessie: And I would say, certainly in Colorado, with all that went on this year during with some proposed legislation and some of the things that they were trying to get through, that is a bigger question as well.
Tom: Yeah, when I go back to my home state, I can’t quite figure out where my state went.
Jessie: Tom, how did your involvement in the operation in the early years and growing up there really impact your future and the direction that your career has taken?
Tom: Oh, that’s a really good question. I was really lucky. And I think, you know, Laura’s background as well, you know, pretty entrepreneurial families throughout time. And I was fortunate. The ranching side of our business, or my grandfather, had been a very entrepreneurial guy. My mom’s mother was an incredibly entrepreneurial person. My mom turned out to be an entrepreneur as well. She started a children’s store at one point and ran that till she was nearly 80 years old. I think being surrounded by that entrepreneurial spirit was really important.
My dad was good at getting good people, and so I was influenced a lot by cowboys and ranch managers and business partners. And my dad was a taskmaster. He was a great guy, but like it was get yourself up in the morning and get to work because that’s how we made the thing fit together. But I grew up loving purebred cattle and really liking cattle a lot. I got to ride really good horses, which was a super blessing. I mean, my whole family rides and my dad was a great horseman.
I don’t know, I think all of that like that blue collar thing and that deep respect for people, land, livestock and community, it’s just as a powerful thing. And that’s, I think, you know, when you look at the kind of impact Laura’s family’s had in their community, I think we kind of were raised in the same sort of vein that you give back and that’s the critical piece.
Jessie: Laura, do you want to touch a little bit on your family’s operation and what that involvement looks like and how that really has impacted your career as well?
Laura: From my earliest memories, I think about being on the ranch and being around livestock, especially cattle. My parents lived in town. In fact, just after I was born, I was the second of our family, my mom told my dad (they lived on the ranch) and my mom said we’ve got to move to town, we need a bigger house. My parents still live in town, which is sort of an interesting thing. They keep their space and go to the ranch every day. But we grew up in town.
We have such an interesting story. My ancestors landed in Texas and settled there to raise cattle. My dad’s dad, who ended up in Texas, he was born in Tennessee, but ended up there to go to college to actually become a preacher. He met my grandmother at church and it was her family who had the ranch and both of them were hugely supportive of each other and went on to go through the ranching lifestyle together. My dad always knew that’s what he wanted to do, so he came back home from college and moved back in with my grandparents until he met my mom and they raised us there.
We showed cattle. I was very involved in FFA and did a lot of other stuff there in the community. I left for college, I think assuming I would probably end up back there, which is not what happened. But my brother, who is the youngest of our sibling crew, he and his family are there on the ranch and they run kind of the day-to-day operations with my dad. I’m very fortunate that we get to know what they’re doing. They talk about it, we go home as much as we can and get to see them. But really we’re somewhat hands-off from the operational side. But I’m so fortunate that and feel very blessed that my brother made the choice to go back there and to be to be part of that operation.
My parents were very, very strong about our academic careers. We all went to college. They wanted us all to go off and go away from home, see the world a little bit and then make our decisions from there. I’m the only one of my siblings who doesn’t live in Texas. My sisters both live kind of close to the ranch. And so I feel like I’m always there kind of from afar, but certainly have always made it clear to my brother that I support him and want him to keep going in that.
Early on, I knew I wanted to be an agricultural science major of some sort; I wanted to further my education in that space. And so I feel similar to what Tom said, I just feel very fortunate to have been able to grow up in that way and to have had the experiences. I don’t ever remember being told there was something I couldn’t do or try. And I just feel really lucky that my parents and my grandparents had those opportunities available. My mom’s family also ranched, and so that was nice to have that kind of on both sides. I just feel really lucky to have had those chances.
Jessie: Well, certainly no question that you both have strong ties and foundations in agriculture and in the upbringing that you had and how that has set you up for success in what you’re doing today. And I’m excited to dive into some of that here.
Laura, I think I’ll start with you. You grew up in Texas and then ended up in Colorado prior to moving to Nebraska, and you were a partner in a Denver-based lobbying firm, Williams and Locke, where you represented a broad base of business clients. Can you talk about that firm and what it was like to be a lobbyist in Colorado?
Laura: Yes. It’s such an interesting thing to think about that. I started doing that back in 2002, which seems like yesterday, but it was a long time ago. So much has changed in Colorado, but I am forever grateful for the opportunities that I had.
When I was in graduate school at Colorado State, I had the opportunity to be an intern for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and I was their David G. and Lucille S. Rice legislative intern, which I think I was maybe the third or fourth intern they had in that program. Dave Rice was a longtime lobbyist for the Colorado Cattlemen. In fact, he’s the only lobbyist who has a plaque in his honor in the halls of the Colorado State Capitol – just a brilliant man. I never got to meet Dave, but my mentor who went on to be my business partner, Danny Williams, was equally revered in the state of Colorado. I did my internship and enjoyed every moment of learning from Danny and learning from the Colorado Cattlemen.
I went back to school to finish and actually took another job and was really sort of waffling about what I wanted to do. Danny called me one day and said, “Hey, my longtime partner’s retiring.” And he literally said to me, “What do you make in your current job?” And I told him what I make. And he said, “Okay, I’ll pay you that if you’ll come work for me.” Little did I know there was going to be some tax ramifications to think about, but it was the best decision I made. I don’t know if I thought it would turn into a 10-year partnership. And I always wonder had we not moved to Nebraska what that would have turned into.
We represented a broad base of business clients, including the Colorado Cattlemen, the Colorado Woolgrowers, Colorado Horse Council, but we also represented some other clients in the natural resources space: oil and gas, water, builders and contractors. We were very focused on sort of a business portfolio. But just a fascinating thing for me at the point in time when I did that internship and got into that field, my thought process was I wanted to go to law school. I was really thinking about what it would be like to be an attorney and to kind of practice in that area, which I did not end up going to law school. But it was just such an eye-opening experience.
Danny was a former state representative from Colorado, so he had great relationships. He taught me lessons that to this day, I tell people, you know, you’ve got to be able to tell your story while you’re walking down the stairs; you’ve got to be quick, you’ve got to be brief, you’ve got to be succinct. You can never lie to anybody; they need to know that they can trust you. And I think about that in my interactions even still today.
The climate in Colorado has really changed. Not having been a Colorado native, I feel like I came into my first couple years of lobbying really asking more questions than I probably answered for people, but I really worked hard to build relationships with senators and representatives to work on that stuff. And really learning early on (the population was shifting 20 years ago in Colorado, but is even more dramatic now), that we had to stick together. Agriculture really needed to speak with a unified voice. We needed to find out if there were things we agreed on and go forward together. If we disagreed, we probably better leave those issues alone so we didn’t go down to the capitol and argue, and it was really a great education. For me, I learned so much about water and livestock and land use.
In fact, over the lunch hour today, I was on a call with Colorado Cattlemen. Tom and I continue to be members. We think there is so much value in the things that those associations do for the livestock producers in those states. My parents were long-time members of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, so I grew up knowing how it was important to be part of those groups. It was just very transformational for me to spend those years working in that space.
Jessie: I would guess with all that the Colorado Cattleman’s Association did to help with the Initiative 16 this year, it probably makes you even more proud to be a member of that association and remain involved today.
Laura: Oh, without question, and I still have a number of friends who work in Colorado. You know, when I was an intern at Colorado Cattleman, Terry Fankhauser was on the staff but not the executive director yet, and I have known and respected Terry for years. I told everyone I knew, I was telling my friends here in Nebraska, about what was going on. In my current role at the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, we were just sort of sitting thinking about the things that our livestock friends in Colorado were facing.
You’re 100 percent right, we are so thankful that we have the chance to be a part of that association and the things that they do to represent their members. That could have had such a detrimental, devastating impact on the industry. For our friends and family who live in Colorado, we are always encouraging them to get involved and be involved and speak up and have their voices heard.
Jessie: When we look at your career, you know whether it was with your lobbying firm, the work that you did with Nebraska Cattlemen or now with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, where did your passion for advocating for agriculture and public policy come from?
Laura: I’ve been thinking about that a little bit. I think that I have always felt like it was really important to be the one who tells your own story. In fact, today when I talk to young people, I always tell them, there’s never been a more important time to tell your story. And if you don’t tell it, somebody else is going to tell it for you. I think I felt that way all of my childhood and growing up. You know, if you ask my dad, he would say I was born to talk, that I can talk breathing in and breathing out. So, he would tell you that I was a natural for this because I just like to talk a lot.
And I think in that and being able to be confident to tell a story. I think that I always knew that it was important to advocate for what you believe in. You kind of hear this negative stigma about advocacy and lobbying in particular. And yet, when you think about it, we all are part of a special interest group. It could be your church, it could be Girl Scouts, it can be your child’s sports team, and certainly an agricultural advocacy group is the thing that I have been able to really sink my teeth into. I think just sort of figuring out from the storytelling perspective of, we’ve got to stand up and not be afraid when people come at us, or there’s misinformation spoken. How do you do a better job of getting into that space and advocating on behalf of you and people that you care about.
It was completely accidental for me. I mean, I needed to do an internship to complete my graduate work, so it was a fantastic opportunity. I don’t think I ever envisioned that it would turn into what it has for me. I think it’s just been a really cool side effect of being in the right place at the right time.
Jessie: You touched a little bit on the importance of telling our story and not letting someone else tell that for us. I feel like farmers and ranchers have heard that for years now. Do you think producers are becoming more confident in sharing their stories and more willing to do that?
Laura: Absolutely. And I was thinking, as I said that just a few minutes ago, that I’ve noticed more and more the hashtag advocates or other people getting into the space of advocating for agriculture. I think we realize we’re in such a unique position with a growing population that we need to both feed and educate. We’ve got so many different issues coming at us that we need to try to think differently and sometimes do differently.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s sort of a new, ignited passion because of the fact that I am married to Tom and have the unique and incredible opportunity to be alongside so many college students, because they are such a breath of fresh air in the fact that they are so much more confident to speak up. They take that information back to their parents and their operations.
I definitely feel like we are seeing really good advocacy, and it can only get better in my opinion. But I think people do a really good job and probably a better job than they have done because they know it’s so important right now.
Jessie: Can you share a little bit about your role with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and what that looks like?
Laura: Absolutely. It has been a kind of evolving role, which I’ve enjoyed and appreciated having some flexibility. My title with the department is legislative coordinator, so I basically coordinate all of our state legislative portfolio, and I have the chance to interact with the executive branch at the governor’s office in the policy office to forward the things that we think are important for Nebraska agriculture.
I also get the chance to interface with the different commodity groups, whether they’re grains, ethanol, cattlemen, Farm Bureau, any of the any of the groups like that. A lot of the friendships and relationships I had the chance to make when we moved here 10 years ago and in working with the cattlemen, I’ve had the chance to continue to work with those people.
I’ve been there for just a couple of years. It’s been a really neat experience that I will be really thankful that I’ve had as I continue to move through it and add on to other things down the road. It was my first experience actually working for a government agency, so I’ve really learned a lot about that, and I think it’s all been really good.
Jessie: It’s interesting to see how like life takes those curves and twists and ends up, like you said, you never maybe thought that you would end up there and the experience that you’re having.
Laura: Oh, absolutely. That is very true. I just feel very lucky to have had the chance to work across a lot of different things. I tell most people that I meet that, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. So I think that is helpful. It’s frustrating sometimes, because I’m like, “Gosh, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” And then it’s like, oh, but if a cool opportunity comes along, I’m not afraid to maybe jump in and take it.
Jessie: Laura, thanks so much for sharing, and we’re going to circle back to you, but Tom, I don’t want to leave you out either. You currently serve as the director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Before we dive into that, can you talk about your career prior to going to the Engler program?
Tom: When I got out of college in 1980, I went back to work for my family. At that time, we had a purebred division and a commercial division. We’re also, then and now, in the land business. I got pretty involved in the purebred cattle side of things, and I had a fair bit of responsibility on the commercial cow side as well. That was a great five years. The farm crisis was well underway, and there was a pretty strong sense that having a plan B made some sense but also going and developing a little more expertise and background.
I went back and I did my masters at Colorado State. And one thing led to another; I did my Ph.D. there. I got to work with great faculty, like really great faculty in those educational experiences. I got done with my Ph.D. program or was wrapping it up and Texas A&M hired away a guy from Colorado State and the department head was in a jam and needed somebody to fill the spot. I can still remember David Ames coming down and saying “I’m in a jam. Someone’s got to fill this role. You’re the best I’ve got, you’ll have to do.” A real vote of confidence. And Dave and I are great friends, but I’ve never forgotten that conversation. But you know, you hit a point, and I think you can stay too long in a place, and you start to institutionalize, and you start to get grumpy about things that that you probably shouldn’t be grumpy about, and it was just kind of a time for a change.
And I was fortunate. Bo Reagan and then Mandy Carr at NCBA called up, so I went to NCBA and spent about five years on the staff there working with the producer education program, Beef Quality Assurance, doing a lot of work sort of as a researcher and subject matter expert for the D.C. team. I had a great relationship with Colin Woodall and his team in D.C., and loved that part of it. In the midst of all that, I was doing some consulting, writing and doing a lot of public speaking. I guess maybe, like Laura, I was born to talk. And so, all of them were great experiences.
Through all of the different things I’ve gotten to do, I look back on my career, all of it was designed to put me in the right place at the right time to lead the program at the University of Nebraska. I spent nearly 19 years at Colorado State working in the beef systems group. Had a great experience. I was mentored by guy named Bob Taylor, who was an extraordinary educator, extraordinary cattleman and an even finer human being. He encouraged me to not be a specialist, but to work in a lot of different areas and learn a lot and be just intensely curious. I think by the time I was done there, I’d published with people in 13 different departments, and I mean just crazy stuff and just crazy enough to go try all that stuff.
Jessie: Can you talk a little bit, Tom, about what attracted you to the program and kind of how those experiences, like you said, put you in the right place at the right time?
Tom: The Engler program, of course, was founded through a vision and gift on the part of Paul Engler. Through his foundation, the Paul and Virginia Engler Foundation in Amarillo, he made a very sizable investment. Some people say donation and I say “No, you don’t know Paul very well. It was an investment.” And literally I think his vision was, could we recreate the generation of Paul Englers and J.R. Simplots and those who said, “Look, we’re going to carve something out of this wilderness, and we’re going to make something happen.” And Nebraska is the perfect place to do that, because Nebraska is or Nebraskans are makers, they’ve been making things and creating value under the radar for generations.
I was attracted here partly by Paul’s vision, the chance to build a program. Even though I was two years after the gift, a guy named Mark Gustafson had done a really good job of laying some foundation of trying to figure out the curriculum, fighting some of the administrative battles that I didn’t have to fight, which I’m forever thankful for. But to come here and build something and to do it in service to the people of Nebraska.
I’ll be honest, I’d gotten frustrated with the loss of vision for land grant universities, and this was an opportunity to take an old idea, right, really that traces all the way back to the founders of this country: that education for the sons and daughters of working class and blue collar and craftsmen and tradesmen and agriculturalists was every bit as important, if not more important, than educating the children of the elites. This was a chance to take that land grant university vision and put it into practice in a modern and contemporary way. And it made no sense. Nobody had done it, but it was a chance to take everything I’d learned … everything. I had a chance to be part of all the great people who had worked so hard to help me grow up and learn and mature and develop as a professional and to be able to bring that network and all that to serve people here was just awesome. And it was a little bit challenging.
To Laura’s credit, she was willing to come because, you know, for her, we walked away from a really great opportunity she had in Colorado and she had a great relationship with Danny Williams and that was a great firm. But we came out here to serve people here. That first interview, I think we made it very clear that Laura was an important part of how we were going to do this and that we were going to not only focus on the professional development of young people, we were also going to develop and grow them as human beings. Laura has been an absolute champion and really gets an awful lot of credit for the good things that have happened in the Engler program.
Jessie: You’ve obviously had a front row seat to building the program. How has the program evolved since it started a little more than a decade ago?
Tom: When I actually checked into my first office, they had taken a storeroom and found a surplus desk, put a phone on it and said “Okay, get after it.” That was pretty much the start. I mean we were in a building that they said, “We’re going to tear this building down, so don’t get too used to it.” And they did eventually tear it down. We’re in a brand-new facility today, but we spent 10 years in a great old building.
At our first graduation event, at the end of the year the first spring I was there, we ordered in barbecue, we sat out on a picnic bench outside the East Campus Library at the Arboretum, and there were probably nine people there. This last year when we did our senior celebration, it was a packed house, with Paul Engler front and center.
It was just a phenomenal night because our program in the midst of COVID refused to go silent. We stayed live for almost the entire duration of that. We kept serving students. We kept really living the values of our program. And this is a program that was not built by me, this program was built by a great staff and a great team. But most importantly, this was built by the vision of students who bought into the notion that the American dream was possible. And that that was not passe. And it was not silly. And it was not something to be decried by those who see the world through an entitlement lens. And we just said we’re going to build and we attract people to that.
The people who get involved with us, they come almost as if blessings in the night, who just buy into this. The credit for everything that’s happened here that’s really great and good belongs to our students or alumni and the friends of the program who were so gracious in helping us build this.
Jessie: We interviewed Hannah Esch, who went through the Engler program, on the podcast earlier this year. And even in some of my looking at the Engler program online and some of the other young people who have come through the program, the caliber of students that you have attracted and the things that they are doing is remarkable. It’s really impressive. I can’t imagine how invigorating It is to be around those students and interact with them and their ideas.
Tom: One wants to have their track shoes on when you show up at this place.
Jessie: I bet! I bet it keeps you young and invigorated and excited about the future for sure.
Tom: Absolutely. I think anybody who comes into our community, into our realm, that’s the thing they always leave with is they can’t get over the energy and the capacity and the commitment. Because at the end of the day, this is not easy. Starting a company or even thinking about starting a company, that’s an uncomfortable place. And frankly, it’s working in Nebraska because the depth of work ethic in this state is just phenomenal.
Jessie: You touched a little bit on starting a business and being an entrepreneur. Obviously, there’s risks involved. How do you inspire and motivate students to take risks and pursue those dreams?
Tom: I think really what we do is we help provide an environment that gives people permission to let out what’s deep inside them already. From a big-picture perspective, we work really hard to create a customized educational experience for people and it goes far beyond education. It’s an immersion experience in entrepreneurship. We meet people where they are because we get students who will show up as 18-year-olds that have got a going business, and the last thing we need to do is get in the way of that. We need to help them grow it from where it is, not go backwards.
Our whole focus is around mindset. First, develop the mindset of the entrepreneur. We think that’s possible for far more people than maybe even the conventional wisdom would say. The second thing that we do then is we give them immersion experiences so they can test entrepreneurship without a lot of risk financially.
They can make all the mistakes with a $50 investment that you actually would make with a $1 million dollar investment. So if we do we lose, if we lose money, it’s $50 instead of a $1 million, which is a lot easier for everybody to swallow. Then we grow. We grow the opportunity and we let people test. We are unafraid of failure. We believe in setbacks. We think all learning is based on trying and we start before we’re ready.
Frankly, we’re not an academic program. We are a community of builders and makers, totally committed to purpose. We are set down in the middle of the land grant university system where we’re the intersection, the roundabout, if you will, where people of various backgrounds, talents, perspectives and skills can come together with one unifying belief and that’s that their purpose is best lived by writing the script for their own lives and starting things. It’s a culture that’s now pretty well established, and it’s phenomenal. You come here and you see a lot of just activated, take charge ownership. My job is pretty much to make sure the trash gets taken out and the cardboard gets recycled.
Jessie: It certainly sounds like an amazing culture. Obviously, when it comes to launching your own business, there are risks involved, and it sounds like the Engler program is a safe place for those students to learn that mistakes are going to happen. And how you kind of react to that and build from that is one of the things that you help them figure out
Tom: Failure, you know, it’s a funny thing in the American culture. And we have this weird relationship with failure. We’ve kind of embraced the notion that you fail forward, fail fast, fail cheap … learn like crazy and go again. It’s sort of the cowboy thing, right? If you get bucked off, get up, get back on. Be a little smarter the next time you get on.
I think we’re fortunate to be in a place where that’s embraced. We attract kids and young people from very diverse backgrounds to what we do – multicultural, all kinds of life experiences and perspectives. But they’re unified in this notion that the highly motivated person tied to a great team with the belief that a better tomorrow is possible through hard work, investment and self-sacrifice, that that’s the path and it’s awesome to hang out with.
Jessie: Tom, where did your passion for working with students and growing alongside of them come from?
Tom: You know, I’m not really sure about that. I have two grandmothers who were teachers. Pretty much all the way through my public school education there was always at exactly the right time, the right teacher, and they had an impact on me. And when I got to the university, I had great mentors.
I was surrounded by people in the cattle business who were deeply curious people. Bart and Mary Strang at Strang Herefords in in Meeker, Colorado, were absolutely instrumental in growing me as a thinker. Bart is a graduate of Princeton and was a lover of history. He was kind of the Thomas Jefferson of western Colorado as far as I was concerned. I just kept getting exposed to people like that. I had a great friendship with Randy Blach, with CattleFax, who just drove you to keep thinking and exploring.
As a person of faith, I think God uses where he wants to use us, and he’s chosen this for me, and I’m grateful.
Jessie: Tom, what do you think the future looks like for young people who have big ideas and want to leave their mark on the agriculture industry, or really any industry?
Tom: I think we’re in an era of such rapid technological change, but also at a time when the fundamentals have never mattered more, when principled entrepreneurship has never mattered more than it does today. I think the future is bright. And I think one of the things that we all have to do, my generation and older, is we have to make sure that we are encouraging young people to try, to think, to give it a new look, to be creative. We want to just support that over and over and over again.
Behind the scenes, we want to fight like crazy to preserve a government and a way of life and a policy process that actually enables them to live out the opportunity. Because if you want employees, you have to have employers. And those employers need to generate real value and community. Our overall vision is we’re going to build people who build businesses that build communities; that’s the core. I think there’s huge opportunity in that, and I think the big weapon that we’ve got to wield is that axe that fights against cynicism and the loss of hope.
And then secondly, we have to have the grit and determination. And thank goodness for people like Laura who will fight to make sure that policy is rational, sensible and workable. We need good government. We need government, but we need it to be aligned with vision. My hope for the future is that we’ll be adults in the room, and we’ll build a system and then sustain a system that gives young people a chance to actually fly.
Jessie: As you’re talking about that, I was thinking about Laura’s role and public policy. Laura, how does Tom’s involvement and your involvement with the Engler program impact what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Laura: I’m very fortunate to have the chance to interact with college students, whether it’s Tom students or an advanced ag economics public policy class or just young people who walk through the capitol who are thinking about running for office someday. I come home many nights exasperated about the frustrations of the conversations I have some days, and yet I go back to the fact that there’s never been a more important time to tell the story, and I’m not the only one who can tell it.
Frankly, me telling it is great. But me opening the door for someone else to tell it for themselves is even more important. If I can bring a Hannah Esch to the capitol and tell her story about being a college student who started a beef business who sells beef to all 50 states, then that’s amazing. It’s so much more impactful for Hannah to tell that story, but I’m happy to tell it on her behalf if she can’t be there. I think that’s finding that mix, but also just looking for those opportunities to be encouraging. I tell people all the time, I’ve never wanted to run for office or serve in those roles, but I encourage people who are civic minded to do it, because we need those voices around the table.
Jessie: Earlier on, Tom talked about, Laura, the role that you also have with the Engler students. Can you talk a little bit more about the opportunities that you have to interact with the Engler students and to invest in them as well?
Laura: It’s a real joy in our lives, and I think I’m lucky. Tom always talks about how I come alongside him, and I think it is fair to say that we came to Nebraska as a package deal. Tom and I both knew, Ronnie Green outside of our marriage. I actually had Ronnie as a professor when I was a college freshman and Tom’s known Ronnie for years, so it was nice for us to rebuild that relationship. But I think when we came here that was everybody’s understanding. Tom lets me in as much as I push my way in, and so I appreciate that opportunity.
It is an invaluable thing for us. These students are part of our family. We see them as often as our children. They certainly are helping us raise our children. We want our children to be like them when they grow up. Our kids talk about Engler all the time. And I think it makes it makes it easier for us to embrace and love the program because it means so much to us.
Every year I get so excited when school starts and a new group of students come in. I know that they’re going to be etching their stories on our lives. And you know, for what little bit we give back to them, they give it to us 10 times in return. We are so fortunate to be able to share their stories. My heart just gets so full at their senior celebrations every year when their parents come over and give us a hug and say you’ve made a difference in my kid’s life. Their parents just don’t know how much of a difference they make in our lives.
I just I feel so fortunate. We just are so thankful for the chance to get to be part of their lives, and that they look to us, and you know, they want to come up to our house and hang out, or they want to come for a walk in the country. It’s just a really cool opportunity that we’ve been given a chance to be a part of.
Jessie: As career-minded people, as a mom and a dad, how do you balance all of it, with your kids and with your careers and with college students and all of that? How do you balance it all?
Laura: We make a lot of mistakes. When Tom has students who are getting married or we have somebody come to us for advice, we always say, “Gosh, we mess it up all the time.” We don’t do it well, all the time, but I think we make a lot of space for forgiveness and for understanding and still spend plenty of time being frustrated and upset. And yet, I think it’s an important thing for us to model real life.
I tell, especially the young women in Tom’s program, that I don’t know if my life looks like what I thought it would look like in my mid-40s. I know in my 30s it didn’t look like what I thought it would look like. And I think that is something that you have to learn to be okay with. And not okay in a settling way. Oftentimes when you think of challenges put in your path and you can’t overcome it, all of a sudden you realize it was better on the other side. I really do think things that I used to think would be a challenge have turned into really great opportunities.
We’re very real. If people ask us to tell a little bit about our story or how we got through things, we are very honest about it. A couple mornings a week I put the kids on the bus and a couple mornings a week Tom puts the kids on the bus. I have tried really hard to work with my jobs. I learned very early that being a stay-at-home mom was probably not the thing that I was going to be really good at. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and I am so thankful for that, but I just didn’t thrive in that way. I’ve been fortunate to work with my bosses who have known being home to pick the kids up from the bus is important. And, thankfully, we have a gob of college students at our beck and call that I can call and say “I’m running late. Can you please go to my house and meet the kids after school?”
Tom’s lessons that he teaches his students about failure is that you can do it and you can still be okay. We’re in it together. And that’s helpful even though sometimes we get it all wrong. We don’t get it right all the time.
Jessie: I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to tell people how it is or to be really truthful with them. I think in a day and age when life can look so glamorous on social media and we can make it look however we want, people need the truth or they need people who are willing to share the hard stuff and to be honest about their true experiences, because life isn’t always what it looks like on social media.
Laura: It’s so true. I’ve told a number of people who’ve asked us too, I’m not a quitter and Tom is not a quitter. And we live in a world where it’s often easier to walk away than work it out. That’s part of it too for us is that we’re going to figure it out. It may take us a little bit of time.
I am completely confident being Laura Field, but I’m also very confident in being Tom Field’s wife. I go somewhere in Nebraska, and I’ll introduce myself and they’ll say, “Do you know Tom Field?” I used to roll my eyes and be like, “Yes, of course, I know Tom Field.” But I also have really learned that there’s strength in both identities. And I am that person on both sides of that equation. I think it is great to be yourself and it’s great to be a partner with someone, and it took me a long time to learn that.
And so, I think to help young people learn to bring out the best in each other and work through those hard times and don’t just walk away when it gets hard, or like you said, when it’s not the glamorous picture on social media. It’s not always like that, and yet, it’s still really beautiful and wonderful at the same time.
Jessie: What piece of advice would you give to young people? Obviously, we’ve talked a lot about your interactions with young people, so if you would both be willing to share maybe one piece of advice that you would share with young people.
Tom: I was thinking about that, because it’s a hard one. Each kid, each person, each student, each young adult is at a different place and a different stage. In light of where we’re at today, the advice I would give is, number one, stick to the fundamentals, they haven’t changed. The fundamentals of professionalism, of being honorable and decent, etc., those things are valuable. They were valuable 200 years ago. They’ll be valuable 200 years from now.
The second thing is don’t let your doubt or someone else’s doubt get in the way of what you might try. It doesn’t matter whether you win the first time. It does not matter. What matters, what’s the most honorable thing, is that courageous and sincere attempt. And the sooner we can get back to that as a country and celebrate those and not just decry those who get off the sidelines and are actually in the game, I think the better off we’ll be.
I hope we keep those two things fundamental. I think about Kate and Coleman, our little kids, and our big three, if they can have those things in mind: the fundamentals matter and get in the game and play the game. There’s more joy to be found in the struggle than the safety of the sideline.
Jessie: Great advice. Laura, what about you?
Laura: Number one, surround yourself with people who are going to lift you up when you need lifting up and laugh with you and cry with you. I think it takes a community to get through some of the challenges that we all face.
I also think it is so important that when something happens that is not what you expected or your life goes a different way, it’s okay. There’s probably a reason, so hang in there and don’t give up or get frustrated just because it doesn’t go the way that you thought it would. If things had worked out the way I thought they would, my life would look so much different, and I really love my life, so I’m glad that sometimes they didn’t work out. Surround yourself with a community of supporters and if it doesn’t work out, there’s probably a reason, so keep on going forward.
Jessie: One of the questions I ask all of the guests on the podcast is to talk about a trailblazer in your life, what has made them a trailblazer and how they’ve impacted your life. So if you wouldn’t mind both sharing about someone.
Laura: I first thought about what is a true trailblazer. And to me, it’s just someone who will plow through and take no prisoners, just go for it and don’t let anybody tell you no. I thought back to when I first started grad school. I was in a class that we were asked to identify two leaders of the beef industry, and then we had to call them and interview them. The two that I called an interviewed were Paul Engler and Paul Genho.
I was fascinated with Paul Engler for many years for a lot of different reasons. But I still had my interview notes from my discussion with Paul when we came here. When I got to meet Paul and hear his story of being a 10-year-old who went to an auction market and bought cattle with no money and went home and told his dad what he had done, it’s so fantastic.
I think Paul epitomizes trailblazing. And again, I don’t want to sound cliche, because we get to be the benefactors of the great Paul Engler. And I’ve got so many family members who left their comfort zones to go do great things, but I really think just in general about trailblazing and just being willing to go for it and not be afraid.
Jessie: That’s neat how it has kind of come full circle for you.
Tom: Yeah, so it’s a hard question, because I’ve been really blessed to have so many really unique people in my life, everything from artists and athletes to musicians and entrepreneurs and scientists and all of that. I could go on and on and on. But there’s a group that actually, I think, as a kid had a really big impact on me. I was really lucky to be in a community where I was surrounded by really good cowboys. I mean, really good cowboys. Stockmen. Men and women of honor of, of conviction and a core just made of the greatest materials you could imagine. And none of them famous except on every outfit they ever worked on. But always there to offer not only encouragement, but also challenged to hold you to a standard.
I think about all the cowboys that I’ve interacted with in my life and you know, I’ll be honest, I would hope at the end of my life that some would say that I was the equal of those guys.
Jessie: I think oftentimes the people who have the greatest impact on us aren’t the people who are maybe as well known or have that notoriety, but they’re the people who are there day in and day out, just doing their job, whether they’ve been asked to or not, going above and beyond and doing it, like you said, with honor and integrity.
Well, Tom and Laura, thank you. I have truly enjoyed our conversation and just visiting with both of you and your insights and experiences in the industry. I think we could talk for a lot longer, but I just really appreciate your insights and your willingness to participate, so thank you very much.
Tom: Thanks for the opportunity.
Laura: Yes, thanks for having us. I enjoyed it very much.
Jessie: As with all guests on the trailblazing podcast, I enjoy hearing what has led them to where they are today. And Tom and Laura are no different.
Tom and Laura each have a unique story, and I think it’s neat how they share experiences of being in the right place at the right time, and how that impacted the trajectory and direction of their lives. Their shared passion for investing in the students enrolled in the Engler program is remarkable. And those students are fortunate to have two individuals who are so committed to their success.
Thanks again for joining me for today’s episode of Trailblazing in Agriculture, featuring Tom and Laura Field. Join me again next time as a journey to highlight more trailblazers in agriculture continues.