Wild, Wild Midwest

Ag employees work hard, navigate unpredictability both on and off the clock

The world of Iowa agriculture is a wild one. Markets are unpredictable. Weather is untamable. The work is often sweaty and tiring. If there’s anything constant in the industry, it’s uncertainty and the hard work needed to get through it. It’s not unlike the rodeo lifestyle familiar to Landus Cooperative employees.

Landus Cooperative employee Caleb Cox has become an expert at navigating the unpredictable. For him, lives depend on it.

At his day job, Cox works full time serving Landus Cooperative members from the Gowrie location. As an operations technician he’s ready to adapt to any job at hand, from tool bar maintenance to handling anhydrous ammonia to delivering chemicals or seed to customers. But off the clock he’s putting in even more hours serving in a way one might not expect. Cox is a bull fighter. To some that title can evoke images of a cape-waving matador. But his job is much more familiar to anyone who’s attended a rodeo. He’s on ground level at Iowa rodeos keeping riders safe from their bulls. He’s not there for added entertainment like the rodeo clown (often called a funny man). He is there to predict and protect.

Every time a bull rider gets thrown, Cox becomes their first line of defense from that bull. While a rodeo clown may be gesturing from a barrel, telling jokes and making the crowd laugh, the bull fighter is getting in front of the bull to pull its attention away from the rider. It’s Cox’s job to anticipate when that rider will get bucked off before he actually does so he can react as quickly and effectively as possible, and keep that person safe.

“You’re like a guardian angel to those guys when they’re riding,” he said.

In the process of protecting local bull riders, he’s been run over, thrown in the air, and broken bones. He once broke the lower part of his leg trying to help a rider escape. Rather than go straight to the hospital, he taped his leg up and finished his job that night looking out for other riders. For a spectator watching, his job is dangerous, frightening, and certainly unpredictable. For Cox, there’s a bit more control to the role.

“Riding bulls is like dancing; you go jump for jump with the bull and counter every move he makes. You can’t really predict anything he’s going to throw at you. But a bull fighter can analyze and predict. With every passing year, and every new bull you fight, you get more knowledgeable. You are able to start seeing what will happen before it happens,” Cox said.

Despite already working full-time at the cooperative, he remains committed to bull fighting, sometimes working multiple area rodeos in a single weekend. He believes it’s crucial to help provide a safe way for young riders to continue to get involved in rodeos, so that they can continue to learn the lessons the sport can teach.

“For anyone in a rodeo, you must have a positive mind and the drive to do it. You must want to win. But you must also know that you won’t always win. I’m trying to teach my kids that it’s supposed to be fun, that it’s not always about bringing home money or winning the buckle. It’s about the willingness to put forth the effort, and the pride that comes from the work,” he said.

On the other side of the barrel 

Hard work comes naturally to fellow Landus Cooperative employee Marlee Stewart who competes at some of the rodeos Cox works at. When she’s not helping manage the many complexities of grain marketing as the cooperative’s grain marketing compliance specialist, she’s working with her horse, barrel racing at competitions throughout the Midwest.

Every evening she is practicing. Every weekend she is competing. And she is good. She has built a reputation in the local rodeo community, and throughout Landus Cooperative, for her precision and speed. But it takes work to be that good. A lot of work.

“This is what I hoard vacation days for,” she said. In fact, Stewart has never used vacation time for anything but barrel racing.

She’s been doing it since she was a 16-year-old 4-Her when she thought the game classes were much more fun than showing halter and trotting at a slow pace. Without any formal training, and without a million dollar animal, Stewart started practicing and competing. And she started winning. Her first horse was a gift from her mother when she was 9—a $100 mare from a neighbor down the road. “She wasn’t bred for anything special,” she said. But she worked with the horse day and night, and later went on to win the state National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) competition as an 18-year-old. She hasn’t slowed down since.

“I did absolutely everything with that horse. I showed halter, pleasure. I carried flags on her for drill team.” She even rode that horse to junior high softball practice in Harcourt a few times. “I wasn’t going to not go to practice just because I didn’t have a ride,” she joked.

Stewart has put in the endless hours needed to take a horse from zero experience to competing in the pro circuit. Now she’s putting in the hours with a new horse, starting back at the beginning, visiting any local barrel racing competition or rodeo she can to practice. If you pass Stewart on the road evenings or weekends, chances are she’s pulling a trailer behind her.

“Seeing your hard work pay off is most rewarding,” she said. “I spend more hours than I can count, and more dollars than you want to know. You aren’t always going to win—you have to do it because you’re just that passionate about it. And when you put that much time and effort into something, the moments when you actually do win are even better.”

The skills she’s built rodeoing she brings back to the workplace with her. “You can’t just be a weekend warrior if you want to be good at anything. You have to put in the effort every single day,” she said.

The trophy is in the together-time 

It’s that work ethic among other values that have made Landus Cooperative grain marketing advisor Stacy Raasch so supportive of her young daughter’s entry into the sport.

Raasch works with farmer-members throughout the west-central part of the state, helping them navigate the unpredictability of ag markets. As Raasch is getting initiated into the rodeo world with her seven-year-old daughter, Saige, she’s building even more connections to the rural communities she serves. The routes she drives to get her daughter to and from barrel races are often the same as those she drives daily to visit members’ farms. It’s a time commitment, even more hours spent on-the-go for the already busy mom, but it’s worth it.

“Saige is learning responsibility. I have expectations that if she wants to ride, then she has to be out there caring for the horse herself,” she said.

Raasch sees potential for her daughter continuing to grow into the sport and eventually take it seriously like Stewart. But no matter where the sport takes her, for now she’s happy for the opportunity for fun, and the self-gratification that comes from hard work and responsibility.

“Our time together is rewarding. You create a bond with your horse, and I’m watching my daughter create a bond with her horse as well,” she said. Raasch is even getting help from a Landus Cooperative member who’s own daughter rides at the college level. Raasch never doubted how strong the connections were among Iowa farmers. But she’s seeing that support grow even stronger the more involved they get in the rodeo world.

“It’s a whole family community. Everyone gets very close,” said Wendy Brandt, application programmer analyst for Landus Cooperative’s information technology (IT) division.

For Brandt, rodeoing is truly a family affair. She was a barrel racer who met her cowboy husband at the Nevada rodeo in 1993. He talked her into team roping—a rodeo event in which two riders work together to rope a steer. Team roping is the only rodeo event where men and women compete equally together in either single-gender or mixed-gender teams.

Brandt’s previous experience had been in barrel racing, where it’s just the rider and the horse. But with roping, she had to learn to work together as a team with another rider and communicate under pressure, skills she finds necessary on the job at Landus Cooperative as well.

“It’s a very humbling sport. You could win everything one day, and the next day nothing works. There’s a lot of losing. You have to be able to learn from mistakes, pick yourself up and move on,” Brandt said.

While Brandt has temporarily stepped away from competing to focus on her son showing cattle, she continues to contribute time and work to the industry. She is currently the web master for the Iowa Rodeo Cowboys Association, sharing the same IT skills she uses to serve Landus Cooperative members with the organization responsible for sanctioning rodeo events throughout Iowa. And in her free time at home, she’s working with her latest barrel racing horse, working towards the next opportunity to compete, improve, and have more fun.

Every Landus Cooperative employee who rodeos has been bucked off, run over, or broke down on the side of an interstate with trailer in tow. The sport is not always safe, and never easy. But they keep going back to it not just for the appeal of the prizes. They’re there for the values it teaches them, the same values that Landus Cooperative asks of all its employees every day. As workers in agriculture, these employees aren’t strangers to the wild swings the unpredictable industry brings. But they’ve managed to embrace the wild with hard work, consistent work, and fun.