There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.
The Weliever story is a familiar one but with a generational twist. Jearld “Jerry” Weliever and his son Ryan raise alfalfa on 1300 acres spread across Missouri Valley. They come by it honestly as people often say of family traditions.
Jerry’s grandfather, father and now Ryan were and are farmers along Missouri Valley Road. The elder Weliever men farmed independently, Jerry and Ryan are in it together for the long haul.
Jerry’s grandfather, also named Jearld, came to Wyoming from Kearney, Nebraska as a young man, settling with his wife Threase Wempen (Tracy) in Worland.
“He moved to Worland in the late 30s, working as a tenant farmer for Holly Sugar,” Jerry said. “He lived most of his life thinking he was born in 1910 until he applied for Social Security and found out he was born in 1911. He said he was younger that way.”
Jearld leased land from Vera Pattison on Harris Bridge Road before eventually purchasing 160 acres on East Pavillion Road.
“It’s still in the family,” Jerry said.
The expansion of the Weliever operation from the original 160 acres his grandfather purchased to the 1300 acres that Ryan and Jerry farm together is a complex story of leasing, purchasing, and selling when the property was hard to access, while continually growing.
Jearld’s son, Jerry’s dad is Daniel Weliever.
Dan started with a lease on the Fike Place, then purchased land west of Midvale on Missouri Valley Road in 1969.
“I grew up there,” Jerry said.
Dan and his late wife Zelma raised two girls, Laura Weliever Drake, Tanya Weliever Santee, and Jerry.
“Dad was there 50 years,” Jerry said.
Jerry graduated from Wind River High School in 1983 where he competed in basketball and track.
He went directly into farming with Dan after graduation.
They had 190 acres on Missouri Valley and 160 on East Pavillion Road to start.
The operation added 90 acres with the purchase of the Hunts Place and another 70 when they bought the Bonds farm.
“Grandpa sold his place to Dad in 1972,” Jerry said.
Not every purchase became a permanent part of their agricultural operation. They purchased 40 acres from Ed Vermillion, then sold it a few years later.
“I didn’t fit anywhere, it was too far away,” Jerry said. “We’re 11 miles from one end to the other. When we start the windrower, it’s methodical. This year was a challenge to get through.”
That challenge came in the abundant rainfall that fell on Fremont County this summer. In most years, farmers can control cuttings by watering fields at different times so they’re not all mature at the same rate. With the frequent rain this season, all the hay was ready at once.
In 1997 they added 100 acres purchased from Dave Pence.
Jerry stepped out on his own in 1991, purchasing 179 acres on Missouri Valley, the home place where most of their equipment is stored.
“It was my first solo purchase,” Jerry said. “I’d leased land across the road 160 acres from Larry Paxton and 101 acres from Roy Haggerty. There were some lean times for a little bit.”
He added another 100 acres from Cliff Pattison and 140 from Mike Lindstadt in 1997. That totals three separate sections of 400, 500, and 400 acre parcels.
“You don’t just get 1300 acres. Some of the places we leased and ended up buying,” Jerry said. “You buy it in chunks. I’m not sure a young farmer could do that today.”
“What I love is when great grandpa bought his place and when you did it, grandpa told you not to buy,” Ryan said.
The present operation is entirely in hay production, whether it is straight alfalfa or a cover crop of oats or barley.
“Everything we do goes through a swather and baler,” Jerry said.
It wasn’t always hay. Earlier, Jerry raised beets, cattle, and malt barley.
“You better know banking and ag lending,” Jerry said.
Sugar beets are a gamble. They can produce big yields when the weather is right in the spring, and then again at harvest and water is abundant, but they can fail just as easily when conditions go south. Add to that the fickle nature of the sugar beet industry in Fremont County, an industry that favors producers in Washakie and Big Horn County and you have a challenge.
“We started with 30 acres in 1986 and by 1998 we had 1100 acres of beets,” Jerry said.
They also raised cattle, about 200 cows, with Jerry owning 150 and Ryan 50 head.
Ryan graduated from Wind River in 2013 where he played football and basketball, but his forte was showmanship. He raised the Fremont County Fair Champion steer many times and decided to head to the University of Wyoming to pursue a degree in ag business.
At the time Ryan headed off to Laramie, both father and son had a change of opinion on raising cattle.
“Summer pasture was the key,” Jerry said. “We had leases at Hiland, Arminto, and Crook’s gap. I was tired of chasing pasture and sold my cows.”
That left 50 head owned by Ryan, but he was about to be in Laramie for most of the year.
“When I went to college, I didn’t want to be one of those guys who had their dad work his cows,” Ryan said.
In 2013, the Welievers were out of the cattle business.
“The plan was always to come back and be part of the farm,” Ryan said. “I was way ahead on credits when I went down there. When I came home I was just three or four credits short of a degree. It seemed like a waste to learn things I already knew. The biggest thing in college is leaving your hometown and meeting a lot of new people.”
In 2015 Jerry and Ryan became equal partners in a pair of LLCs. They formed Weliever Farms, LLC for the operation, and Creekside Farm, LLC for the land holdings.
“You’ll be a full partner, there is no in between,” Jerry said to Ryan when they formed the corporations. “It’s not just the equity, you’re responsible for the debt too.”
Ryan was all in on the deal.
“It’s a good way to transition,” Ryan said. “He never had the chance with Grandpa.”
Jerry and his wife Jamie have a daughter Jordan as well, but this operation is entirely father and son.
They phased completely out of beets in 2019, selling their final 150 shares.
“We went from Holly Sugar to employee-owned to Wyoming Sugar when Dad and I bought in,” Jerry said. “We had trouble with equipment and getting help.”
You don’t just leave the sugar beet industry when you buy into a company and own shares. The liability and cost of expansion are shared with every producer, even when the facility is in Texas or Nebraska and you’re farming in Wyoming.
“I’m still paying on a 10-year note to Wyoming Sugar from the Small Business Association,” Jerry said. “And I don’t raise beets.”
“Sugar beets is a big undertaking and to get kicked in the teeth at the end is tough,” Ryan said. “I was tired of making it or breaking it on beets.”
Getting out of the unpredictability of beet farming for something more stable was the goal.
“We wanted to grow a crop that wasn’t publicly traded,” Jerry said.
While raising beets they rotated malt barley for Schlitz, Budweiser, and Coors.
They have a pair of large grain silos on the place.
“We never sold a contracted crop out of the bins,” Jerry said. “It was a perfect rotation for beets.”
Ryan purchased land on his own shortly after returning home.
“I hocked everything I own,” Ryan said. “I think they still have one of my shirts as collateral.”
Alfalfa is a much more stable market than sugar beets or cattle, but prices still fluctuate, repair prices increase constantly as does the cost of production.
“We rotate older stands,” Ryan said. “We grow a cover crop that we can harvest.”
The process is to spray the hay out, farm it, harvest the cover crop, and begin cutting alfalfa the following year.
The early arrival of winter in 2022, and the snow that remained well into March of 2023 presented unique problems.
“We put up 700 acres last fall and needed two days to finish when the snow hit,” Ryan said.
The snow arrived in October and stayed until April.
“It stayed in windrows until April,” Jerry said. “We raked it and baled it the same day.”
With one on the rake and the other on the baler, they turned the hay that sat for almost six months, waited two hours for it to dry, and baled it.
“It’s not bad hay. It freeze-dried. We waited it out. The alfalfa was coming out of dormancy when we baled it.” Jerry said. “We still have it stacked in the yard.”
2022 was a very odd year, with cold temperatures coming quickly.
They were able to harvest one field in November.
“I went ice fishing on November 24, then baled on the 25th and 26th,” Jerry said.
Welievers market their hay nationwide selling in California, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
“We’ve sold as far away as Maine,” Ryan said.
“We’re going to test the limits of how long these hay stands are profitable,” Jerry said.
Jerry has been at it for 40 years, and Ryan is just beginning but he has a keen eye on the variables all farmers face.
“We know the product we created and know the market,” Ryan said. “It’s hard, it’s a feast or famine deal. We know what we have to make to draw a paycheck.”