By ROBERT WAGGENER
Note: This is the second part of a two-part look at the Harper operation, check out yesterday's feature for more.
‘Farming became my true passion’
Jeff Harper is a highly successful farmer, growing everything from alfalfa to potatoes to spearmint, but he’s not the typical farmer who grew up raising crops and cattle.
His story reads like the American dream, one of risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit combined with hard work and respect for others.
“Mom was a school teacher, and Dad ran a bar and restaurant,” says Harper, who learned early on that he wasn’t cut out to be a school teacher.
“And Dad taught me young that I probably wouldn’t enjoy running a bar and restaurant, and he was right,” Harper says. “I wanted to get out of that and do something else.”
Growing up in southwest Idaho, Harper was surrounded by farm country and, fortunately for him, some outstanding farmers who enjoyed teaching the next generation of entrepreneurs willing to take a chance on immersing their hands in seed, soil and irrigation water.
“In high school, I was lucky enough to work for one of the finest farmers in the area. Mr. Cantrell was a great teacher and became a great mentor. He was the one who turned me onto farming, and 45 years later I’m still farming.”
Harper worked on Derek Cantrell’s farm near Buhl, Idaho, for three summers, and it was Cantrell who inspired him to become a first-generation farmer.
“He spent much time showing me how plants kind of talk to you when they’re growing, sharing philosophies, talking about what to watch for and when. ‘You need to look for this, and you need to do that,’” Harper recalls of his experience in the fields from 1969 to 1971.
“A lot of little things made him a really good farmer, a really good sugarbeet grower, and he was always willing to talk about those things,” Harper remembers of Cantrell, who passed away in 2013. “I began to love the work. We were doing something different every day. We were working outside and could enjoy the crop changes and the season changes. Farming became my true passion, and I could tell that it was something I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
Harper pauses, and then adds: “I love working with soil.”
After earning a degree from the University of Idaho, Harper went into agricultural sales, working for a company that provided fertilizer to southern Idaho farmers.
'80s bring opportunity
The early 1980s brought the farm crisis, which meant doom for some, but opportunities for others, including Harper, who received a call one day from a cattle buyer needing someone to run his farm.
“There were a lot of farms with no farmers, and he needed a farmer,” says Harper, who kept his sales job and worked double-duty to manage the farm. “Low and behold the dang thing made some money, even during the crisis.”
A little cockiness pursued Harper into his late 20s, but humble pie quickly followed.
“I ran that farm for two years and then got real wise,” Harper says with a sarcastic tone. “Farmers had been lying to me. ‘There is nothing to this farming,’ I thought. ‘I can make a lot of money at it, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.’”
Harper quit his day job, invested in some farm equipment and promptly lost $30,000 that first year.
“I made some bad decisions, but never thought about quitting,” he says. “That second year, I went back at it a little wiser and a little more determined, and since then one of my philosophies has been: ‘Keep it going, and keep it growing.’”
That’s exactly what Harper and his family have done, growing from a small operation to a diverse business that farms about 5,000 acres and employs five full-time and nearly 30 seasonal employees.
“We’re always trying to grow, and our goal is to farm 10,000 acres,” Harper says. “My two sons, Joe and John, accuse me of trying too hard to grow. But they know that you have to grow to be successful. They both have families, and they are part owners of Flying H Farms. They have really become part of our rock.”