Episode 15 | Building a Thriving Rural Community

Feb. 22, 2018

Show Notes:

In this episode, Chuck is joined by Harry Knobbe, Entrepreneur & Owner of Harry Knobbe Feedyards & Knobbe Commodities. He discusses the community development steps he has taken for his thriving rural community of West Point, Neb.

Knobbe has dedicated more than 50 years to the cattle-feeding industry. A few years after moving onto his farm in 1960, he started Knobbe Commodities, a successful business that now includes six commodities brokers. He believes in the importance of investing in the future of rural leadership and entrepreneurship to help a community thrive.

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Full Transcript:

[0:04] Welcome back to Catch Up With Chuck, [0:05] from the Rural Futures Institute at [0:07] the University of Nebraska. [0:09] I’m Chuck Schroeder, I’m Executive Director [0:11] of the Rural Futures Institute. [0:14] You know, when we look at thriving rural communities, [0:18] we can generally see six common characteristics [0:22] that come from a study that was done a few years ago, [0:25] but those include, number one, leadership that matters, [0:29] number two, deliberate efforts to invite people [0:32] into leadership roles and involvement in the community, [0:36] who in some cases might not otherwise participate, [0:40] and third is a willingness to invest in the community. [0:45] Well, joining me today is a friend of longstanding, [0:48] and a guy that, I’ll embarrass him, [0:51] by saying is a genuine hero in my life, [0:53] he’s a fellow who has demonstrated over many years, [0:58] in very real world terms, how those factors, [1:02] leadership that matters, inviting people into the circle, [1:05] willingness to invest in the community, [1:07] he really shows how that works [1:10] in a thriving rural community. [1:13] Harry Knobbe is a business and community leader [1:16] from West Point, Nebraska, Cuming County, [1:20] who really has never subscribed to the notion [1:22] that a small town can’t be a great place to live, [1:26] to work, and to build a family. [1:27] So Harry, welcome to Catch Up With Chuck. [1:30] Thank you Chuck, and I appreciate the time [1:32] to tell our story, I like to, [1:34] you’re doing such a great job here of telling our story [1:38] and that we can help other people, [1:40] and it’ll make our community grow more too. [1:43] Well, listen, your impact on your community, [1:47] not only the community of West Point and Cuming County, [1:51] but your broader community of the livestock industry, [1:54] really has been amazing. [1:55] You’ve been a difference maker in so many ways, [1:59] I want you to lay a little foundation for folks [2:02] about Harry, that we can’t find on the internet, [2:06] a little bit about your family, [2:08] your connection to community, [2:10] what makes you do what you do (laughing) [2:14] as you invest in other people?

[2:16] Well, I have to say it’s a little bit, [2:19] it came from my dad I think. [2:21] My parents were 47 and 48 when I was born, [2:24] so I had a brother that was 17 years older than me, [2:27] so I traveled a lot with my dad, and my dad was always, [2:32] he’d be at cattle sales and some people wanted to [2:35] buy some cattle and he said, [2:37] what do you want and I’ll just buy ’em for you like that. [2:40] And so he was a giver all the time, [2:43] and I’ve always been, you know, [2:46] Chuck I’ve always felt you can have anything [2:48] in the world within reason if you [2:50] let the rest of the world have what they want. [2:53] And you can’t gather all the wealth and everything like that [2:56] and keep it for yourself because [2:59] you won’t be a happy person. [3:00] But anyway, so, [3:03] my brother got married and we moved to Talon, [3:05] I was eight years old, so I was one of them boys, [3:08] that believe it or not had a paper route. [3:10] A farm boy that had a paper route, [3:12] and after high school in 1958, [3:15] well I didn’t pass for my physicals for sports, [3:20] so I always had to be active and things, [3:23] and I had a paper route, I even had little things, [3:26] I’d drive down the alleys in town and pick up iron, [3:28] and sell iron, believe it or not. [3:30] (laughing) [3:31] Two cents a pound. [3:32] But anyway, I’ve always had that drive to be [3:35] well was interested around the corner, [3:37] over the hill, and ask people, and talk to people, [3:40] and to go like that. [3:42] So I actually registered for college in 1958, [3:46] but I went out to California that summer, [3:49] and to be with my uncle feeding cattle, [3:52] and I was one of those roust abouts [3:53] that didn’t show up for college. [3:55] So I never went to college, so finally two years later, [3:59] my dad says you gonna be in California, [4:01] or are you gonna farm?

[4:03] And my dad had happened to own a farm for 20 years [4:06] that was bought in the 30’s. [4:08] And so I went on that farm in 1960 [4:11] and I thought I was gonna have [4:12] 100 head of cattle and 160 acres. [4:14] But during that time, [4:16] there were just things going on so fast though, [4:18] we were coming down here to the university on weekends, [4:22] well Friday afternoons and Saturdays, [4:24] and if you were an entrepreneur, farming or something, [4:28] there was some workshops that were going on. [4:31] Sure. [4:32] So everybody that was at that [4:33] workshop had notes at the bank, [4:36] so we were serious, you know, [4:38] we weren’t in college and just– [4:40] It wasn’t theoretical. [4:41] Right. (laughing) [4:42] So it was serious and it was free, [4:44] so in the 60’s, whether it was a cattle business, [4:48] or a row crop farming earned income, [4:50] there were constantly free workshops there for ya, [4:53] by some of these sea corn companies and protein people [4:57] and things like this. [4:58] So and then in ’66, Cattle Futures were comin’, [5:02] and I went to Chicago to just, [5:04] snoop around and look and I met a guy there– [5:07] Looking over the hill one more time (laughing). [5:09] Looking over the hill one more time. [5:11] And so I started in office in 1966-7, [5:15] and that time like this, and today we have six brokers, [5:19] and we just do a pretty good cattle business. [5:24] And Chuck, you know, I really got to know you [5:27] when you were over at NCBA, [5:29] half my customers are from the NCBA.

[5:31] Yeah, and you’ve been such a [5:34] powerful member of that community. [5:37] But listen, I wanna think a little bit about West Point, [5:40] we’ve so enjoyed from the Rural Futures Institute, [5:44] the opportunity to be in West Point, [5:46] get to know a lot of people there, [5:48] we’ve had a couple of events up there, [5:50] very unique community. [5:51] But, here you are, here’s an ag based community, [5:55] way off the interstate, [5:57] the economist that do these macro studies, [6:01] would say well gee, those are big negatives, [6:04] but you know, I look at West Point and here’s a community [6:06] that has been successful not only economically, [6:10] but it’s been a place that has developed those [6:13] quality of life factors that attract young people, [6:16] in a very unique way. [6:18] You’ve been at the heart of that. [6:20] Talk a little bit about what [6:21] you think is unique about West Point. [6:24] Well, first of all, I’ve always felt this, [6:26] we have two parochial schools. [6:29] So they receive no tax money. [6:31] We have a hospital that’s not tax money, [6:34] we have a rest home that’s not tax money. [6:37] So if we want those things to survive, [6:40] we gotta put some effort in it, donate some money, [6:43] put some time in it, and things like this. [6:45] Then on top of that, communities that have livestock, [6:49] those people that have livestock [6:52] don’t measure how many hours a day they work. [6:55] They measure equity at the end of the year. [6:58] And so all that helps to try to help yourself. [7:03] And you know, in our county, [7:07] we market about 725,000 cattle a year is what we do, [7:12] and so everybody, not everybody– [7:14] So legendary, I mean it really is. [7:16] There’s just a lot of cattle. [7:18] I capitalized a little bit on that, [7:21] you know, we want people to stay at home, [7:24] so I seen in the 1980’s that you know, [7:27] there was a lot of people that didn’t have [7:29] enough work for their next generation to come back, [7:34] so I thought, well we could double their operation [7:37] and participate with ’em, [7:40] and it wouldn’t be anymore investment we would do. [7:43] So today we partner with 18, 20 people, [7:47] that we own half the cattle, they own half the cattle, [7:51] they have a son involved, they have some hired help involved [7:54] and everything like this and they are entrepreneurs [7:58] and part of the industry, you know. [8:00] They’re just as much as an entrepreneur as main street. [8:03] Absolutely. [8:04] Is what they are. [8:06] So it takes time to develop those kinds of things, [8:08] and it’s been good for us, [8:11] so we market all their cattle for ’em, [8:14] is what we do, they need us, and we need them. [8:18] That’s been a great partnership.

[8:20] Well listen, I wanna get specific about [8:24] Harry Knobbe’s style of leadership. [8:26] One of the things that I mentioned at the outset, [8:29] those characteristics of thriving communities, [8:32] actually came from a study of communities that, [8:35] rural communities that are successful in [8:37] transferring leadership from generation to generation. [8:41] I happen to know the girl that did that study. [8:43] And West Point was one of the communities [8:46] where she did that research and one of the key findings [8:51] that is in those communities that are successful, [8:54] there is a deliberate effort to invite people [8:57] into leadership roles that may not otherwise [9:01] see themselves as leaders, may be inclined, [9:05] because of their age and whatever [9:07] to kinda stay outside the circle. [9:10] I have watched you, over and over, [9:14] draw those people into leadership roles, Harry, [9:18] and you have a community that has very purposefully said, [9:24] you can’t stay in the same role for 40 years. [9:28] We are gonna, on purpose, roll over the generations. [9:32] Talk a little bit about how you go about bringing people [9:36] into the circle and why you do it.

[9:39] Well, you know, I looked back in the 70’s, [9:43] I was on the Industrial Board, [9:45] I was chairman of the Industrial Board, [9:48] and we would just talk about going after, you know, [9:51] we need that company here to employ 100 people, [9:53] or 200 people, that’s too many people at one time, [9:57] for a whole community. [9:59] I made a film in 1979 called Partners in Progress, [10:04] and it was to show our people who we really are, [10:07] and then we show that to people that wanna come, [10:09] and expand our business or something like this. [10:13] I believe in term limits. [10:15] Now we don’t have everything in [10:17] term limits in all our organizations, [10:19] but term limits bring a turnover of people. [10:23] There’s a lot of boards where we have nine people, [10:26] so every year there’s three new and three old. [10:29] And finally you got more people pushin’ the cart, [10:32] then pullin’ the cart, and they support you. [10:36] And that’s like the NCBA, [10:39] Chuck I was always so impressed that the NCBA [10:42] had term limits on everything, well one year. [10:45] I mean, and that impressed me, [10:47] and I brought that back a little bit like this. [10:51] But I’m not the only person that’s doing that is in town, [10:54] I got friends that do it. [10:56] Sure. [10:56] One thing that we do, [10:58] Urve Isemeyer and I had this idea one time, [11:01] we wanted to talk about things where there was no minutes, [11:05] no motions, nothing like this, [11:07] so we had bottom line breakfasts four times a year. [11:10] We come in at 6:15, put an idea in a bowl to talk about, [11:14] at 6:30 we pull one of those ideas out, [11:17] and you talk about it for 10 minutes, alright, [11:21] after 10 minutes, we go to another one, [11:24] after five of ’em, after 50 minutes, [11:26] we talk about what we talked about, [11:28] and at our, you know, and under 10 minutes, [11:31] at 7:30 we’re outta there. [11:32] Now that thing that I hate the most [11:35] is when you go to a meeting and one person [11:37] goes on and on and on about their deal. [11:40] Where we’re not all interested in that. [11:42] But at the end of the meeting, [11:43] you find out what the crowd is interested in. [11:46] We had the Nielson Center come out of that, [11:48] we had the theater come out of that, [11:50] we got a walking trail came out of that, [11:53] we have a restroom– [11:54] Came out of that. I love this story. [11:56] And they’re all things that are being built [11:58] by donated dollars, no federal funds, [12:00] no grants, or anything like that. [12:02] If you wait too long for federal grants [12:05] and government to help you, you will be behind, [12:08] you will be behind everybody else.

[12:12] I love that story because, [12:14] when you drive in to West Point you see those example, [12:20] the way the community has come together and done things, [12:22] and one of my favorite Harry Knobbe stories, [12:24] you were asked one time in my presence, [12:27] so what’s the strategic plan here? [12:29] And your response was, well, we do something, [12:32] when we get that done, we do something else, [12:35] that’s our plan and it’s worked pretty good. [12:38] (laughing) [12:38] I love that. [12:39] Well listen, thinkin’ about the [12:40] way your community functions, [12:44] you have never followed sort of the classic, [12:47] economical development pattern of spending [12:50] all your resources trying to recruit some big company, [12:54] you’d mentioned this earlier, [12:55] trying to recruit some big company to come to town [12:57] that’ll be a huge employer and [12:59] be the economic savior of the town. [13:01] You’ve had some businesses relocate to West Point alright, [13:05] but you and your partners in progress, [13:09] have over a long period of time, [13:13] really invested back in the community. [13:15] When you’ve seen the need for a business [13:17] or you see somebody trying to do something, [13:20] you have kinda rallied around and invested back in ’em. [13:24] Talk a little bit about that philosophy [13:26] and how you’ve employed it over time.

[13:29] Well one thing that comes to my mind in early 80’s, [13:33] there was a tractor lying right near West Point, [13:36] 120 acres, it touched the boundary of the city. [13:40] And I knew if I go to the city and buy that, [13:44] and have them buy it, it would take too long of a process. [13:47] So I just bought it, and I went to a friend of mind, [13:50] and I said, hey I got this land bought, [13:53] why don’t we start developing it, [13:55] but we’ll give it to the city, [13:57] it’ll happen faster if we do it, so we did it. [14:00] Today there is 10 acres left that’s unsold. [14:03] And it was just little entrepreneurs that came in, [14:06] or either moved from a spot in town that they [14:10] just needed more land is what they did, [14:12] For instance, that Ready Makes plant [14:14] was where the Nielsen Center is. [14:16] Well, they needed to be outta there. [14:18] Well we had an option for ’em where they could go. [14:21] Too many towns go to a town or anything, [14:24] and said if you will come to town, this is what we’ll do. [14:27] No, we got this already, if you come to town, [14:30] it’s there for you. [14:31] In other words, the streets are paved, [14:33] the sewers in and everything like this. [14:35] So individuals have to do that. [14:38] Another thing, a number of us [14:40] own businesses that are partners, [14:43] in another things like the motels. [14:45] Right. [14:46] The motels are owned by groups of people. [14:49] Motels in small communities have a hard time to cashflow, [14:53] because they’re full on the weekend, [14:54] and on Monday’s they have four rooms, okay. [14:58] As long as the cash flows, I have my entity that can go, [15:02] but at the same time, all those things around create more, [15:06] we have sales tax.

[15:07] We started a sales tax about seven or eight years ago, [15:10] well West Point collects 650,000 a year in sales tax. [15:14] And that’s just by buying your milk in town, [15:17] and everything like this. [15:18] And believe it or not, you have to tell people that, [15:21] you know, you have to tell people that. [15:24] Sure. [15:25] So that’s what makes things grow. [15:27] Inviting people in, Chuck, way back with the NCBA, [15:30] when we were involved it was hard to tell somebody [15:34] what the NCBA was, I just bought registration for a couple. [15:39] Instead of NCBA asked me for a donation, [15:42] I gave ’em a donation through show and tell like that. [15:46] Yeah. [15:47] So at banquets and every time [15:48] when there’s somebody new in to town, [15:49] we always are donating to the organizations. [15:52] I indirectly donate to the organizations [15:56] by bringing those people to the banquet. [15:59] Havin’ ’em feel like they’re a part of the community, [16:01] there’s an expectation that you’ll come be a part of it. [16:05] Well listen, I don’t want folks to think that [16:08] the history of West Point has been all rainbows and unicorns [16:11] you’ve had your challenges over time. [16:15] One of the other factors that we know [16:19] always comes up in a thriving rural community [16:21] is a hopeful vision backed by grit. [16:25] It seems to me that indeed, West Point has faced challenges, [16:30] but you’ve always maintained that sense of hope. [16:35] Tell us how you do that. [16:37] Well for instance, you know, we had Tyson foods there, [16:40] and all the sudden one morning they closed the doors, [16:43] and it was 230 people. [16:45] Yeah. [16:45] I guess at that time, we lost three kids in the school. [16:49] So that’s how the people stayed around there, [16:52] they stayed there, drove other places, [16:54] but then we had a dairy operation, [16:55] a dairy operation, a dairy butter operation that expanded, [16:58] they went there and things like this. [17:00] And you know, it’s, [17:06] going back a little bit you have to [17:09] always have raising of funds, you know? [17:12] And I think that the Nielsen Center, [17:15] so much it cost, five and a half million total donated, [17:19] and we were gonna tear down the old auditorium, [17:22] because we thought it was obsolete. [17:24] Well there was a group of people that kinda thought, [17:26] well we could have it as a theater or something. [17:29] They have raised a million 800 thousand dollars, [17:32] and well I believe it’s nine years now, [17:35] have averaged 100 people per showing, [17:38] and it’s five dollars a person to go. [17:41] But the secret of it, it’s total donated time. [17:45] Yeah. [17:46] Total, and that group of people that came to that theater [17:49] are from a mix match of everything. [17:51] You know, it’s kinda like the, you know, [17:54] the firemen, they’re from the bank, [17:56] and they’re from the school teachers, [17:57] and they’re from like this, and they meet there, [18:01] and it grows. [18:01] And at the same time, it draws other people to town. [18:05] Sure. [18:05] Well, it’s just been a great story.

[18:07] Well listen, at the Rural Futures Institute, [18:09] the first of our core beliefs is that [18:13] we believe in peoples capacity to shape their own futures, [18:17] and I just have to say Harry, you and your family, [18:19] and the many remarkable people that we [18:22] at the Rural Futures Institute have had a chance [18:25] to get to know in West Point, just personify that, [18:28] and we’re awfully proud to be associated with ya. [18:31] Anything you’d like to add today? [18:33] No, I just, Chuck what you’re doing here [18:35] is gonna help a lot of communities, [18:38] and we’re always willing to invite people [18:40] to come and do a show and tell. [18:42] But at the same time, it don’t happen overnight. [18:45] Yeah, yeah, you’ve been a consistent dreamer, [18:49] and making things happen. [18:51] Well listen folks, we want you to stay in touch [18:53] with the Rural Futures Institute [18:55] through Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, [18:58] and LinkedIn and our website that we know that you’ll enjoy, [19:03] and please join us again next week, [19:06] when we’re gonna be talking with real people, [19:09] about real places that demonstrate [19:11] thriving rural communities are a legitimate [19:14] best choice for worthwhile living. [19:16] Thank you so much for joining us.


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