Entrepreneur student balances running a farm and school


Emily Hecht/Iowa State Daily

Beginning in 2012, Scott Thellman added one acre of vegetables to his hay and alfalfa farm in Lawrence, Kan. By 2015, he plans to expand the vegetable side of his operation to nine or 10 acres of certified organic vegetables.

Kelly Mcgowan

A typical Tuesday begins at 4:30 a.m. for Scott Thellman, senior in agricultural business. He begins his 270-mile drive back to Ames from Juniper Hill Farms, the farm that he runs in Lawrence, Kan., for a school day that will last from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Certified organic vegetables were harvested and packaged the day before, and this day will be spent keeping constant communication with employees, vendors and customers to ensure that the delivery day runs smoothly.

With his bag divided into school things and farm things, he carries the office of Juniper Hill Farms on his back.

Scott has class on Tuesdays and Thursdays and usually goes to the farm every other weekend.

“We’ve really narrowed in on the system,” Scott said.

Scott is not a typical farmer. He decided to start a hay farm and do custom hay baling from his home in the country as a summer job. He said that he was just an average kid who bought some junky equipment with about $1,000 he had saved.

“It was a big idea for a pretty young kid,” said Nancy Thellman, his mother.

Nancy said that she thought Scott would grow the farm, but she didn’t imagine it would take off so quickly and never imagined that he would be equal parts farmer and student.

Scott has upgraded to more sophisticated equipment and now grows 900 acres of hay and alfalfa as well as five acres of vegetables with two full-time employees and seasonal help. He said that seeing a demand for certified organic vegetables and making the jump to add those to his farm four years ago was the real entrepreneurial part.

“A lot of the veggie side came from wanting to serve the community in a better way,” Scott said. “My lettuce is going directly to someone’s table tonight. That’s a really cool feeling, to directly feed your community.”

Howard Vanauken, professor of management, taught Scott in the course Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation. He said that it takes a special person to do what Scott is doing.

“All the attributes you look for in an entrepreneur, Scott has,” Vanauken said. “He’s hardworking. He’s tenacious. He has vision. He’s willing to take risk.”

Balancing act

Nancy said that it was challenging for Scott to manage a farm while at school, but he valued a college education.

“He had great training, great education and tremendous support,” Nancy said.

Scott has been connected with mentors and other entrepreneurs through his involvement with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Agriculture Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“I’m definitely going to walk out of Iowa State with a big list of contacts,” he said.

Iowa State provided Scott with practical knowledge that he was able to apply on the farm, Nancy said.

“Thank heavens he learned what he learned,” she said. “The folks at Iowa State helped him understand the path to avoid the minefields of the business.”

Starting out and its Challenges

Family support helped in the early years of the farm, and the Thellmans have since developed an interest in agriculture.

“We’re all growing together in a sense,” Scott said.

Nancy said that every part of the job is a mental and physical challenge and that farming has to be one of the hardest professions on earth.

Scott said there were dark days when he wondered why he was doing this.

“The first couple years, I can’t believe I stayed with it,” Scott said.

Challenges arose during the process of cutting, raking and baling hay for a customer that took a couple of days, but the commitment he had made kept him going.

“Once you cut it is when the breakdowns happen,” Scott said. “You’re frustrated; it’s 110 [degrees] out, uphill both ways.”

Customers were understanding and continued to invest in him, he said. He now serves many repeat customers. Scott also said that area farmers were also supportive of his efforts.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for my parents and these farmers,” he said.

A Growing Business

The vegetable side of his farm has increased by at least 100 percent each year for the past four years. As Juniper Hill Farms continues to grow, so does Scott’s business experience.

Vanauken said that he is knowledgeable not only in what he sells, but what he needs to run a business.

Balancing the farm and school has led him to invest in efficient technologies such as wireless printing.

“I can be sitting in class here and print something to my printer down in Lawrence,” he said.

He has also made purchases including a wash line and cold truck to increase the professionalism of the farm.

He received grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund high tunnels. These plastic-topped buildings are used for season extension and allow crops to be planted earlier in the spring.

These and other improvements have helped broaden the farm’s impact. Within 75 miles of Lawrence, there are 1.5 million people.

“That’s a big potential market. We just happen to be at a really sweet location,” Scott said.

Juniper Hill Farms entered the Kansas City market this year, one that Scott said was nearly untapped.

The farm now sells to five grocery stores, five restaurants and a wholesale grocery company.

In this season, it grows leaf lettuces, radishes, green onions, kale, head lettuce and cabbage. In the summer, it produces potatoes, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, jalapenos and habaneros.

Scott decided not to sell okra or green beans this year because they have to be picked by hand, making them time consuming and inefficient toward profitability at a small scale.

“We’re focusing on what we enjoy to grow, what grows well and what’s most profitable,” he said.

Moving Forward

Nancy said that local food production is a huge topic and growing industry in Douglas County, and Scott is leading the way.

He is working with a team in Lawrence to build a model for a sustainable food hub. This is the infrastructure behind local food that includes the harvesting, cooling, cold storage, shipping and packaging. He said that this is the next step for local food to become more affordable, accessible and mainstream.

“Local foods and regional foods help build community,” Scott said. “It helps connect that fork to that farmer.”

He has been involved with Douglas County and the Greater Kansas City area feasibility studies on the issues.

“I’m starting to get to the point where I am no longer working in the business; I’m working on the business,” Scott said.

Nancy said that there is job creation and community service in what he is doing.

Scott also plans to continue consulting for other farmers. This includes designing field plans and helping farmers to make their operations more efficient.

“It is a very humbling experience to be as young as I am and be offering advice,” he said.

Growing Farmers

Scott serves as a mentor in schools to grow an interest and show students the opportunities in farming.

He said that the average American farmer is in his or her 50s or 60s, and that there is a need for young people in the industry.

“We aren’t just growing food; we’re growing farmers,” Scott said.

Juniper Hill Farms provides the transplants for a food co-op that works with students to grow in school gardens. Students then take a trip to see the large-scale farm.

“I just want to give back to the community where I can,” Scott said. “And if it means I get to help kids learn how to grow veggies, why not?”

Nancy said that she is proud that Scott is already sharing his time and talent with the school system.

“I’m glad he’s putting in the time and effort, even though there’s not much time left in the day,” she said.


Scott has turned down job offers to continue his farm business.

Vanauken said that factors important to entrepreneurship are organization, willingness to work hard and a passion for what you’re doing.

“He’s obviously doing something he loves,” Vanauken said. “He’s a nice guy, too.”

Nancy said that part of this niceness comes from doing what he loves.

“He’s one of the happiest people I know, and he’s happiest when he’s working on his farming business,” she said.

Nancy said that her son is ready to be a full-time farmer.

“I don’t have any problem with companies,” Scott said. “But I kind of want to do my own thing for now and see where it takes me.”