This western Nebraska high school track standout went west for his college degrees but his compass always pointed home.
Outstanding Alumni Award recipient Gary Darnall always intended to return to the livestock and farming operation that grew from his great-grandfather's homestead nestled against the Wildcat Hills near Harrisburg. That homestead certificate is the only plaque hanging on one of the walls of the Darnall Feedlot offices. The room's other walls abound with certificates and plaques from his community service and achievements.
"My whole goal was to come back to production agriculture and, hopefully, to the ranch," says Darnall. His return to fulltime at the farm/ranch had to wait until farm economics changed in the early 1960s. The family was not sure if the operation would support Darnall and his wife, Emilie, and two children, Lisa and Lane, and his parents, Harvey and Mattie.
After teaching classes at Western Nebraska College and as a vocational agricultural teacher - all the while working at the farm/ranch - the economics changed and Darnall was able to join his father.
Darnall sought advice and expertise from others. The operation now employs 16, including three part-time employees, and his daughter, Lisa, and son, Lane, who have joined the operation full time.
"We have grown the past few years. We've had several good economic times and made some money and invested in land," says Darnall.
"We continue to grow as finances, regulations, and ag economics dictate. I was fortunate my father was very forward thinking and willing to take risks in buying land. I could not have accomplished the present situation if it was not for my family, partners, and many friends. Partners include key employees, good friends, business partners, bankers, specialists such as university researchers and educators, consulting veterinarians, nutritionists, and agronomists."
That's a theme continually touched upon by Darnall, including his advice to young people thinking about a career in production agriculture.
"Be focused and have a goal," he says. "Know what you want in life. That goal may change but keep your goal in mind and associate with people to help you gain that - whether a mother, father, friend - they all contribute in some way. No one accomplishes on his or her own. I know that sound simplistic, but I really believe that."
Then, he says, comes hard work and dedication.
"One of the greatest crises facing production agriculture is not having young people going into production agriculture," he notes. "The major concerns are the financial investment and the cash flow in production agriculture. The physical labor requirement versus other industry employment is another big factor. An individual has to have the drive to pursue production agriculture and seek help from others."
Like with his son, Darnall returned from college to work with his father.
"I had a great relationship with my father and mother," he notes. His father has died but his mother lives at the home place. "However, it was not always smooth. At times, we had to sit down and talk about things. If I had an idea and he was skeptical, we were fortunate enough to talk it through. As a result, the transition was smoother. I don't think there is anything greater than a business father-son relationship if things are going well and nothing worse if it is not."
Lane never planned on returning to the operation.
"I was ready to move on to the bright lights, the big city," Lane says. "After four years of college and working on my master's, I realized there wasn't anything better than being home with my parents on the ranch. It didn't look so bad anymore."
He missed being in production agriculture. "But the operation wasn't big enough for three families - grandparents, parents and my family," says Lane. "My dad said, ‘Make a plan how to make this work,'" Lane recalls. "I sat down and made a plan for five years, for 10 years, to rent ground and make a living and yet be on the ranch."
He leased land and started farming. Eventually, the operation grew enough to support both families.
"I think we have a really good father-son relationship," says Lane. "But we also have a very good employee-employer relationship. We both know where we stand with each other.
"I think my dad is one heck of good teacher, not just in production agriculture but in life and business. I feel lucky I was able to come back and learn from him. It's an experience I hope to be able to pass on to my son, Tyler (19), and daughter, Shalane (21)."
Lisa, an accounting major at UW, has also participated in the operation.
"While involved full time in other business and family ventures with attorney husband Bob Brenner, Lisa does the payroll and various accounting functions for the operation," says Gary. "Bob is also available to us for guidelines and legal advice, and together they have been a great asset to us and the business."