At 5:00 a.m. on most Mondays, you can find Fred Hepler preparing breakfast for the homeless at his home church in Edmond, Okla. He and other parishioners from churches in the community pitch in to prepare and serve hot meals for the less fortunate. For Hepler, it’s a highlight of the week.
“I feel privileged to help those who are not as fortunate as I have been in my life,” says Hepler. “It’s just a small way of giving back, and it helps me connect with my community.”
Improving the production and delivery of food has been Hepler’s personal and professional passion for a long time. For more than four decades, he has combined first-hand knowledge of farm management with intuitive business instincts to improve the efficiency of farming operations across the country and abroad. He is currently director of farmland acquisitions for AgVictus Capital Management, and throughout his career, Hepler has specialized in farm investments, business strategic planning, farm and feedlot operational management, land development and personnel management.
Farming in the ’50s
Hepler’s agriculture roots were formed early on the family’s grain and livestock farm in southwest Iowa. At the age of four, he started driving the family’s Fordson tractor down the rows of hay bales with his father, Robert. Farming in the 1950s was hard work, and many other chores were done by hand, including picking up the stones that littered the rocky crop fields.
“My father never had anything given to him,” Hepler recalls. “He had to start out with a livestock share type of operation to be able to buy his first farm. We all worked hard as a family. I remember the electricity could go out for a week or two at a time in the winter because of the snow storms, and we could spend the whole day carrying water and feed for the livestock.”
With the encouragement of his father, Hepler went off to earn his associate’s degree in computer science and went to work for the Navy, where he tested the first document scanner ever made. However, the draw of agriculture was too strong, and Hepler soon returned to the Midwest and ultimately earned an agricultural business degree from Iowa State University.
“I found that I wanted to get back to operating a farm, but on a larger scale,” Hepler says. “I wanted to see what it was like to operate farms throughout the U.S. and outside the country.”
After a brief stint at Monsanto, Hepler went to work for Lehndorff Management in Dallas in 1978, where he managed 22,000 acres of farmland in four states. Next was Foxley Cattle Company in Omaha, where he led the development of 15,000 acres of Nebraska Sand Hills grassland into an irrigated farm operation, which is still in existence today. He then transitioned into managing the construction and operation of the largest beef confinement feedlot in the U.S.
Since then, Hepler has never looked back.
From 1987 to 2008, as founding partner at Westchester Group, he brought his on-farm insights and management experience to lead farm real estate sales and farm management throughout the country. Then, after five years of leading the agricultural portfolio at Wexford Capital, he went to work for Cottonwood Ag Management (BMGI Investments), specializing in agricultural investments ranging from permanent crops on the west coast to vegetable production in the Southeast.
From field to C-suite
During his career, Hepler has sold, managed, or farmed in 39 different states, involving 49 different crops. He says that staying ahead of the game has involved a diverse agriculture knowledge and excellent communications skills.
“On my first day at Cottonwood, I flew to Valdosta, Georgia, to oversee the management of a vertically integrated crop production company that my company had just recently acquired,” Hepler says. “The assignment required 24-7 management of 23 crops, and also managing the trucking, farming, fertilizer business, and vegetable packing operations. Above all, it required tremendous communications and people skills. My day could start with having coffee in the field at 6:30 in the morning with farm employees, and then later in the day communicating with corporate executives.”
With an increase in large investor owners, Hepler believes there’s a strong need in the agriculture industry for professionals with “real on-farm” management skills. While Hepler has managed some of the country’s richest agricultural land and largest direct farming operations, he points to the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA) as “one of my most valuable assets today.” Hepler holds both the Accredited Farm Manager (AFM) and the Accredited Agricultural Consultant (AAC) designations from ASFMRA.
Hepler’s 35-year active involvement with the society has included numerous committee assignments at both the state and national levels, culminating into serving as President from 2014–2015. He has also assisted in authoring several of the consulting education courses and has been an ASFMRA instructor for more than 20 years.
“The education opportunities within the society are second to none, and the professional networking is incredibly valuable and has contributed immensely to the success that I have had,” he says. “I have so many instances when I have called up another society member for a resource or a question, and their response is always, ‘what can I do for you?’ And if they didn’t know the answer, they knew who to call to get an answer.”
Hepler continues, “One of the concerns I have in our industry is having an adequate supply of farm operators and managers who are passionate about the business. For every three farmers retiring today, only one younger person is stepping up to fill the void. Organizations such as ASFMRA are vital to help us keep building our industry so we can continue to expand our world’s food production system to meet the demand of feeding an estimated 9.6 billion people projected to be on the Earth by 2050.”
On the home front, Hepler and his wife, Amy, spend much of their time off traveling to visit their three daughters and six grandchildren. He plans to continue his involvement in the mission to help those that are less fortunate by continuing to prepare breakfasts for the homeless.
Another passion, golfing, may have to wait awhile; Hepler says he is enjoying his current role at AgVictus Capital Management working in farmland investments, where he continues to enable and build more efficient food production systems.
“It’s a challenging ag environment today, but to me whenever there’s a challenge there is always an opportunity,” Hepler says. “I like the opportunities that I have today. The world is