As we wrap up harvest for 2018 and take inventory of our progress, I am reminded that more often than not, it takes years for a particular goal to be reached or a new strategy to demonstrate its value.
The Pinicon “Better Methods Discovery Quest” is littered with exciting idea’s discarded by harmful side effects, pessimism, unrealistic expectations and insufficient resources. Whether they were legitimate dead ends or game changing innovations a couple years beyond our limited problem solving abilities, we’ll never know. This blog is about two times persistence was rewarded.
In the early days, poor soybean farmers we were. Despite our adoption of the prevailing best practices. We could not make money growing beans.
We experimented with numerous systems in our effort to improve profitability. Different row widths, planter configurations, tillage, varieties, soil amendments, and marketing strategies were tried.
Gradually yields improved but we continued to explore alternative production methods, often times at the risk of going backwards in the short run. When you only get one chance to grow a crop every 12 months, it can take years to recover a large single season setback.
In the last few years, trends became apparent. Row width is over rated. Lower populations outperform higher populations, to a point. There is a strong correlation with high yields and early planting. If soybean production was an Olympic sport, hog manure would be a banned substance. Drainage, drainage, and did I mention drainage?
Utilizing this experience to fine tune our bean production system, the current emphasis is on timeliness, variety selection, fertility, identification of “never beans” farms, and farm specific tillage.
In 2018, using row width and tillage practices common in the 70’s, we smashed our previous bean yield record. This was accomplished on a larger total bean acreage than we have ever grown. 98% of the crop is in company storage, and 70% is forward sold.
Despite the trade war and burdensome oversupply, this works for us.
In 2014 we decided to hire two H2A workers from South Africa. Finding help locally that was willing to work extended hours during planting and harvest was becoming difficult. Competing with non ag job opportunities on a per hour level was expensive. We would be the first in our area to bring in foreign workers. Local backlash was a real risk.
We knew other farm operations had success with this option but every situation is different. Our expectations for our workers are high. Keeping the machinery going was not the issue. Could we find honest, hard working individuals who took pride in their work and embraced our culture?
Theo and John arrived in early April. It took several months to get them CDL’s, locally orientated, fully furnished houses (H2A rules employer provides housing) and personality conflicts resolved.
After the first year we determined it would take a season to get the typical H2A employee trained into our way of doing things. If we could get them to return a second year they would have the experience and local knowledge to be qualified for our Team.
In 2015 we doubled down and brought in five H2A workers. Turn over among this group was over 50%. By the end of 2015, only one of our original 2014 hires remained.
If this was going to be a sustainable strategy, reducing the drop out rate was essential for developing the skilled, quality workers who could meet our standards.
Fast forward to 2018. (already?) Our South African contingent of Gerhard, Deon, Dirk, Jaco, and J.D. are collectively the best class of H2A workers to date. Their productivity, job skills, and judgement rank them on the first team of Pinicon employees.
To paraphrase my opening statement, even good idea’s will probably take longer to reach fruition than you expect. In the absence of dogged determination, many successful remedies will never be realized.
Ironically, this truism comes with a caveat. While perseverance has been an essential aspect of our drive for improvement, we have also become quicker to recognize when to cut our losses.
Success in business requires finding that balance.
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I did it. I am daring the Masters of the Universe. Blame me when the rivers and wells go dry, vegetation turns to tinder, and the ensuing Dust Bowl envelops the Corn Belt.
But do not hold your breath waiting.
Look up the Iowa Annual Weather Summary for the years 2013-17. State Climatologist Harry Hilaker compiles temperature and precipitation records for each county. Based on his data, Mitchell and Howard Counties averaged 7″ more precipitation than normal for this five year period. 2017 was the driest year with rainfall matching the long term average of 35.” 2016 was the wettest with 17.5″ above normal or 52.5″.
As weather calamities go, drought has the celebrity. It is the 13% possibility of a drought in any given year that causes the typical growing season rally. I am always puzzled at farmers and traders willingness to bet on an event with such low probability.
The reality is more damaged is caused by too much rain. National yields are highest following growing seasons with abundant rainfall. However, here in North Iowa, it is the chronic and persistent impacts of erosion, nutrient loss, and reduced yield from excess moisture that collectively do the most harm.
Not one to play the “hapless victim card”, I look at these trends and ask, what can we do to mitigate the effects of too much water, preserve the soil, and achieve yields needed to stay profitable?
Quite a bit, actually.
If there was ever a question regarding the value of 40′ lateral tile spacing, in our minds, this debate is over. Compared to farms with 80′ spacing, we are seeing a 5-10% yield advantage, depending on the soils. Additionally, the improved speed with which the soil recovers has operational benefits allowing us to get back in the field sooner after heavy rainfall events.
With a few exceptions, we have stopped applying NH3 in the fall. Instead we are split applying urea either just before planting or immediately after planting, and again pre tassel or late June. We observed that with more rain and warmer weather, ammonia was being leached from the soil and was not available when the plant needed it. For many years the practice of applying nitrogen as ammonia in the fall worked well. This was our preferred method. No longer.
For corn fields going to beans the next season, we now use a vertical tillage tool in the fall followed by a soil finisher in the spring for seedbed preparation. Our experience with no till in our heavy, wet soils led us to conclude tillage was needed to get the best yields. The vertical till/soil finisher systems achieves nearly identical residue cover and erosion reduction with out the weed control, compaction, and trash management challenges that come with no till.
Every year we install more waterways, surface water diversions, headland berms, and other structures to slow down and reduce the flow of surface water on our farms. By experimenting with different structure designs over the years, we have developed an assortment of strategies for minimizing surface water damage. In situations where the frequency and volume of surface water has reached a level requiring intervention, we can usually come up with a cost effective solution that handles the water and maintains the farmability of the land.
These are a few examples of how we are adapting to the changing climate. We expect recent rainfall patterns to continue so we are making the necessary land improvements and system adjustments to maintain our farms productivity.
Speaking of rain, it looks like the most recent two week wet spell has run its course. We are close to one third done with harvest. Combine, tillage, and fertilizer operations should all be running by the weekend.
The Team has performed very well so far. No major mental errors or bad luck. The Honey Crisp apples in our carefully assembled sack lunches have been a treat!
Only six weeks till Thanksgiving. We might be having our turkey dinner in the field.
Would you like a side of bee’s wings with your dressing Ben?
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September 17th, 2018 · No Comments
Pinicon had the 2018 Pre Harvest planning meeting last week. As you can imagine, the format has evolved over the last twenty years.
The first gathering had eight in attendance, all white, male and born within 50 miles of McIntire. I would have scribbled a page or two on my yellow legal paper, listing goals and broad strategies. Get the crop harvested before the snow flies. Don’t fall asleep on your 36 hour shift and run the combine through the fence. Odds favor a bad ending if you loose control of a 500 bushel wagon at 25 mph because the hitch pin bounced out. Basic, common sense stuff that get’s fuzzy under extreme duress.
The 2018 version was presented in Power Point on a 50″ flat screen to a diverse, multi national group of attendees. Danni, our “Senior Content Producer” built the presentation from the final 23 page document Bert dictated to Lindsay. With Bert’s direction, Lindsay assembled the Harvest Plan booklet which is distributed to leadership..
From the table of contents to the Fall Farm Improvement list, it is a comprehensive over view of fields, expected production, logistics, storage locations, Team assignments, fertilizer application, tillage operations, and strategy.
The “Harvest Plan” has become embraced as the blueprint for a safe, coordinated, efficient and profitable last chapter in our production cycle.
If only I could find a way to institutionalize environmentally considerate office thermostat set points and incinerator trash separation, I could die a happy man.
As always, excitement for harvest is high. It will be the second crop for the new ownership Team. Even though there are numerous short term threats which will make achieving profitability difficult (rising interest rates, tariffs, chronic over supply, prices below the cost of production), Bert, Ben, and Alex are gaining confidence in our model.
Past emphasis on land improvements, judicious growth, lean methods, diversification, and building trust with our partners taken together provide that incremental boost that allows us to keep our heads above water.
The next few months will pass in a blink. I will do my best to keep you informed of our progress.
With steady leadership and friendly karma on our side, I expect to be able to report completion of an accident free and abundant harvest by Thanksgiving Day.
Seriously, your interest and support make a difference. We appreciate it!
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Despite a modest acreage increase this year, we were determined to avoid adding staff and equipment. Timely execution of crop operations would be accomplished by working smarter. Better planning and training of personnel would result in the needed productivity gains. Improvement projects and machinery upgrades would have a lower priority.
Sustainable growth requires an occasional plateau year to allow for refinement of practices and restocking the “cookie jar.”
We may have succeeded in getting the work done on time, but our downsized project list looks suspiciously ambitious. Is there a twelve step program for “Build-aholics?”
The Felper Farm bin site was deconstructed and cleared, adding 4 acres of cropland and eliminating an inconvenient lot on an otherwise unobstructed half section.
The two biggest bins were moved to the Meyer Bin site, erected on new concrete pads, raised to add capacity, and tied into the existing system with new unloading equipment. For a relatively low budget project, operating cost savings and grain condition benefits were huge.
Excavation for the second LeRoy hog site finisher began early June. This new double wide, power ventilation barn has all the features and innovations we wish were available when we built our first barns 13 years ago. Am I the only one who wishes the rate of change would slow down?
EPO Energy is wrapping up installation of the 250KW solar system at McIntire. From there they are moving on to install five more systems at selected hog sites. We are limiting this initiative to locations serviced by utilities that give retail value for 100% of production. Hopefully, we will follow up with more systems if system output matches advertised claims.
The concrete bunker walls were sold allowing us to create more parking where the old hoop building was. Our goal is to clean up and rearrange the space east of the bins, develop a comprehensive parking plan, improve compliance with parking assignments, and save time looking for vehicles. I believe we can reduce the frequency with which vehicles mysteriously disappear, only to be discovered a week later in the wrong place.
We upgraded from 6″ to 8″ hose for manure application. Bigger hose carries more volume at lower pressure, increasing acres per day while lowering pump fuel usage. This investment is easily the best opportunity to improve manure application efficiency.
Other noteworthy upgrades include combine replacement, grain cart trade, field driveway installations, ditch crossings, and a variety of precision tech trinkets.
Anyone who’s visited my office lately knows it lacks air conditioning. The personal satisfaction of elevating my tolerance for extreme temperature is giving in to guilt for not prioritizing my guest’s comfort. Spoiler alert: the 2019 project list might include A/C in Jim’s office.
Our desire to be cautious as we considered investments that improve operations is a response to low margins and rising borrowing costs. Balancing the competing goals of debt reduction while investing in future competitiveness requires discretion.
There is a consensus at Pinicon that all mentioned projects pass the test, however cookie jar replenishment may have suffered. Our default has always been to bet on tomorrow. So, as Shania Twain say’s, “Dance with the one that brung ya.”
Weather lately has been very pleasant, good for crops, livestock, and humans. Could we possibly have four awesome crops in a row?
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Today was a good day as I was able to start running again. Six weeks ago I strained my Achilles, limiting my activities to swimming, biking and hiking.
Are you appreciating my distress?
My Achilles has been “my Achilles.” Pun intended. The first time it happened was about fifteen years ago training for the Rome Marathon. Yes, that Rome. I did not realize the damage being inflicted as I continued to run in pain, nor the length of time it would take to heal, six months.
The second time it happened I showed a little more respect for the situation, reducing my activity level in the hopes of a faster return to normal work outs. I was back to running after two months which I considered a moral victory.
Early in June, my sights were set on tying last years best time on the Sunset Ridge trail at Forestville. It was a Thursday night warm up for the Sunday morning criterion. Ascending the hill at a pace just below race speed, a sudden sting on the back of my right leg, half way between calf muscle and heal, notified me an unplanned change in exercise routine seemed likely.
As is my default I initially resisted. However as the memory of earlier Achilles episodes emerged through the fog of my nonspecific recall, I relented to the fault code coming from my internal CPU, derated the motor, and finished the course at a brisk walk.
Since then I had avoided the temptation to exert or move too fast. I biked or swam every day. Even climbed a couple Fourteeners in early July. But these activities do not rely on that natural bungee chord in the back of your leg to store energy with every step and snap back to neutral, propelling your hips upward and forward as you become temporarily air born between strides, aka running.
Nothing like a little injury to remind one of the elegant perfection of our bodies.
On Monday of this week I decided that by Thursday it would be safe to try a short run. It would only be six weeks of rest but there was no pain and I had been careful not to strain the tendon.
Forecast was for a rainy, cool day. As I drove to the park at 5:00 PM after working in the nursery calibrating inlets for two hours, it was hard to be confident. Heavy rain and strong winds tested the Edge’s new tires and wipers. I was developing alternate plans just in case the parking lot by the park shelter was submerged in a torrent of churning dead fall, floundering livestock, and inundated campers.
No such luck. The rain eased up as I entered the park and it looked like the most severe storms had stayed south. I was committed.
The dash thermometer said 62 degrees and the light drizzle was intensifying. I parked by the dumpster and went through the usual pre run calisthenics.
Even my Ironman watch was out of sorts. As I set the mode to chronometer, I noticed the time was off by eight hours instead of the usual two, Mountain Standard Time. Not a good omen.
Heading down the trail towards the first climb, there was some stiffness but not the stabbing jolt of a provoked hornet. Even as the rain became heavier, I was feeling lighter.
By the time I reached the horse camp at the top of the ridge, I was thoroughly soaked, muddy, chilled, and thrilled. Despite the adverse conditions, muscle discomfort was minimal, effort was sustainable, the park was predictably unpopulated, and the clouds were breaking.
By now I should recognize the inverse correlation between observable indications of positive outcomes and the probability of improving atmospheric conditions. Simply put, it is darkest before the dawn.
As I laid a work shirt on the seat of my car to avoid saturating it with mud, sweat and rain, (sorry no tears), I considered this experience an example of how despite the inevitable decline in physical capabilities as we age, maturity can have its rewards. Viewing setbacks as gifts of insight is one.
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Well, it’s June 5th, and all the corn and beans are in the ground. Most years, this is not something to celebrate. This is a “bare minimum” type of expectation. Then again, we aren’t snowbound for 75% of April most years.
As many of you realize, Mother Nature was a bit hostile to farmers across the northern plains this spring. Unseasonably late blizzards were followed by heavy rains, and our entry into the field seemed at times like nothing more than the blindest hope.
But sure enough, the opportunities to work the ground began to show themselves. This is the part where you quit bitching about what you can’t control, and grab that which you can by the throat.
Not a fit moment was wasted this spring. The moment the rain stopped, Bert and Jim were vigilantly searching for fit ground. As soon as it was found, the rock picking crew mobilized. Within several hours the tillage team was lapping us, and a couple hours behind them, the planters were rolling. The close of each window found every crew regrouping, maintaining their equipment, and positioning themselves to move the moment the next window opened. At the risk of being insensitive in this current climate, I’d like to think that the architects of the Blitzkrieg would take some pride in knowing that their ruthless efficiency in the name of conquest was still being practiced by ethnic Germans in a much more socially productive capacity.
At every turn this spring brought, we were ready. It was no accident. The entire winter is devoted to creating the crop plan, assigning team members to the tasks for which they are best suited, and training the team in what we believe are the best practices to implement the plan. Our support staff was as sharp as ever, making sure seed, parts, and lunches were always ready, and always on time.
There is little doubt in our minds that we put more acres in the ground per day of work than ever before. In a “normal” year, we would have never felt the pressure to find those limits. That’s the beauty of hardship. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone and truly test your capabilities. The lessons you learn in times of struggle are the innovations that allow you to leap forward in times of comfort.
As we move into summer and continue to guide the 2018 crop along to maturity, we can take a moment to reflect on the lessons of this spring. Then we grab the gears of fresh knowledge and slam forward into the future.
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Hard to believe but 2018 is 25% over, the millennial equivalent of a 22 year old. And just like that tech savvy, civic minded, pot legalizing young adult, we are beginning to get a sense of how the life of 2018 will unfold.
Here are my top 10 predictions for the year:
1) Our President will continue to insult, exaggerate, confound, and occasionally succeed. I believe the country will look back at this administrations tenure as a watershed moment.
2) After three seasons of record yields, weather conditions will be less favorable. Who wins and who loses in this growing season sweepstakes is anyone’s guess. You feeling lucky?
3) Interest rates will only increase another .5% this year. Not burdensome yet but the writing is on the wall. The rules of the game are changing.
4) The long anticipated mass exodus of farmers will not materialize. The attrition rate will be around 4-6% which is average for about the last 100 years
5) The level of accountability for business and the citizenry (regulations, codes, oversight) will increase. This mega trend goes back over 3000 years. The tipping point is coming but I will be climbing mountains with St Peter by then.
6) Iowa State will beat Iowa and I will collect an eight month supply of cheap tequila.
7) Bert will demote Jim to head trash burner after getting tired of his daily suggestions for revolutionizing Pinicon. OK, just putting this out there to keep my self in line.
8) Pinicon will install drainage tile, restore waterways, and clean up farms. How can so much fun be legal?
9) Jim will summit last 6 of 56 14’ers in Colorado. The window is closing for the old man to pull this off.
10) New Bar and Restaurant in McIntire will increase community pride, create momentum for additional investment, and become a gathering place for local residents.
The current weather forecast is not as promising as my annual outlook. It appears we will not be in the field until May based on the 15 day. The list of projects left to be field ready is short so do not be surprised to see us washing windows and polishing door knobs.
The extra time has allowed us to improve our employee training program with out the guilt of putting aside a repair or improvement project.
As farmers, we get much satisfaction from seeing the immediate tangible results of our efforts, working the land, maintaining and operating equipment, building, fixing and breaking. (ooops!) If we did not enjoy being physically active, we would probably not be well suited for agriculture.
However, we have come to realize that one of our best opportunities for improvement is instruction for our employees. We will not achieve the best results if our workers do not follow best practices.
Depending on the job description, Pinicon has a written procedure for how it should be done.
Like the football coach who expects every player to know their unique assignment when a certain play is called, we have the same expectations of our workers.
So the last few weeks our upstairs break/class room has been busy with safety, spring planning, tillage school and truck inspection meetings.
This initiative will be a long term proposition. Results will not occur overnight. But we have confidence that as our teams skill level increases the safety, quality and enjoyment of work our will increase.
On a final note, our six seasonal H2A workers have arrived and are settled in to their second home in McIntire. Theo, the senior member of our South African team, will be participating in his fourth season at Pinicon. Their enthusiasm to return every year is encouraging and reminds us how fortunate we are to be from here.
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We all face the dilemma of how to effectively navigate the passage between life stages. Dependent child to self-sufficient adult, student to professional, career path “A” vs. career path “B”, single to married, married to single. You name it.
A life stage most of us look forward to is when we can focus on “living” instead of “making a living.” Many would call this retirement. For me, “absolute freedom” would be a more fitting description.
This topic is relevant because even though the enjoyment I get from work is high and I can still contribute, my plan has always been to redirect my time and energy once certain benchmarks were met.
Being the eternal optimist, I can imagine this happening in the next 5-8 years. That seems like plenty of time to develop a “post rat race” plan. However when the next anniversary of your birth is a two digit number starting with six, you realize how time flies.
The specifics of his next stage are TBD, but I do know it will involve less time at the farm. So in the vein of gradually acclimating to life after Pinicon, one of my winter ’17-’18 goals was to increase vacation days. Luckily, that bar was fairly low.
With the help of a few friends, I set a personal best for “days off in a season” last weekend. Please hold the applause. I owe the credit to the Pinicon team. “Jim, you REALLY need to get away for a few days. It will be good for you!”
Behind every successful leadership transition, is a group of tolerant, understanding, and capable individuals that just need to be left the hell alone.
The change to daylight saving time this weekend is another sign that the upcoming growing season will be here soon. The pre-planting checklist at Pinicon is reaching completion.
1) Production Plan: check
2) Team Assignments: check
3) Housing and arrival date for H2A workers: check
4) Equipment inspection: check
5) Favorable weather and avoidance of office staff deer collisions: pending
OK, there are a few variables beyond our control. No one bats a thousand.
Expect Pinicon to stay the course in 2018. As we have high confidence in our knowledge of the practices which produce the best result, the emphasis is execution on every acre. In other words, quality control.
There will be a few more snow events before we hit the field as we have not seen the first Robin yet (“three snows on the Robin’s tail” as they say). Be patient and enjoy the lull.
Soon enough the fields will be fit to work and the 2018 growing season will take center stage.
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Staring out the window on this February day, I see several measly, mostly melted snow piles. The sun is high in the sky, and burning brightly. The thermometer reads -3 degrees Fahrenheit. A week ago, we had temperatures in the mid 50’s.
As we fluctuate between 50 and -10 on a near weekly basis, we see hints of impending spring followed by the quick reminder that it’s still winter. People who don’t experience multiple seasons in a several day span don’t know what they’re missing, right?
Winter is a time of reflection and preparation at Pinicon. We slow the pace down a little, letting most of the staff have Fridays off. A quiet uninterrupted Friday afternoon seems like a great time to update the Pinicon blog.
My main duties this time of year are split between regular monthly tasks and year end analysis. At the moment I’m completing the “2017 Production Cost Analysis.” This is the fifth year compiling this report and we are gaining more confidence in its accuracy and usefulness. This exercise forces us to be objective about the decisions of the past year and shows us how we can do better. I find it one of my most rewarding projects throughout the course of the year.
The shop hums away with the rattle and clang necessary to keep the equipment repaired and ready to roll. April is closer than we realize. The front office has been busy lining up our South African work force for 2018, and ensuring our housing for those employees is up to snuff. With every passing year, Danni and Lindsay continue to find ways to improve that process and make it more efficient.
Bert and Ben continue to maneuver the puzzle pieces that make up the 2018 crop plan. Due to unstable price relationships and a growing land base, our crop rotation is constantly changing. This requires adjustments to input levels, equipment capabilities, and personnel. Bert and Ben’s job is to ensure we have the right players with the right equipment and the right strategy at the right place and time.
Among the biggest luxuries this time of year provides is just that – time. In the absence of urgent, high priority field work deadlines, there is time to discuss goals, strategy, and options. Armed with knowledge of the past, and our vision for the future, we can establish direction and set achievable goals for the season.
The 2018 crop is still just an idea in our collective brains, but with every thaw, every melted snow pile, and every unseasonably warm day, we inch a little closer to breaking the ground and starting another year.
Stay comfortable out there
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Where has the last month gone?
As our self imposed “completion of Harvest by Thanksgiving” deadline approached, the urgency and intensity of our efforts increased. The essential lesson we have learned about crop production is that great yields begin the prior fall.
The more tillage, fertilizer application, tiling, waterway work, and other farm improvements that can be done in the space between harvest and winter freeze, the likely hood of good crops next season increases.
So instead of coasting into the finish, the last few laps of the season become a sprint as the number of remaining field work days gets into single digits.
Lesser obligations suffered. Wedding anniversaries, Sunday Mass, credit card bills, and yes even the monthly blog become casualties of this zeal.
Next thing you know its Christmas morning, the month of December is history, and the last blog was early November.
My apologies. In 2018 I will be (there is no try) more timely with these reports.
The good news is our emphasis on land preparation was rewarded. Pinicon will begin 2018 with a land base that has more productive potential than ever.
After working under the new ownership team for one season, I can confidently predict they will continue to improve the quality of our work and the care our farms receive.
It was my good fortune that so many hardworking, honest, and capable individuals decided to partner with Mark and I to build Pinicon Farm. Having won the talent lottery, all I had to do was give them room to grow and be generous in recognizing their contributions, like nurturing a plant with fertile soil, sufficient space, and nutrients.
Speaking of which, the economic environment for crop production is still very challenging. The typical farming operation is barely treading water. A substantial percentage are unable to recover operating expenses. There is little room for poor decisions or bad luck. So far, we have been able to avoid both.
Dad thinks I am gullibly idealistic and over confident. Guilty as charged.
One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is Mathew 25. It is about the master who entrusts talents to three of his servants while he is gone. Two of the servants invest the talents and increase their value. One buries them out of fear. If you don’t know the ending, google it.
My take away from this story is trust people, challenge yourself and leverage your gifts. The results will create new wealth and perpetuate the cycle of success.
That J.C. fella was on to something.
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