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The Greatest Gamble: Five Generations of Playing the Game

by Jayci Bishop

Gamble: (verb): to play a game for money or property, or to bet on an uncertain outcome.

Gambling can be an acquired taste. While many people have no interest in placing bets or playing tables in Las Vegas, some consider it a way of life. The Ordner family in Robstown, Texas, counts it as their livelihood. For them, farming truly is the greatest gamble with the greatest reward – working together with family.

Five generations have farmed the same piece of land. They cultivate hard work, strong values and family ties along with the land they till. William Ordner grew up on a farm and began his marriage and farming operation in 1963.

“I got married in 1963, and my father-in-law wanted to know how I was going to make a living for his daughter,” Mr. Ordner said. “I said don’t worry about it; I will take care of her. He and I became real close. Anyway, I started farming, and I was going to make sure I took care of my wife. So I had an Exxon station, a pest control business and 160 acres of land. That’s where I started. Through the years, I have added quite a bit, but farming is in me.”

Mr. Ordner’s family, farming operation and pest control business have grown in the years since. He and his wife, Virginia, have three children: Lisa Suggs, Scott Ordner and Amy Wright. He is proud to have his kids involved in the family business just as he was.

“Thank goodness they all live right here close. That’s the way we wanted it. Farming is a good life, and agriculture has come a long way,” Mr. Ordner said. “It has its ups and downs. I can remember in 1953, and it was my mother, myself and my older brother. My dad made a sled to pull behind the tractor. We sat on the sled and picked our cotton. We got one bale out of it, and it went on to be a mattress. Nowadays, a lot of these younger generations need to go through what we went through. They would appreciate what they have now.”

Scott and his brother-in-law, Shane Suggs (married to Lisa), joined the farming operation after graduatingOrdner Family Sons from Texas A&M University. Together they formed an entity in 1999 and have taken the reigns of the family business. The two manage the farming side of the operation while Mr. Ordner tends to the cattle ranch.

“We raise primarily milo and cotton, about half and half,” Scott explained. “We rotate them. If it is cotton this year, it will be milo next year and vice versa. We do raise corn and some wheat occasionally. All dryland, no irrigation. We are too close to the coast for any irrigation – the water is too salty. We are totally dependent on mother nature to make a crop. We’ve been fortunate over the years. We’ve had some bad ones, we’ve had some hurricanes, but all-in-all we have been very blessed and very fortunate.”

The stakes are high with the unpredictability of farming, but it is crucial to continue moving forward no matter what the year brings.

“I don’t really gamble,” Scott Ordner said. “I’m not a big ‘go to Vegas’ person, but I think as a farmer you are the biggest gambler in the world. We have crop insurance, which helps if we have a bad year. If we are all in and lose a crop, it is not an all-in save you, but it will help.”

Agriculture and farming are ever-changing – no longer are the days of two-row equipment or hoeing weeds by hand. The introduction of chemicals for weed control, as well as the boll weevil eradication program and resistant seed, have evolved farming practices and helped increase productivity.

“That has helped our yields over the years, and it has changed a lot,” Scott said. “There’s a lot more money put into it. It costs a lot more per acre and a lot more to harvest. Fortunately, the market has allowed us to make a little money at it and keep going and growing.”

As the cost of farming increases, the Ordner family is doing all they can to make financially economical decisions.

“Every day we try to do things to mitigate our input costs,” Shane explained. “We are very mindful of what things cost, where we need to spend money, and where we don’t need to spend money.”

Today the Ordners implement GPS technology and utilize prescription planting and fertilizer application.

Shane explained that both equipment and seed or chemical technology have played a role in their higher input costs.

“The biggest change would be input costs I would say,” Shane said. “Tractors that were under $100,000 are now over $400,000. We are typically doing the same thing with those tractors. The technology that has been introduced into the farm is a lot more than we had 25-30 years ago.”

Just as technology has evolved, so have the farmers that utilize it. Mr. Ordner remembers his grandfathers farming with mules and the old Oliver tractor his dad and uncle shared. He also noted how much the business side of farming has changed since he first began. His theory is to try to save enough money from last year’s crop in case of a drought or short crop the following year. This is an area where a chance shouldn’t be taken.

“It’s not just getting on a tractor and going to plow; you have a lot of decisions to make nowadays,” Mr. Ordner said. “With the regulations, prices and everything else, farming is the biggest gamble that you can get into. You have a lot of money tied up in farming – you plant it and hope like everything you can make a crop to be able to pay the bank off. You can’t halfway do it. You have to do it right to begin with and that pays off. There ain’t a whole lot more you can say, that tells it all right there.”

Marketing their crop is one of the many decisions the Ordner family makes with careful consideration.

“PCCA has been very helpful for us on our farm, as far as marketing cotton,” Shane said. “We are fortunate that our gin is a participating PCCA gin. We are able to market cotton on The Seam®, sell contracted cotton and we can participate in the pool. So, PCCA has brought us a large spectrum of ways to market our cotton.”

Like rolling dice, farming inherently comes with a lack of control. Being at the mercy of many unpredictable factors requires a love of the way of life, along with steadfast faith.

“When I first started, it was one of those things that I thought I had control over,” Shane said. “You thought you could control every aspect of it. At first you hate it and then you learn to love it because you don’t know what each day brings. You don’t know if you are going to be in a flood or drought, you just don’t know what to expect and you have to learn to enjoy that part of the farming aspect where it is not a routine, mundane, day-to-day job.”

Values like hard work, honesty, stewardship and a love of the land are integral to the Ordner family and guide them in their day-to-day lives. Members of the family have a deep appreciation for the opportunity to farm and the way of life they have been afforded.

“It is important to know that land is no longer being produced,” Shane said. “It is one of those things that there’s no more being made so if we don’t take care of it, we have to manage our tillage practices and farming practices, so the land will be here to provide for everyone in the future.”

The future of the Ordner farming operation is their children. Mr. Ordner and Virginia are blessed with six grandchildren, two of whom aspire to follow in their dads’ and grandad’s footsteps and return to the farm after they graduate from Texas A&M University. Both Mason Ordner and Tristan Suggs appreciate all that growing up on a farm has instilled in them.

“What I like about growing up on the farm is the freedom and life lessons it has taught me as far as hard work and being able to make decisions for yourself,” Mason said.

“Working for them is pretty fun, but you aren’t just a normal employee,” Tristan said. “You don’t just get to go home at the end of the day and turn it off, you have to go home and live it at home a little bit.”

Mr. Ordner is proud of all his kids and grandkids have worked for and accomplished.

“I have no complaints,” Mr. Ordner said. “You know you have your ups and downs, and you’re going to have that anywhere you work very long. My wife and I are both very happy that they have taken an interest in the farm. Honesty would be the number one thing I tried to teach them, and don’t be scared to work. You can’t have anything unless you work for it. There is no problem there with them. I’m glad they have already taken over the farm. I’m glad they stayed here and didn’t go somewhere else to work. I don’t know what I would do without my grandkids.”

Farming may be a high-stakes game, but for the Ordner family it is in their blood. Five generations have carried on the family tradition of playing the game of providing for the world, and winning. There is hope for the generations to come.

“The great pride that I take in farming, especially being with the family farm is that we farm on a piece of property that goes five generations back,” Shane said. “If you start with my son and go back to myself, my father-in-law and mother-in-law, her parents and then grandparents. There are not many businesses or things active today that you can say are five generations old. So it is a big part of the pride that I have, farming the land that has been in the family for five generations, and hopefully it will be extended to upcoming generations.”

A Jack of All Trades: William “Mr.” Ordner

by Jayci Bishop

Do you have someone in your life who you admire? Someone you aspire to be? A hero?

The consensus on these questions and more in the Ordner family is clear – their patriarch, Mr. Ordner. He instilled in his descendants a love for farming and close-knit family ties that cannot be wavered, even by the toughest of odds. They were taught well and are fully prepared to carry on the family tradition and business.

“We didn’t just take over not knowing what we were doing. We learned a lot from Mr. Ordner,” Shane said. “Things have changed a lot since I began and he began. Looking at what he has been able to do, taking the land and making it productive, is probably the biggest thing we have learned from him.”

His grandchildren admire Mr. Ordner for what he has done and how far he has come. He taught them how to work hard and earn what they have.

“What I admire most about our dads is being able to communicate and work together so well,” Mason said. “The key to any partnership is the communication. They are able to make all these decisions together. For my grandfather, it would be his work ethic and his drive to get himself where he is today. While sometimes he can be a hard head, or however you want to describe it, it has done so well for him. He’s done so well for himself and I am very proud to be his grandson.”

Tristan added how he remembers growing up on the farm and seeing everyone in his family working together to get business done.

“When I was growing up, I got to spend a lot of time with my grandpa. Everybody else was in the field and we would be in the barn making some crazy project, or me making mistakes and him teaching me how to fix it or just cover it up,” Tristan said with a grin. “We had an old Ford tractor we had just got, and instead of putting gas in the gas tank, I put it in the radiator. We had to go dump it out and he taught me how to do all of that.”

From mechanics to life skills, Mr. Ordner raised his family to be trustworthy in all they do.

“Putting in a hard day’s work, staying until the job is done if we can,” Scott said. “If you start a field, and you’re 30 minutes or an hour from finishing it, you stay until you finish that night. Work ethic, honesty, the power of a handshake, doing business and word of mouth.”

Everyone, including Mr. Ordner, agrees that there is no better way to raise a family than on the farm and the lifestyle that comes with it.

“I’m still enjoying the farm and cattle life,” Mr. Ordner said. “I know that my sons and daughters will take over when my wife and I are gone, and I know everything will be continued just like we have.”

That is the best way to have it indeed.