(First in a series looking at ways farmers relax and forget about the daily grind.)
No doubt about it. Managing a 3,200-acre cropping operation and 1,200-cow dairy can be a pressure-packed job. When Blake Heller, Alma Center, WI, finds frustrations building, he heads to the water for a session of barefoot water skiing.
“There's nothing like bouncing over the waves on your bare feet at 45 miles per hour,” says Blake. “It's some kind of rush. Things might not be going so well on the farm, but as soon as you get out there on the water, you forget everything else. It's just you, the water and the boat. When you get back to the office afterwards, you're refreshed — ready to go back at it.”
Heller traces his interest in water skiing back to his college days. “A friend asked me to go along with him one afternoon,” he explains. “I was hooked from that day on.”
When Heller returned to the home farm in the mid-1970s, he and his wife Janelle continued to pursue the sport. The arrival of kids (Cody, 21, and Shane, 15, Elaine, 15, and Shannon, 14) brought a new dimension. “It became a focal point for family social activities,” says Heller. “We'd go to the lake on weekends whenever we could. We'd also take a week-long vacation each winter in a warm weather location so we could ski.”
Things took another turn four years ago, when three of the kids — Cody, Elaine and Shannon — started competing in high-level junior tournaments. (Shane likes to ski recreationally, but prefers football and baseball as competitive endeavors.)
On average, the kids now compete in six to eight barefoot water skiing tournaments around the U.S. each year. Two years ago, they competed in the junior world tournament (held in South Africa). Last year, they were back at the “worlds” in Olympia, WA. Elaine and Shannon brought home medals from the Washington event.
Participation at this level requires a huge time commitment on Heller's part. Along with the tournament travel, he spends two to three hours a day during the summer months coaching/training the kids. Most of the training now takes place on the Blue Moo — a 110 ft.-wide by 2,850 ft.-long lake that Heller built in a remote cornfield on the farm last year.
Great employees make it possible for Heller to pursue his water skiing passion. “When I have to be away from the farm, I never worry about whether things are going the way they should be,” he says. “A lot of that has to with the fact that I let the employees make the major decisions while I'm here. That way, if they have to make a big decision while I'm gone, they have the confidence to do it.”
Balance is the bottom line, according to Heller. “You have to have a life outside of farming,” he says. “If you make the business 100% of your life and something goes terribly wrong, what have you got? Nothing. But if you have a mindset that the farm is only 25% of your life, it's different. If things go bad, you can say, ‘Hey, 75% of my life is still pretty good.’ It's all about perspective.”
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