Mike Marley
March 6, 2020

Learn to Lead

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

Mike Marley’s path to dairy farming is as rare as his commitment to leadership. A fifth-generation rancher in New Mexico, Marley stumbled into the dairy business but that hasn’t kept him from leaving his mark. 

 “I didn't go into farming saying I want to be in the dairy business,” he says. “I got a phone call saying, hey we’ve got a dairy for sale and it neighbors you.”

Marley immediately told his neighbor he wasn’t interested. But after several months and phone calls, he started to come around to the idea and worked with his banker to put together a plan. 

“We bought the facility, and it took us about a year before we put cows on it,” he says. “A couple years later the dairy next door came up for sale.”

The second farm was landlocked and the facility was older, but it had water rights Marley needed.
He and his wife, Dianne, decided to buy the farm. 

While he’s learned a thing or two about how to milk cows since he started his dairy in 2012, he’s quick to admit he’s not an expert. Instead he employs a dairy manager who he empowers to make all of the management decisions. A leadership tactic he learned through decades serving on local boards. 

Sara Beth Aubrey, a leadership coach and author, says board service is critical to develop leaders. 

“What might have previously been considered time off or a reward, I now consider important to pursue as early as possible,” she says.    

Board service helps producers grow in critical areas such as leadership, collaboration and understanding strategy, she adds. 

Marley, who has served on multiple boards, including 12 years with Farm Credit New Mexico, says what he’s learned serving the industry is immeasurable. 

“You learn by serving on boards with others who might do things differently,” he says. “Secondly, I enjoy people in the farming community. They are just a cut above everybody else.”

Make Time for Service 

One common reason farmers don’t serve on boards is the time commitment required to do it well. 

“I make the time because service is important to me,” Marley says. 

He admits it’s easier for him to spend time away from the operation now at 57 years old than it was as a 35-year-old. 

“I work on the farm, but I have a dairy manager. I also have a son-in-law who's working with me now, which gives me an opportunity to serve,” Marley adds.

Aubrey says participating on boards doesn’t have to be a time-consuming endeavor. 

“Board service doesn’t have to be a paid position or something that threatens to become a time-consuming and full-time side job,” she says. “However, to find ways to grow and develop, board service roles should provide the opportunity to influence.”

Managing Risk and Empowering People

While entering the dairy business did provide Marley an opportunity for vertical integration, the timing was less than ideal. 

“The dynamics of the dairy industry have changed since we bought started,” he says. “It’s not the smartest move we’ve ever made, but we're hanging on and doing a lot of risk management to try to offset some of the risks in
the market.”

In fact, Marley has been using savvy risk management strategies since the beginning. 

When Marley was on the Farm Credit New Mexico Board, he met then-branch manager Jeremy Kohler who had a real passion for hedging. Eventually, Kohler left Farm Credit and went to work for Marley managing risk.  

“We came up with a spreadsheet, based on the dairy crush and used mathematics (a percentile range) to decide what percentage of milk to hedge at any given time,” he says. “At that time, we were working through a broker.” 

Once Kohler got his brokerage license, Marley helped him establish his business and build up his clientele while remaining an employee.

It could have been easy for Marley to discourage Kohler from starting his own business. However, Truett Cathy the late founder of Chick Fil A once said the best leaders see their businesses as an opportunity to empower people to succeed in all areas of their lives. 

“The one thing I take more joy in than anything else in the world is seeing people develop,” Cathy said. 

Marley’s leadership role in helping Kohler get his business off the ground has paid dividends for Marley in the long run. Kohler ran his brokerage for about four years before he got an offer to return to Farm Credit New Mexico he couldn’t pass up. He sold his brokerage business to Vault Ag. 

Marley credits Kohler for most of what he knows about dairy markets.  

“It was a great relationship and I learned a lot,” he says. “I still make mistakes, but the programs work for us and it's been good for us. I wouldn't be in the dairy business, if I couldn't have a risk management program—it’s just too volatile.”

In talking with Marley it's clear that developing his own leadership skills and those of his employees has paid dividends. 

"Leadership has taught me there's a solution to every problem," he says. "A lot of times it's not the obvious one or the one you think about first. But if you surround yourself with good people you'll typically get good results."