Larry Theis has been a force to be reckoned with for the last six decades, though you won’t often see his name in the papers or his face on TV. A tenacious dairy farmer from the time he was old enough to attach a milk machine to a cow’s udder, he sold the dairy operation in 2001 and turned his exclusive focus to growing corn and beans. By that time, Larry and his son had formed L & B Theis Farms and began methodically expanding the family farming operation.
Born June 2, 1954, and raised in Shakopee, Larry was the fourth of nine children born to Norbert and Corrine Theis. He grew to be a formidable 6’ 5”, which has served him well in many tough spots over the years. Truly, the guy has outlived his nine lives! Larry has survived a playground slide accident, a snowmobile accident, a motorcycle accident, a bob-cat accident, serious car accidents too numerous to count, and one incident involving a brush pile and a flash fire. “Hard-working and hard-playing” doesn’t come close to describing his family.
The grueling and relentless work associated with milking, cleaning, breeding, and housing 300 head of dairy cows helped shape Larry into the strong, self-sufficient, and innovative man he is. There is no shortage of wild stories illustrating just how hard they worked – and how hard they played – growing up. THOSE stories could fill a book with chapter titles like:
- 6 Police Officers Required to Issue Larry a Speeding Ticket
- Pumpkins on the Jordan Hill
- Drag Racing on Country Roads
- Theis Boys Victorious Over Blinding Blizzard
- Stitches Removed With a Seam Ripper
- Theis Brothers (ages 8, 9, and 10) and Their Mom Disassemble a Corn Crib, Load it Onto a Flatbed, Transport It With a Tractor, and Reassemble It. Why? Cuz Dad Told Us To!
Farming runs in Larry’s veins, but family is at the root of who Larry is. Married to Solveig Huseth since 1992, with three grown children (Brad, Mandy, and Micah) and seven precious grandchildren, there is never a dull moment at Nana and Papa’s house. Family and friends know they are welcome to drop in – the door is quite literally always open – to splash in the pool, take the four-wheeler or the Harley for a spin, have a Michelob by the fire pit, or just hang out at the kitchen counter catching up. All the grandchildren agree that going “farming” with Papa is their number one favorite thing in the whole wide world with a cherry on top! They all know where Larry stands when it comes to his family. There is nothing more important to him.
Over the years, Larry has weathered seismic changes in the world of farming. He says the most important thing is to keep one eye on the sky and the other on the indicators of world market trends; he’s learned not everyone has the best interests of the farming community at heart when making public policy. In the 1970s and ‘80s, fast credit from local banks and grain embargoes out of Washington set in motion the biggest farm crisis since the Great Depression. Thousands of family farms throughout the Midwest over-borrowed from the banks; when grain prices plummeted due to international embargoes, land prices dropped, and many farmers could not afford the property taxes, let alone the principal and interest on what they had borrowed. It looked like the family farm would soon be a thing of the past. Those who were savvy enough and patient enough to avoid getting caught in that spiral are the ones who are still in business today. That would be Larry.
Larry’s folks started out in the early ‘50s with just a few acres south of Shakopee. Fresh out of high school, Larry took over the farming operation and steadily increased the acreage so that by 2003 when they sold it to developers, the operation had grown exponentially. The price per acre in that single transaction remains the highest in the history of Scott County. Now, in 2014, they farm 7,385 acres from Belle Plaine to Waterville and beyond. Larry’s key for success? Take a stand to live beneath your means. Invest, don’t spend.
Here is something you should know about farmers. They are a close knit group of people. They watch out for one another and help each other out whenever they can. For instance, if a farmer gets injured and can’t bring in his own harvest, it’s not uncommon for several of his neighbors to work together bringing in the crop for their injured friend before it freezes in the field. If one farmer gets hailed out, his friends will pull together and help him make ends meet until the next year. If a farmer’s truck breaks down, he just heads to his buddy’s place to borrow his; the keys are undoubtedly in the ignition.
So it made perfect sense. In the 1980s, when farm after farm began falling like dominoes to banks and holding companies, Larry Theis joined the Groundswell Movement of Minnesota started by Alfred and Bobbi Polzine of Worthington. The Polzine foreclosure case had served as a flashpoint and Groundswell chapters began to spring up in farm states across the region. Movies like “Country” featuring and co-written by Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard exemplify the struggles of a farm family trying desperately to hold on against all odds. Opponents called the Groundswell organization militant, but if you asked supporters, they would tell you they simply wanted to conserve an American way of life vital to the nation, a way of life that was now being derailed by big business, big government, and banks with loose regulations regarding land. “NO SALE!” was their slogan.
If you know Larry, you know that no one pushes him (or his friends) around without a fight. Suddenly across the country and right in their own backyard, family farms were going under, being gobbled up at tax sales or cannibalized by banks through farm auctions. Watching his friends being stripped of their land, their livelihoods, their very family histories was just too much for Larry to take lying down. He knew he had to take a stand.
Spring of 1985. West central Minnesota. The Jim and Gloria Langman family farm. Foreclosure. Farm auction. Politically charged. Hot tempers. Neighbor against neighbor.
That spring Larry and his Groundswell cronies made several trips to the Starbuck area, where the Langman farm was located, and to Glenwood where the bank that was foreclosing was located. The object was to protest the growing trend of foreclosures and stir up some publicity. During one visit they showed up with a backhoe and dug a trench at the end of the driveway so no one could get to the auction. Another time, 23 famers were arrested for locking arms across the street blocking the sheriff’s path from his office to the courthouse.
During another visit, Jesse Jackson (yes, the Jesse Jackson) rallied protesters on the steps of the Glenwood Courthouse. According to the April 22, 1985 issue of Jet Magazine (featuring a grainy black and white photo of Larry walking with Jackson), over 1,000 people listened as Jackson spoke in support of the protesters who had managed to block three attempts to hold a foreclosure sale on the Langman farm. “We must choose farms over arms and give peace and justice a chance!” was his message. He went on to criticize the Reagan administration for its farm and defense policies, urging urban and rural groups to band together demanding better prices and an end to foreclosures.
It was a pretty big deal; Jesse Jackson had just made a run for President of the United States the year before. He had been part of Martin Luther King’s entourage in the ‘60s and had traveled around the world to spotlight injustices and encourage world leaders to take a stand for people without a voice. In 1979 he had traveled to South Africa to speak out against Apartheid, and on to the Middle East to throw his support behind the creation of a Palestinian State. But on that warm April day in 1985, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was traveling with Larry Theis in a shiny new Lincoln Continental to Glenwood, Minnesota.
Larry, who didn’t always follow the letter of the law, tried to stay under the 55 mph speed limit. After all he had a celebrity in the back seat. A mile or two from the terminal the Reverend leaned forward and spoke in a low tone, “What’s the matter, White Boy? Don’t you know how to drive?” Well I don’t need to tell you, that was all Larry needed. He smiled playfully into his rear view mirror and put the pedal to the metal, passing cars like they were standing still, that big V-8 engine roaring up Interstate 94 all the way to Glenwood. It was a day he would never forget.
During another visit to the same courthouse, Larry and hundreds of Groundswell protesters assembled and were chanting “NO SALE! NO SALE!” The Langman farm was again in jeopardy of auction. After several attempts to calm the agitated crowd, Pope County Sheriff Gerald Moe zeroed in on Larry standing head and shoulders above the mob.
“Mr. Theis,” said the sheriff. “This crowd must disperse. NOW! I’m going to give you one chance. I want you to calmly walk with me into the courthouse. If you come with me peacefully, I will not place you under arrest – I’ll let you walk right on out the back. And then you just keep on walking … all the way to your car and get out of my town!”
Larry looked down at the man in authority, nodded, and quietly followed him into the courthouse. Then Larry proceeded to walk out the back door, circle the building, and slip right back to the courthouse steps emerging in the middle of the chanting crowd! “NO SALE! NO SALE!”
A few weeks later, long after the crowds, demonstrators, and Jesse Jackson had quieted, a large envelope came in the mail for Larry. It was from Jim and Gloria Langman, whose farm foreclosure had been successfully blocked. Larry opened the envelope and read the scribbling on the back of the photograph. It seems the press had been there to capture that tender moment between Larry Theis and the Pope County Sheriff.
The note on the back of the photograph read simply, “Dear Larry, thank you for taking a stand.”