One has dairy farming roots. One developed an appreciation for farming as a result of a 30-year (and counting) career in the agricultural industry. 

Now, both Renee Thompson ’03, M’07, and Jenifer Zinsmaster ’16, M’17, are hoping their passion for their doctoral dissertation research will help create reference materials for farm families long after they complete their Doctor of Business Administration from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.  

So, it was only fitting that they set up their posters next to one another at the 16th annual Doctoral Research Symposium on March 7 at the Saint Mary’s University Center on the Twin Cities Campus.

Tough conversations, decisions

For 119 years, Thompson’s family has owned a dairy farm of approximately 300 acres in central Wisconsin near Stanley (between Wausau and Chippewa Falls), after her great grandfather arrived from Norway and settled on the land. Although Thompson lives south of the Twin Cities area, her parents continue to live and farm on the homestead. The family has had many conversations about succession planning for the family farm. 

Two photos: First, a photo of Renee Thompson’s family barn and house in Wisconsin from 1913. The farm was built in 1891 by her great grandparents, Peder and Christina Thompson. The second photo from the 25th wedding anniversary of Renee Thompson’s great grandparents taken in 1914 at the front of the house.

A photo of Renee Thompson’s family barn and house in Wisconsin from 1913. The farm was built in 1891 by her great grandparents, Peder and Christina Thompson. Below: A photo from the 25th wedding anniversary of Renee Thompson’s great grandparents taken in 1914 at the front of the house.

Those talks have formed her doctoral dissertation, in which she will compare qualitative and quantitative data generated by interviews of fellow century family farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. The end goal is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of family farm succession planning by addressing complex managerial and operational issues, such as fear of disappointing the older generation, sibling rivalry, daughter exclusion, and discounting family traditions.

“What I’ve already found in my research is the important role that communication and family dynamics play in these discussions,” said Thompson, who has worked as a senior accounting analyst for Best Buy since 2013.

Matthew Nowakowski, Ed.D., DBA program director and Thompson’s dissertation chair, said this was one of the most important topics in Midwest agriculture right now because it can amount to multimillion-dollar decisions.

“She’s taking a very analytical look at a very human and emotional challenge,” Dr. Nowakowski said. “Renee loves Wisconsin and deeply understands farming. She is at a point in her career where she wants to give back. She is applying her significant business savvy to help farm families think through this often difficult and painful process, and that is in alignment with our Lasallian mission. This is truly about helping family farms.”

Thompson began her journey with Saint Mary’s in 2001 through the bachelor’s completion program to obtain her business degree. After finishing in 2003, she went on to earn her MBA from Saint Mary’s in 2007 before serving on the Alumni Board from 2010-2016. She is currently a course-contracted assistant professor in the M.S. in Accountancy program at Saint Mary’s. Upon completing her DBA later this year, Thompson hopes to create literature to share with family farms, give traveling guest lectures on the topic, and find other avenues of support.

“If I can give information to somebody else that’s going to help them in the future, why not?” Thompson said. “You help others move forward.”

‘So many facets’

Zinsmaster grew up in Minneapolis but quickly found herself drawn to the agricultural industry after accepting a job at Harvest States Cooperatives, located near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul. That organization would eventually become what is now known as CHS Inc. She celebrated 30 years of service there in February.

“I’ve been very privileged to learn about agriculture for 30 years and help farmer-owners make the best decisions they can,” said Zinsmaster, who has worked in her current role as an accounting and risk analyst in trade commodities since 2017. 

Jenifer Zinsmaster speaks with someone about her research at the 16th annual Doctoral Research Symposium on March 7.

Jenifer Zinsmaster speaks with someone about her research at the 16th annual Doctoral Research Symposium on March 7.

When determining the best topic for her dissertation, she drew upon her many years of agricultural accounting and collaboration with traders. One crop in particular stood out: corn.

“There’s so many facets of corn utilization,” Zinsmaster said. “It’s one of the staple crops because it’s used for feed, energy, other types of food processing, and is the largest commodity of a natural resource that we have at our disposal. It has so many different uses and impacts worldwide.”

This summer, Zinsmaster hopes to interview representatives of 15 to 20 small farms and 15 to 20 large farms to collect qualitative data on what influences when farmers can get the best price for their corn. She will then look at quantitative, statistical analysis centered around market volatility.

She is also analyzing ways farmers can protect themselves in downturn markets, such as agriculture industry partnerships, financial institutions, hedging firms, and other risk mitigation tools.

“Jennifer is very analytical,” said Dr. Nowakowski, who is also serving as her dissertation chair. “What she’s trying to do is apply very sophisticated mathematical and accounting thinking to a real-world agricultural problem, which is, how do I price my commodities? Is it art? Or is there science behind it?”

“If I could help even a couple of farmers make better business decisions to improve and increase their financial flexibility…  I would be extremely happy.”

 

–Jenifer Zinsmaster

Like Thompson, Zinsmaster is currently working on her third degree from Saint Mary’s after enrolling in the bachelor’s degree completion program for business administration and accounting in 2014. She later earned a master’s degree in accounting in 2017 before deciding to pursue her DBA that same year.

Upon completing her D.B.A., she envisions giving motivational speeches on the topic at various seminars and conferences, such as the Women’s Agricultural Leadership Conference, of which she is currently involved. She, too, would like to teach about the subject in a more academic setting and create additional information to give to farmers and others in the agricultural industry.

“If I could help even a couple of farmers make better business decisions to improve and increase their financial flexibility, and give back to the farming and agricultural community, I would be extremely happy,” Zinsmaster said.

Featured image: Renee Thompson ’03, M’07, and Jenifer Zinsmaster ’16, M’17, stand next to their posters at the 16th annual Doctoral Research Symposium on March 7 on the Twin Cities Campus.

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