A John Deere Publication
Person smiling in field with John Deere baseball cap on alongside image of irrigation sprayer in a field of green crops with hills in the background

Robert Shelton (pictured) has tapped into Madden's knowhow and experience, finding it as valuable as the capital his partner brings to the table. He's gained insight on agronomics, management, and more.

Agriculture, Farm Operation   March 01, 2024

Finding the Farm


Born to farm but not farm-born, Robert Shelton partnered his way to production.

Robert Shelton wanted to farm but didn't have the land, equipment, or knowledge. Dan Madden had land, equipment, and knowledge but no clear successor. Fate proved far from fickle, allowing the two to connect with near-perfect timing.

When Shelton went to work for Madden in 2014, he had earned a degree in ag business and was fresh off two years traveling the country with a custom harvest crew. He returned home to Worland, Wyo., looking for a way into farming.

"It was awesome to see the crops and practices while harvesting, but I wanted to farm my own ground," he says.

His parents had in-town jobs and businesses, not farm land. He spent summers on his grandparents' cattle ranch, but livestock production wasn't his calling.

"My true passion has always been playing in the dirt," he says.

Upon returning home he did custom work while being vocal about his desire to farm.

When Madden advertised he was looking for labor Shelton applied for the job. Seeing no one lined up to take over the successful operation, Shelton proposed if they got on well maybe he could be more than hired help.

They did get on. They got on extremely well, soon forming a partnership helping ease Shelton into and Madden out of the business they both love so much.

"It turned out to be a real blessing. Robert was exactly what we'd been looking for," Madden says.

Shelton's passion and drive to farm was evident to Madden. His work ethic proved strong and he was very receptive to mentoring.

Madden was also once a young man clawing his way into farming. At 18 he left his overcrowded family farm to find his own path. He and his wife Alecka scraped to buy land and cattle, grinding continuously to grow and prosper.

They recognize hard work alone isn't enough anymore.

"What we did then you can't do today. It's almost impossible to get into farming if you're not part of a family farm. The banks won't even give you a chance," he says.

On the other end of the journey, tax penalties muddy transferring the farm to the next generation.

The Maddens spent 40-plus years building a legacy-worthy farm. But to what end? Their four daughters loved helping on the farm growing up, but their life paths took them in other directions as adults. Madden didn't want to donate 50% of their life's work to taxes by simply selling.

A drastic injury and subsequent complications amplified Madden's stress and added pressure to find a tolerable path to retirement.

Then Shelton showed up.

Above. Managing the farm's labor pool was a stressful task Madden was happy to relinquish and one at which Shelton excels. Shelton checks on repairs as his crew prepares for sugar beet harvest. Over the years the partnership has flexed to increase custom farming acres and even purchase land and machinery when opportunity was presented.


The business. Having determined they could work together the pair gathered bankers, a lawyer, and an accountant to plot their path forward—and establish an exit plan in case things didn't go well.

They created a 50/50 equipment LLC. Madden put in equipment he owned while Shelton contributed his existing equipment, then leveraged their partnership agreement to secure loans to purchase or rent equipment to match Madden's investment.

Profit from leasing the equipment to Madden's farm or from custom work is split. Madden can bank his share for retirement while Shelton uses his portion to pay loans and buy shares from Madden.

They structured the yearly buyout payment to be feasible for Shelton and strategic for taxes.

"By selling to me a little at a time he's able to keep his tax burden low. Meanwhile I'm coming into a full-size operation instead of starting small and building up. It allows me to not be in debt quite up to my eyeballs," Shelton says.

Less debt means freeing mental space to truly enjoy the work.

Shelton serves as farm manager, taking over many daily responsibilities, such as employee management, allowing Madden more time off and easing stress.

"He's excelled at everything I've taught him and rose to every challenge," Madden says.

In turn, Madden has shared hard-earned knowledge. "I knew basics, but he's taught me the nuances of farming," Shelton says.

The partnership works on mutual respect and 'skin in the game.'

"If my son [Eli, 1] wants to farm I think I would follow the same path. This dynamic builds drive and work ethic," Shelton says.

"It took a lot for me to relinquish responsibility, but I'm glad I did. The farm we built is making its way into very capable hands," Madden says. ‡

Read More

Person smiling with plant seedling in black plastic flat standing in a greenhouse


Seed Libraries Take Root

Seed sharing is alive and thriving at your local library.

Fire lookout with pine trees and blue sky behind


A Lookout and a Luthier

Remotely stationed fire lookout fills solitary summer hours crafting fine violins.