When Justin Mills hangs up his spurs as executive
director of the Northern International Livestock
Exposition later this year, he will have come full circle in a career that has always involved agriculture.
Mills was active in the Future Farmers of America while growing up on the family ranch near Devils Tower, Wyo. After completing a degree in agricultural education at the University of Wyoming, he worked for a company that designed computer software for veterinary clinics. He later worked in agriculture broadcasting before being named NILE’s executive director in 2006.
Mills, his wife, Myla, and their five children will return to her family’s place, the X-Ring Ranch, a cow and calf operation, near Upton, Wyo. The ranch has been in her family for 100 years.
Mills has had a successful run at NILE, despite economic and weather-related challenges that are familiar to all farmers and ranchers.
NILE has worked hard to grow its livestock show. It diversified by purchasing the Montana Agri-Trade Exposition in 2008, and the show has proven to be a good fit, he said.
When the economy suffered in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the NILE didn’t escape the slowdown.
“If you had to make a choice between buying a gallon of milk and going to the rodeo, that was the case with a lot of families, and that took a toll on us,” Mills said.
Then a tornado peeled the roof off MetraPark Arena on Father’s Day in 2010. NILE and MetraPark officials were forced to improvise and hold the event in other buildings at the MetraPark Fairgrounds that fall.
“The 2010 NILE was a great show,” Mills said. “We had to use the different buildings and we appreciated the help we got from the Metra staff. It was a great rodeo, but we could only seat 3,000 people.”
The show started to make a comeback in 2011 after the arena was rebuilt, and the rebound picked up steam last year.
Scholarships have always been a part of NILE’s mission, and that effort has grown. “We doubled the amount of scholarships we awarded last year,” Mills said.
The process to find NILE’s new executive director is under way. Mills hopes somebody will be hired this fall, and he has promised to work until the end of the year to help ease the transition.
“There’s no class in college that teaches you how to run the NILE,” Mills said. “In the 45-plus years that the NILE has been around, this is one of the first times where we’ve been able to have a transition time.”
Mills is familiar with the risks and rewards of working in agriculture.
In 2007, the average age of an American farmer was 58 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mills, who is about 20 years younger than the national average, is part of a new generation of farmers and ranchers who tend to be better educated than previous generations and are more likely to approach the operation after learning about sound business practices.
Today, farmers and ranchers are more likely to structure the business into a trust or a limited liability company, which eases the transition to a new generation.
“You have to be more astute about the tax implications so farms can be passed on without having to pay for it again,” Mills said. “If you can go back and work within the confines of a trust or an LLC, then it’s doable.”
Farmers and ranchers comprise less than 1 percent of the population, largely due to technology that has greatly boosted productivity.
“The trend is toward fewer and larger farms,” Mills said. “In agriculture, you can’t run unless you’re willing to do it on a larger scale. If you have a medium-sized farm, you have to have another job.”
Mills said looking for efficiency will be a consistent goal.
“It’s got to run at a certain scale. If you’re going to need an $80,000 tractor, why not run 250 or 300 head of cattle instead of 40 head?”