photos courtesy Tracy Zeorian
From combine cab to board room, technology connects
Directing and managing an organization made up of custom harvesters, American nomads who cross the Plains every summer, requires flexibility and accessibility. Tracy Zeorian, executive director of U.S. Custom Harvesters, finds that a strong cell phone signal is also an important asset.
Zeorian lives in Manley, Nebraska, a tiny town south of Omaha. Whether in her rural home office or from the cab of a combine in wheat fields from Oklahoma to Montana, she keeps U.S. Custom Harvesters going.
“They realized I could do the job from the cab of the combine, and when I go somewhere, the office goes there too,” she said. “The harvesters love it too because they know that I know what they are up against.”
U.S. Custom Harvesters is a membership organization of grain and forage custom harvesters. With approximately 440 regular custom harvester members and another 200-plus associate members, made up of businesses and partners who work with custom harvesters, U.S. Custom Harvesters (USCHI) exists to serve as a link between harvesters and the many groups of people those custom harvesters work with, such as farmers, businesses, state governments and the federal government.
“I have a passion for the industry,” Zeorian said. “I love working with the custom harvesters, the supporting businesses, their partners. Everybody is just great.”
Years of experience behind her
As executive director of USCHI, Zeorian knows exactly what those custom harvesters deal with every day. She’s been in the industry for more than 40 years.
It all started in 1974 when she was 12 years old. Her grandpa, Elvin Hancock, had been custom harvesting for his friends and neighbors since he was about 20 years old, and by the 1950s had branched out to take jobs across the Midwest. Zeorian joined her grandpa’s custom harvest crew that summer to help her grandma, Pauline, with the cooking and cleaning.
“She made a terrible mistake,” Zeorian said. “She allowed me to go help in the field. The very first time in the combine, that bug bit me pretty bad.”
From then on, Zeorian helped with her grandpa’s crew almost every summer. She met her husband, Jim, who worked as a hired man for her grandpa, and they were married in 1982. In 1983, Zeorian’s dad, Larry Hancock, who had been custom harvesting with Elvin, proposed that the newlyweds buy a combine and join the business. Jim would travel every summer with Elvin and Pauline while Tracy stayed behind working a fulltime job and raising their girls.
After Larry decided to focus on his career outside of custom harvesting, and Elvin retired from custom harvesting in 1989, Jim and Tracy looked at each other and said, “Can we do this on our own?” In 1990, they loaded up their two young girls into her grandparents’ trailer and headed out.
“I was ecstatic because that was my passion,” Zeorian said.
Packing up and heading out
They’ve been running Zeorian Harvesting as a family business ever since. Jim and Tracy raised their four daughters on the harvest run and are now introducing two grandkids to the business.
After that first solo summer, the Zeorians joined USCHI as a way to network with others in their industry. Eventually, friends encouraged her to run for the USCHI board. Only one other woman, Nancy Eberts, had ever been elected to the board.
In 2004, Zeorian ran for the board and lost. In 2005 she ran again and won a seat on the board that year. After three years on the board, someone then suggested she run for vice president.
“I really had to do a lot of deep soul searching,” Zeorian said, “and I had to do a lot of praying because no female had done that before. You are talking about custom harvesting, a pretty-male dominated world.”
She won the election for vice president and then in 2010, she took over the president role.
“I did have to prove myself and I was challenged,” Zeorian said. “But I grew from it. When I could see that I made it through one challenge, that made it easier for me to get through the next challenge. I’m pretty persistent.”
Mobile office makes it possible
In January 2013, she handed over the gavel, but shortly after that, the organization needed to fill the executive director position and asked Zeorian to consider the job. She said she would fill in temporarily but would not be running the organization out of the Hutchinson, Kansas, office. Instead, she ran the organization from her home in Manley, and from wheat fields across the United States.
“It just seems to work for me,” Zeorian said. “With the convenience of technology, you can carry a lot of your work with you on your cell phone.”
Strong cell phone service is a must for Zeorian’s job, and she said that she can get a good cell signal almost anywhere she is, from Texas to Montana, except maybe eastern Colorado where coverage can be a bit spotty.
Custom harvesting is not a 9-5 job so the executive director also needs to fit that schedule. If there is a need, members must be able to reach Zeorian day or night. USCHI board members are also custom harvesters so they face the same challenges as Zeorian. But they all stay connected by cell phone. Monthly board meetings are handled by conference call. Regular emails keep information updated.
Every year, USCHI members gather for the annual convention. The location varies but the 2016 and 2017 conventions will be in Omaha, Nebraska. The 2018 convention will be in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Ad campaign brings recognition
When Zeorian first joined the board in 2005, membership was in a downward spiral. She was tasked with creating a new membership strategy to bring in more members. She proposed an ad campaign to bring awareness to the organization and membership has grown since.
“I really think that those gradual baby steps outward to others outside of our organization — outside of our world — has helped,” she said. “People know who we are now.”
Zeorian has worked to establish relationships with other organizations and political influencers. Every year, Zeorian and several board members go to Washington D.C. to meet with politicians to bring visibility to the challenges facing U.S. custom harvesters.
As Zeorian looks towards the future for U.S. Custom Harvesters, she wants to see the organization’s influence in the ag industry grow even more.
“I would like to see those larger ag organizations (like National Corn Growers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, American Farm Bureau) call U.S. Custom Harvesters when they need something,” Zeorian said.
Who To Contact…
U.S. Custom Harvesters
Executive Director Tracy Zeorian
PO Box 124
Manley, NE 68403