HURON, S.D. — Sixty-four years ago Ruth (Iburg) and Tom Neuberger embarked on their life’s adventure together beginning with a road-trip from South Dakota to Ft. Benning, Georgia, where Tom’s orders were awaiting them.
Along the way, the State College graduates took in several collegiate football games. Not your typical honeymoon, but perfect entertainment for two physical education teachers.
Before the couple became known for the GooseMobile, their Canistota-based, direct marketing, farm-to-table business, they were commuting to their first job together as high school physical education teachers.
It was 1955 and gym classes looked much different than they do today. “The girls all wore navy blue uniforms and when I taught aerobics, I had a piano accompanist,” Ruth says.
She begins to giggle at the memory of leading the class of 90 girls through a routine balanced on a raised platform about the size of her kitchen table. “I was responsible for teaching 550 girls. This job taught me a lot about organization skills I ended up utilizing years later when I was manager of the Downtown Farmers Market.”
Not long after her stint as a PE teacher, Ruth gave up her career to stay at home with the couple’s only son, Tim.
“We were only blessed with one child and it took us a long time, so I was determined to stay home,” Ruth explains.
Tom, in the meantime, was building his career as a collegiate wrestling coach.
By the time his dad, Walter, called to say he was ready to retire and ask if Tom wanted to take over the family farm, Tom was the athletic director, basketball coach and soccer coach at Concordia Lutheran College in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Dad was old school. He said, ‘Because you are the oldest, you get the first opportunity,'” explains Tom. “Growing up, my interest was sports. I had no real interest in agriculture. I grew up on this farm, but for my future, why, I wanted to be a teacher and a coach.”
A couple of faith, they prayed for wisdom. In the end, it was their middle-school-age son, Tim, who tipped the scale.
“It was the early 70s and in Ann Arbor, it was a time of free love. Even the junior high students were demanding smoking rooms. I wanted to get out of there before my one and only child was polluted by these crazy ideas,” Ruth explains.
Although Tom had not planned to return to the farm, he could see the value in moving his family back to South Dakota and in the end, he says the skills he developed as a coach proved invaluable back on the farm.
“When I was coaching, I had a bunch of human beings who I was trying to organize and do the right things with to get them to win. Now, on the farm, here I am, working with cows, pigs, sheep and poultry organizing them to make it work,” Tom explained.
And it did work.
That is, until the Farm Crisis of the late 70s and early 80s hit.
Tom figured out the farm could provide for the family if they built up their livestock operation to 100 cows, 100 pigs and 100 sheep. When the markets fell, it didn’t take long before the 20 percent interest they were paying on the livestock loan caught up with them.
“I farmed the way my dad did. Then one day I was doing the bookwork and I figured out that we had paid more interest than we’d gotten paid. We had to do something different,” Tom says.
Instead of returning to his coaching career, Tom became determined to stick it out and make things work.
This decision didn’t surprise Ruth.
“When he was a wrestler in college he had one record. He never got pinned,” Ruth explains. “He is a strong-willed person; he will work, and work, and work, until it works.”
They began selling off the cattle and started looking into direct marketing.
“I liked to garden so I thought, ‘Why not?'” Ruth says.
A people person, Ruth enjoyed the weekly trip to sell her garden vegetables at the Sioux Falls Farmers Market.
“The reason we’ve been so successful with direct marketing is more her than me. She is more of a people person than I am,” Tom explains. “Customers will call in an order and then visit with Ruth for 15 or 20 minutes.”
Not shy about their personality differences, Ruth explains that the reason they have worked so well together on the farm for nearly 45 years is that they share a strong faith, keeping God at the center of their marriage, and they each focus on their niche. “We help each other when we need help,” Ruth explains. “But we each have our own way of doing things.”
Farmers Markets were a rather new concept in 1978, and the Downtown Farmers Market in Sioux Falls had a few growing pains to work through.
Ruth became the group’s first chairperson, organized committees and on Tom’s urging, worked to develop a price structure for all vendors which was fair.
“Tom said, ‘You got to make money. You need to help organize the members so you are not all competing against each other.'”
While Ruth was building up their direct market business, Tom began rebuilding the farm with poultry geese, chickens and turkeys. There was not an independent poultry processing plant in the area; he started a poultry processing plant in Humboldt.
From the start, the couple determined that the livestock they raised would be free range, grass-fed and raised without hormones or antibiotics.
So, when Ruth read an article that geese are an almost disease-free animal and Tom learned that there was an international export market, they didn’t hesitate. The first year they raised 1,000 geese.
The goose export market closed a few years later. So, for a few years, the couple joined with other South Dakota geese producers and purchased small refrigerator trucks and direct marketed the meat to rural communities.
“The GooseMobile was not started by us, but by the members of the South Dakota Goose Association. In those days, South Dakota was the number one goose-producing state in the nation. When the organization dissolved, we bought them out and kept the GooseMobile routes going,” Tom explained.
Over the years the GMO-free, grass fed, free range meat niche meat business evolved.
Eventually demand for their meat products began to grow among their produce customers. At first it was up to Ruth and Tom to educate their customers on the value of their naturally raised meat. Today, their customers educate themselves and have introduced some unique value-added opportunities.
“It’s so funny: today we sell bones and fat and we never used to,” says Ruth, of the products purchased to make homemade broth.
Today, at 85 and 86, the couple is looking to slow down, sell their business and after 64 years of marriage, embark on yet another adventure together.
To listen to Tom and Ruth visit about their life together and The GooseMobile, visit www.sdfu.org/news after February 15, 2017 and click on the Radio Show link.
— Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union
For more news from South Dakota, click here.