Business leader beats alcohol to become hero in Corn Belt
Steve Knuth lived hard, loved hard, worked hard and played hard. But he drank hard, too, and smoked and gambled. Now sober for over two decades, Knuth’s story serves as an inspiration for others to follow. Not only is he in recovery from his addiction, but he has found a renewed commitment to his life’s calling in helping save family farms in the western Corn Belt.
Candi S. Cross’ biography of Knuth, “Come Hope or High Water,” is almost a love story, with the same pheromonal highs and heartaches. It’s also a heroic tale set amid the fields and ranches of Nebraska, where men and women pin their survival on rainfall, drought and the uncertainty of the marketplace.
Farms and ranches utilize over 90% of Nebraska’s land. One in 4 jobs is related to agriculture, including supporting industries like transportation, warehousing, production and the complicated and unpredictable business of buying and selling.
For readers who are not familiar with the world of commodities, “Come Hope or High Water” will be an education. Few of us think about where our food comes from, who tilled the soil or harvested the crop; fewer still think about the costs along the way, from farm or ranch to the grocery store. That journey was Knuth’s life, his family’s life and the life of his neighbors and friends.
Cross does a fine job of immersing her readers in the ups and downs of this life. The daughter of an alcohol-addicted father whom she loved unreservedly, Cross is in a good place to present Knuth as more than just a high-functioning alcoholic. Many books about addiction leave a reader feeling lucky to have never met the guy. Not so in this case. Readers will feel they’ve missed someone particularly robust, valuable and inspirational by not knowing Knuth.
He started working in his brother’s retail fertilizer and chemical company managing one of the loading facilities and then moved on to start his own trucking company, but he never lost sight of a bigger picture that included exporting, tariffs and price gouging. He saw where men were making fortunes buying and selling the crops he hauled across state lines. He knew he couldn’t predict the weather or international trade wars, but there had to be a way to protect the farmers against devastating losses. “As sure as the Nebraska air around him, he just kept thinking — at least about markets and trading ”
He vowed to learn as much as he could about how these other men were making money no matter how little the farmers took home. He read everything he could about commodities trading, and in 1990, he passed his Series III test to become a broker.
It’s astounding to see what Knuth was doing all at once: working sometimes 100 hours a week, falling in love with his first wife, Brenda, and her two daughters, establishing a serious relationship with Canadian Club whisky, throwing money away in all-night gambling sprees, losing love and finding it all over again — all while learning about the complicated business of trading so he could help his fellow Nebraskans.
He never forgot his friends or his obligations, but, Cross writes, “Have you ever stopped to wonder how much the mind can really endure? The physical body? Steve never wanted to do that assessment.” Eventually, he woke up enough to know he needed to stop drinking. He had three stays at a rehab center before he was able to quit, but the people who loved him never stopped loving him. The people who trusted him with their money and their futures never stopped trusting him.
AgWest Commodities, the company Steve founded in 1999, is billed as a marketing partner that assists clients in price risk management and options purchasing. He continues his personal promises by serving on the boards of drug and alcohol rehab associations and volunteering time and effort through Alcoholics Anonymous.
Although “risk management” may sound like an oxymoron, it’s a powerful component of the commodities industry and, perhaps, in each person’s life. Knuth’s story is a perfect example of the off and on management of personal risks and sobriety, and a compelling read.
‘Come Hope or High Water’ By Candi S. Cross; Steven F. Knuth, 198 pages, $22