Busi­ness leader beats al­co­hol to be­come hero in Corn Belt

The Morning Call - - Life - By Sherri Da­ley

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

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