Illinois Farm Families Blog

Sep 12 2014

Waiting for harvest

Photo courtesy of Karen Kenny-Oles, Dixon

We are currently getting ready for harvest. The crop “is what it is” at this point and no amount of crop protectants, fertilizer or scouting will make any additional difference at this point. 

This “lull” after late-August through mid-September is a good time to prepare for harvest, catch-up on “honey-do’s” and do the projects that are important but not imminent like most seasonal work on the farm (think planting or scouting—you do that when Mother Nature tells you, other important projects that aren’t weather sensitive get pushed to this time of year).  It’s also a great time to start initial plans for the next crop year, thinking about purchasing inputs (if you haven’t already) and preparing a plan of attack.  It’s early, but as Eisenhower once said “Plans are worthless, but planning is indispensable.”

As we prepare for harvest, we have equipment to maintain.  Big jobs are already done, but oil changes, lubrication, and wear item inspections are performed.  And calibrations for sensors and computers are needed too so that in-season, our data during harvest is accurate.  We have a scale on our auger cart (this is a special wagon that moves grain from the combine—which harvests our crop in the field—to the truck for transportation).  Last year we performed calibrations, but didn’t verify them against certified scales.  We were subsequently halfway through harvest before we realized that we were had a 7% scale error.  It was easy to fix, but it’s much EASIER to get it right the first time!  We have a semi-tractor and trailer, tractor and auger cart, combine with corn and soybean “heads” for cutting the crops, tandem truck, tractor and wagon, auger and 200,000 bushels of grain storage to prepare.  This is a common setup for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest, with an infinite number of variations in size and types of equipment.  We also will lease out a strip-till fertilizer applicator so it will be prepared for us.  Strip till means that we are injecting the fertilizer in a band 4-7” deep in the soil.  It means that the fertilizer stays where the crop roots are, rather than following rain runoff into streams.  It also means that we’re only tilling the soil in a narrow band 8” wide.  So most of our fields aren’t exposed for soil erosion.  It’s a more expensive process, but one that is ultimately better for the farm economically and environmentally—win-win.  This year, we’re also for the first time experimenting with cover crops.  Cover crops are grown to simply cover the soil when it’s not being used by the cash crops.  Think of it this way—a cover crop “covers” the soil so that it doesn’t erode.  They also increase the organic matter of the soil, create a healthy environment for earthworms and beneficial bacteria and fungi, and suppress many weeds we fight on the farm.  Lastly, they sequester (ie. Gather up) excess nutrients that the cash crop couldn’t fully utilize.  This dramatically reduces runoff into our streams.  We are excited about this new process and hope it works out on our farm!

But this “lull” is also great for the projects that don’t get addressed during the busy crop season.  For us, we’re going to spend more time on our specialty hull-less popcorn venture.  Check us out at  We will be thinking about automation and facility construction—capital investments that will make us more cost competitive by letting us scale up production AND preserving our focus on quality.  These are fun projects because, when I’m walking corn fields, I don’t have time to just sit and think.  And investments like this require lots of planning—but it means a good return on investment AND a deeper sense of meaning (I enjoy the fact that projects like these make my farm better for my son and family).  While this is certainly unique to most Midwestern farmers, the fact that we’re in “project-mode” this time of year is quite common.  It’s where a summer of research starts to be addressed by more deliberate thought and action.

Finally, I’m also thinking about next crop year.  Given the dramatic decline in corn and soybean prices of the past year (and especially last two years), there could be opportunities for young farmers if older farmers consider retirement.  But the margins are also dramatically lower—with the opportunity to grow comes the risk of failure.  So, it’s good to be considering what our inputs will cost—will nitrogen fertilizer go up or down?  Will corn seed stay the same—do I need all the features in that bag?  Is my equipment portfolio large and modern enough if someone retires?  These are the preparations that need to be considered—not necessarily finalized (most retailers won’t give firm prices to lock in completely on all inputs anyway).  Once the combine starts harvesting, it’s very easy to NOT take time to check emails and watch markets—you just get into your zone and go.  As I type this, a few weeks ahead of when it will be posted, this is one of my goals in the next two weeks—have a plan that’s flexible enough for me to change, but firm enough for me to be structured to “go with the flow” during harvest!

So as you’re still getting your kids into the rhythm of the new school year, I’ll be preparing for harvest, planning my next crop, and working on special projects.  There really isn’t a down-time on the farm—just times when the work can be pushed back a day or two and Mother Nature isn’t making your schedule.  

Andrew Bowman
Oneida, Illinois

Andrew is a fifth generation Illinois farmer. He and his wife Karlie have one son, Ryker, and farm with Andrew’s parents, Lynn and Sally Bowman, in addition to serving farmers through insurance and consulting enterprises.

Aug 31 2014

Food For Thought: Farming Is in Our Genes

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Aug 25 2014

Show Mom Diaries: The Empty Halter

Oh, you never forget that moment.

That moment your first steer is loaded onto the semi, and you’re handed that empty halter.

That dreaded, empty halter.

Maybe he was a sweetheart. Maybe he was a knot head. But as you carry that empty halter back to your stalls – now missing that animal once part of your barn for months – things are different.

And you’re forever changed.

No matter how many years pass, you always remember that first steer.

For me, it was Tremor the Angus steer. I was 8. For months, we worked together in our Hillsboro, Texas, barn. We grew together and with each show we attended, I learned a bit more about what it took to be a showman.

I was young. Everything was new. And my 8-year-old self never fully grasped what we had accomplished during our final show of the year – capturing the Champion Angus Steer title at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and showing in the Astrodome during a rodeo break for grand champion honors.

We weren’t named grand champion. But Tremor was the champion of champions to me.

Mom and dad prepared me as best they could for what was to come, and Tremor sold in the sale of champions.

The buyers were generous. And the experience was incredible.

But then it was time for Tremor to be loaded onto the semi. And dad returned with that empty halter.

And I wasn’t as prepared as I had thought.

I cried myself to sleep for several nights. And finally, dad sat me down for a chat. He said he knew it was tough. But showing steers would always result in that end. And if I wanted to continue, I’d have to come to terms with that fact.

So I did.

Oh, I cried a bit every year. But I never allowed myself to get quite as attached to another steer after that first year.

Waylon and Lightning learned from each other during Waylon's first year of 4-H.

Our son, Waylon, reached 4-H age this year. And when he and my husband, Craig, found “the one” in an online sale, we purchased him. And Waylon’s first steer, Lightning, entered the barn.

Craig and I knew we needed to be proactive.

We had many talks with him and little brother, Nolan, about the role steers play in feeding the world. That we must take the best care possible of these animals while they’re in our care. And when it’s time, we must say good-bye, knowing it’s their time to fulfill their greater purpose.

Waylon and Lightning made the trip together to local and state shows, and to the Junior National Hereford Expo in Harrisburg, PA. Each show, growing and learning from each other. Each show, improving.

And finally, we ventured to our county fair – Lightning’s final outing.

They had a great final show, with Lightning capturing Champion Hereford Steer honors. He and Waylon worked as a team.

Then sale day arrived. Oh, that dreaded sale day.

Waylon, our often-rational child, handled it very matter-of-factly. To him, this was simply the way it worked. This is why we had a steer, and it was his time. (He gets that rational side from his dad. No doubt.)

But Nolan had many questions about where Lightning was headed and how the process worked. And Craig and I did our best to answer the questions honestly and with care.

So Waylon entered the sale ring with Lightning. And when the auctioneer’s chant was finished, Lightning was sold.

Craig led Lightning to the trailer destined for the sale barn, and the boys said their good-byes.

Two entered the trailer. And Craig exited – with the empty halter in hand.

Cattle teach our children so many incredible life lessons. Some more difficult than others.

But the greatest lesson Lightning taught our boys? That even at the young ages of 9 and 6, our boys can help feed the world. And they emerged proud to play a small role in that enormous responsibility.

They’re already making plans for next year’s steer. And they’re ready to do it again.

Without a doubt, though, they’ll always remember Lightning.

You just never forget that first steer.

Originally posted August 14, 2014, on Drovers Cattle Network.

Aug 19 2014

A Visit to Our Farmer Pen Pal

In late June, I took the kids to visit my Illinois Farm Families pen pal Cindi Monier on her corn and soybean farm just north of Peoria. Cindi let the boys climb on the farm machinery and feed treats to her horses. She explained that their farm's location so close to the Illinois River makes it easy to offload grain to the waiting barges. It bothers her to watch parking lots cover some of the world's choicest farmland. Getting into farming can be tough. There are huge outlays for capital equipment, seed and other supplies. And the competition for land, which drives prices up, doesn't make it any easier.

We visited a neighboring farm where cattle of various breeds go for finishing--gaining weight before being sold for the market. The cattle feed is a mix of corn and supplements, which calm wilder cattle behavior. We gathered eggs and scared the chickens (and they scared us!) at her friend's nearby chicken farm. (These eggs are so fresh! You should see how high the yolks sit in the pan when I fry them for breakfast.)

I didn't expect the animals to be so aware of our presence--the horses came right up to the fence. They were excited we were coming because they knew they were getting a treat from Cindi. The chickens knew we were unfamiliar and had a fit as we approached. And as I was talking to the cattle farmer, I glanced up only to realize that all the cattle had crowded over to the fence to get a look at us because they were curious. Too funny!

We drove to Lacon where a torrential rainfall soaked us as we ran to storefronts from the car to The Pizza Peel. The staff gave us bath towels to dry off and served some great 'za, including a gluten-free one for Isaac. We joined Cindi's husband Breck and his friend having lunch there. They had pulled an all-nighter as volunteer firefighters taking care of a local blaze. In the video, you can see the staff at Kelly Sauder Rupiper Equipment give the boys a ride around the parking lot while Cindi describes to me how the equipment is used. What an excellent trip! I hope to make it back there in the fall to see their operations during harvest.

My son Peter entering the chicken coop

Nesting chickens and clutches of eggs

The cows were curious as we talked to the finisher and walked over to check us out.

The boys had a great time riding in a combine.

Dina Barron
Oak Park, Illinois

Dina is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.

Aug 08 2014

My State Fair Family

It's Illinois State Fair time. A time when kids and their families from across the state come together to display their 4-H projects that they have worked hard on all year. As a child, I always looked forward to going to State Fair. For people who aren't exhibitors, when they think of State Fair, they may think of carnival rides, corn dogs, and funnel cakes. To me, State Fair was none of those things…it was so much more!

To me, the word “family” completely describes our State Fair experience. And by family, I don’t just mean my parents and sisters. What I’m talking about is our “Fair Family.” In addition to showing at our county fair and the Illinois State Fair, we traveled around to several county fairs and showed pigs and cattle, every summer. There were several families, in addition to mine, that also made the circuit with us. And then there were some that we only saw at one or two shows. But all of these people, they were our “Fair Family.” We had our stalls next to each other, we ate meals together, we hung out together, we helped each other, cheered each other on and we made memories together.

Our summer long circuit of showing culminated with a week at State Fair every year. When I think back on the many memories that I have made at the fair, there are WAY too many memories to even begin writing in a single blog post. Some of my favorite memories took place at the actual fair (cheering in the stands as some our friends were named Grand Champion, playing cards in our stalls, eating lunch on the hillside by the chicken barn... and more) but many memories also took place off of the fairgrounds (swimming at the old Holiday Inn, locking ourselves out of our hotel rooms together, eating at Steak 'n Shake by the hotel... and many more inside joke memories that unfortunately are hilarious to us, but readers would just not understand!).

I loved showing, don't get me wrong. I learned a lot about responsibility, and I loved the feeling and anticipation of entering the show ring, waiting to see what place I would be given. I loved the smell of the barns (yes, you read that correctly,) the roars of the fans, the sounds of the animals, and of course, showing. But in the end, my favorite part of my showing and State Fair experience are the memories that I made along the way with my "family."

Danelle Burrs
Hickory Ridge Farm
Dixon, Illinois

Aug 07 2014

Why I Farm: Behind the Movement

4-H Fair is a family tradition.

For nearly 80 years, my grandfather has been involved with our county 4-H program. Yes, you read that correctly. He has seen almost 80 4-H fairs. After being a 10 year 4-H member, he became a volunteer and club leader when he returned home from serving in World War II. The 4-H program isn't just ingrained in our family, it's part of who we are.

With our county 4-H fair starting tomorrow, I've been reminiscing about my 10 years as a 4-H member. Remembering all the sweat, tears and hard work I poured into projects. Thinking about the challenges, mishaps and miscommunication with family members. Because we all know, there are always a few arguments. Laughing about spending the night before crops check-in in the middle of a field, digging up corn and soybean plants. It was always hot, always humid, and the soil always too dry.

Last night as I was digging through photos, I not only ran across pictures of me in 4-H, but also my dad. And one thing was strikingly similar - the Hamilton County 4-H fairgrounds.

As in many counties, the Hamilton County 4-H Fairgrounds is a special place for many families; filled with great memories, family traditions, and lifelong friendships.

And for me it’s not just about great memories, but thinking about the generations to come. I look forward to the moment when my children step into the show arena at the Hamilton County 4-H Fair. But for now, I’ll just enjoy my favorite chocolate and vanilla swirl milkshake.

Originally posted July 16, 2014, on Beck's.

Ashley Fischer

Jul 31 2014

Our Farm Life

A lot going on at the farm and only a little time to do it. The last month has seen us in wheat harvest. Planting what we call "double crop" soybeans. Baling wheat stalks into straw. And moving the bales into the barn. So far, this is the coolest summer on record. In our area, we could certainly use more rain. But the cooler temperatures are what have saved the crop so far. On the home front, a skunk family is camped out in the "goat shed." No immediate solution to that housing issue but we'll find a solution - and hopefully come out smelling like roses. Enjoy a few pictures from the goings on at our farm!

Heather Hampton-Knodle
Fillmore, Illinois

Jul 11 2014

Lunch with Grandpa

We love it when our two granddaughters, ages 3 and 18 months, come to the farm! And they love to go to the sheds, climb into the tractors and trucks, beep the horns and "drive". But their most favorite activity is packing lunches to share with Grandpa in the field! Last week we were packing one of those lunches and the 3-year-old wanted to take along some M&Ms for Grandpa and her. Quickly thinking, I suggested that we mix some Cheerios cereal with candy for a special treat. Later, in the field, she began sharing the "special treat" with Grandpa... one M&M for her, one piece of cereal for Grandpa, and so on. Finally, Grandpa asked if he could have a piece of the candy. To which she replied, "Grandma said you like cereal for your special treat. I like chocolate for my special treat."

Donna Jeschke
Mazon, Illinois

Jul 08 2014

One of My Favorite Farm Memories

One of the most fun things Eldon and I have done through the years is have a Memorial Day picnic. Our family always attends our small town (Kaneville) Memorial Service in the morning. Then afterward, some of the neighbors would stand around, wondering what to do next. One year, about 40 years ago, I just said to everyone to go home and see what they might have in their refrigerators which they could share, bring it, and come over for an old-fashioned picnic. I pulled some pork burgers out of the freezer and had about 5-6 families for a fun afternoon. Well, as our family grew up, they started inviting their school friends to add to the party. Then they got married and had families of their own. They invited other families... and you can see where this is going. Our grandchildren now invite their friends. The original neighbors are still attending and this year the head count was hovering around 80. When the weather is warm, there are usually water balloon fights between the boys and the girls, between the kids and their parents and just about everyone gets into the action. There are turns on the tire swing and on the trampoline for everyone. And some always like to pitch a few horseshoes.

We continue to have the pork burgers, but have embellished them through the years. We now put some pulled pork on them, along with a couple strips of bacon and a slice of cheese.

It warms my heart to see all the kids have such a good time. Again, when the weather is warm enough, they will all go through the back field down to the creek and dare each other to go in deeper and deeper. We now know to send some old towels down to the creek with them!

Usually, we have a tour through the barns to see the baby pigs. This year we did not do that because of the risk of the PEDV going around the countryside.

Most families go home somewhere around 6-7:00 pm with very tired, dirty, and happy kids.

Sandy Gould
Eldon, Illinois

Jul 07 2014

Under 30, Over $1M in Debt

If you're not from a farm but have time to venture out for a summer drive along some of the interstates crisscrossing Illinois, Iowa and Indiana - take a look at what might be a record corn and soybean crop. We've had some hot humid days, but for the most part, cooler nights and spoon-fed rains spread out across May and June have setup this to be a massive crop. As I received an email blasted to us bloggers requesting July content, I'm contemplating the beauty in my fields as well as the beast in the crop markets. Apparently, the market knows we're going to have record crops because today (June 30th), the markets turned bearish and started beating down prices. Soybean prices for our current crop are down $0.70 per bushel (~6%) and corn prices are down $0.22 per bushel (~5%). That's one day, after a key USDA report. Given these stark contrasts, I figured 'd touch upon a suggested topic: financial risks and rewards in farming from an under-30 point of view.

In my Sunday School Class (I was "promoted" to Junior High!), I brought up the concept of praying for peace (Philippians 4:6-7). My example, since I know that big numbers and personal examples get through to my "tweener"-aged youth, was on how much money I lost as an opportunity cost while helping with our Vacation Bible School last week. I figured that the stresses of life distilled into a dollar figure would warrant a good example of how prayer in my life gives me peace. One of my other enterprises is crop scouting for area farmers. While I'm winding that part of the business down, trying to harmonize it with our family insurance agency and make more time for our new son, it still is a profit center and is still a source of some stress at busy times. Rough figures, attending Vacation Bible School "cost" me about $2,500 in lost revenues. The reality is that as my scouting has slowed by design, I didn't much "lose" anything (I did lose some dignity and sanity while getting hit with pool noodles, tackled inside inflatable bounce houses, and portraying the evil villain in morning skits; but who goes to VBS to be a diva anyway?) - but it did serve an example of how and when one should pray for peace. I sure needed reminded of what mattered most last week when I wasn't at the farm 50% of the working hours.

But for purposes of this blog, the first response from one of my older youth (I have 6th-8th in our Junior High setup) was: Are you rich? It didn't offend me, but it did jar me a bit that that was their first reaction instead of what I was trying to teach. I suppose one of my wife's favorite quotes - she's an Ag-Communicator by trade - s true: You're responsible for what you say as well as what they hear.

So, am I rich? It's funny that this all came up this past Sunday. Peace from prayer was not only a good topic for my class, but also for me. And it was also my birthday. While I'm not at the dreaded 30, being my first birthday as a father, I did have some surreal thoughts running through my head that day. Asking myself if I'm rich was another good question for reflection.

By balance sheet standards, yep, I'm rich. Not many 28-year-olds in the world over have over a million in assets though when I read Forbes, The Economist, or some other business literature, I sure feel like I'm the outsider there. While I'm not going to do formal research for this blog, suffice it to say that I know I'm probably better off than 99% of the under-30-year-olds in the entire world, financially.

But with great rewards come great risks, luck, skill, and (in my case) large doses of humility. Humble enough, I hope, to warrant not being part of the stereotypical 1%. Most of my assets are tied up in land and farm equipment. Let's take a look at each in brief from a young farmer's vantage:

Land is the best "real" investment as it doesn't truly depreciate or wear out, in general. But this makes it so attractive and, given that less than 1-2% of the nation's farmland transfers ownership in a given year, it's a relative scarcity - so it's overvalued. In fact, I read once that there was never a time, except for the last few years of the 80s and first few years of the 90s, when farmland cash-flowed by itself. This means that no purchase of land paid for by itself, rather, it was paid for by an already established land base. And this one exception in the 80s/90s was more than likely luck - who saw depressed land prices slowly rising as interest rates moderated and commodity prices skyrocketed in 1994/1995? Very few. But many, who were willing to take the risk, benefited. They were the opposite of the risk-takers in the 1980s. That farm financial crisis led to many, many farms going bankrupt. So what does this mean to an under 30 farmer? Think of your competition. The average farmer is 57, and survived the worst time in the last 50 years to farm in the 1980s and has an established land base to help pay-off land purchases. While my land assets look good on paper, they're still not without great risk. If the land I purchased tanks in value (unlikely, but certainly not impossible), I could easily be in the same situation as consumers with underwater mortgages. The problem is that if that happens, it likely means that corn and soybean prices have went into multi-year declines or interest rates have increased... or both. Since young farmers don't have the land base to dilute the price of newly purchased land, a downturn is particularly damning. If this sounds like the plight of other young entrepreneurs, it is. Farming might be different for all the unique challenges of Mother Nature, but a business it still is. I can relate with young entrepreneurs in this economy quite well. And the long-term liabilities of my balance sheet from land purchases show it.

Farm equipment is double-edged sword. Failure to invest in technology leads to a slow death of stagnation in any business. But equipment depreciates, needs to be maintained, and is constantly outdated by the latest upgrade. It costs more than what a price tag lists. I don't own all the farm equipment, rather I own units in our family limited liability company. We formed it to hold the equipment for accounting purposes. But each year the value of those units declines. It sure looks good on paper, but it is like dry-rot in your house. If you don't maintain your house and make occasional upgrades or full-blown renovations, you're hosed. Farm equipment is the same. The intermediate-term liabilities on my balance sheet show it.

And both of these assets are intermediate or long-term. What about the short-term? The risk there is in weather and price. Going back to my opening paragraph, think about today's price decline. $0.70 per bushel of soybeans is quite a bit, and $0.22 per bushel of corn isn't insignificant (my Grandpa's generation barely saw prices move more than $0.10 the entire marketing year!). If one hadn't sold any production ahead or done any futures and options hedging, a typical 1,000 acre farm (500 corn @ 180 bushels per acre and 500 soybeans @ 50 bushels per acre) would have lost $37,300 - that's ONE DAY. Now that's a bit over dramatic - farmers don't keep their heads in the sand, oblivious to price or weather risk. That's why we hedge. And the opposite could have happened too - what if the market went up that much? Sounds great. But the counter to that scenario selling ahead and missing the benefit of the price increase. In any case, today is a good point on risks we face. If you're under 30, then the average farmer at 57 has 27 more years of experience. Agriculture is evolving and youth has its advantages - but I take experience over college education when I'm on the fence (that's why, among other reasons, I still need my Dad).

Our family just bought a farm on June 20th. Over a million dollars. I'm rich right? Go to the courthouse - the bank, technically, owns it; they're just renting it to me on their terms for the next 20 years. And what if I'm buying at the high? For the record, I really think we are buying at the high for at least the next 5-10 years. Dumb investment, right? Not in my opinion. I'd rather be a fool to my peers and a genius to my heirs or charities. The real challenge of being under 30 and over one million in debt is in taking the long view. That's where the rewards accrue if you can manage all the current and intermediate risks. On my 28th birthday, upon reflection, I didn't really think I had accomplished much in my life. But then I remembered, my Grandpa didn't make his first big land purchase until he was 40. I guess I'm at least 12 years ahead of the best man I ever knew - financially anyway.

Back to the main point on rewards versus risks: am I rich? If I am, it's muted by the risks I bear along with others my age in farming. If I am, it's if one turns a blind eye to the liabilities column of my balance sheet. If I am, I'm not taking enough vacation time to enjoy the spoils of my riches. In light of all this, I still don't consider myself a success yet. At least, not financially. I have a wonderful wife, an amazing 7-month old son, wonderful and supportive parents/business partners, a great sister and brother-in-law, and many supportive friends. My faith, my work give me purpose. I really am rich. But it's only because I remind myself of what I really have not listed on a balance sheet. The greatest risk I bear is in forgetting that. Under 30 and over a million in debt isn't so bad; my riches aren't in an account.

Andrew Bowman
Oneida, Illinois

Andrew is a fifth generation Illinois farmer. He and his wife Karlie have one son, Ryker, and farm with Andrew’s parents, Lynn and Sally Bowman, in addition to serving farmers through insurance and consulting enterprises.

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