NORMAL, Ill. — As long as there have been young people wanting to work the land and raise animals, there have been creative ways to start a farming business.
Four young farmers say visiting with other farmers — be it in person, internationally or on social media — helps them make their businesses better.
The four farmers and their spouses exchanged ideas at the 2017 Illinois Farm Bureau Income and Innovations Conference July 26.
At age 14, Kevin Heap started growing pumpkins at his family farm in northeast Illinois. He put himself through college with the enterprise and is now growing the business with his wife, Kaylee. She manages the marketing and employees.
They raise 90 varieties of pumpkins each year, grow 4,500 mums, Indian corn and broom corn in Minooka, a suburb of Chicago. About 90 percent of their business is agritourism, with the rest wholesale.
“We welcome a lot of non-agricultural people to our farm,” said Kaylee.
Ashley Paddock uses her education in agricultural marketing to team up with her husband, Travis, who manages three co-ops for Wabash Valley FS. They raise two boys, corn, soybeans and sometimes wheat. She also works full time in ag marketing for Cargill.
The Paddocks are first-generation dairy farmers on land that has been in the family four generations. They are piecing back together ownership of the farmland, near Olney in Richland County, which was sold to different owners over the years.
“It’s a challenge to grow and expand,” said Paddock. They started their farm in 2010 and must compete for rental land in southeastern Illinois against others long-established in the area.
Marc Bremer’s dive back into farming is a little more traditional as he follows his father into crop and livestock agriculture with built-in mentoring from his parents. He and wife, Ashley, grow white corn, soybeans and raise registered black Angus in Illinois’ deep south, adjacent to Paducah, Ky.
Part of their challenge is the transition between generations as the farm evolves.
Andy Lenkaitis, an engineer and global product manager for manure equipment, and his wife, Sarah, operate a dairy farm about 45 miles west of Chicago.
He jokes that he doesn’t have much to contribute to conversations about growing corn, “but I can talk poop.” Lenkaitis handles the manure and nutrition part of his crop operation, and a neighbor does the planting.
He and his wife took over the family farm in 2014.
“We both worked full-time at first. Now she’s fulltime on the farm,” he says. She heads up the animal and equipment purchasing decisions.
Learning to grow
Lenkaitis said the pull to get back to agriculture was strong for him as he traveled for work and saw the good ideas of farmers around the world.
The couple is now building a modern dairy barn in Kane County. It is easier to find people who want to work for a modern, robotic dairy, said Lenkaitis. They want to show the modern way of farming using the latest technology to their urban neighbors as well.
Currently they earn 80 percent of their income from milk and 20 percent from genetics. Their plan is to develop their reputation on the breeding side of things, as well as build a stream of revenue from agritourism.
As the Heaps built their agritourism business, not being from a farming background, Kaylee also felt a need to get to know the rural community. Now she is an active young leader with the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Their hope is to keep expanding the operation. The Heaps are researching apples and strawberries as possibilities to expand in the future.
Kaylee jokes that living 500-feet from her in-laws was a challenge at first, but it has also been an advantage. The young generation sometimes need to be grounded with the practical ideas of the experienced, she said.
“The secret of working together is everyone has their job to do,” she said.
Balancing both on and off-farm careers can be a challenge.
“Thank God tractors have headlights. We don’t plant a single acre in the daylight (sometimes),” Ashley Paddock said.
She and her husband are now debating what will be the next addition to their row crop operation. He favors canola, after seeing it on a recent tour in Canada. She favors milo.
The couples also shared advice for other young famers.
“Not every year you are going to make a profit,” Bremer said.
He has the advantage of learning from his family who kept detailed records about their farming practices and finances. Their cost analyses helps him to know where they are making money and where they need “to pay more attention.”
He also advises patience. He and his father didn’t see eye-to-eye when he first came back to the farm. But his father soon learned to respect his knowledge of technology, and he began to understand where his father was coming from. There were “tough but good” conversations, he said.