FEATURED WINTER 2019 ISSUE
Young Farmers Committed to Agriculture, Rural Lifestyle Even in Difficult Ag Environment
By key economic indicators, the ag economy is down. Commodity prices are stagnant, farm income is down and farm debt is up.
But that doesn’t deter many young farmers across the Midwest. Instead, this group of young farmers and proponents of agriculture beats to a different drum of what you might call rural optimism.
Despite the challenges today of making a living in ag, farmers like Logan Weber of Atlanta, Mo., keep going by having the right perspective. Farmers have resilience on their side, he said. “Farmers are optimists. They have a ‘we’ll get it next year’ attitude. It’s something you have to roll with. You have to have a good attitude and look ahead.”
For some, keeping one foot in farming means balancing another full-time job, like Brent Pekelder does in his work as a Grain Buyer in Ashton, Iowa, for POET. Or, for Abi and Lucas Wright, who took over the family farm in Albany, Ind., after Abi’s dad passed away, it means balancing a full-time job along with raising two kids. Despite that, Abi loves the farming lifestyle. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.
This group connects with farming for myriad reasons and sees the power of agriculture and what it can do, like Marji Guyler-Alaniz, who founded FarmHer as a chance to highlight women showing up and making a difference in agriculture. She sees the value in connecting women in agriculture.
For this group, even when there’s an ag downturn, that can’t stop the pull of the land. Weber, 26, returned to farming a few years ago after leaving his family farm after graduation. “It’s in my blood. It gets you hooked,” he said.
by Janna Farley | photo by Katie Williams
Date night for Abi and Lucas Wright isn’t the most romantic — at least not in the traditional sense.
There are no fancy outfits and candlelit dinners. Instead, there are tractors, a lot of dirt and long drives together to look at the crops — and the two Indiana farmers wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re always talking about the farm,” Abi said. “We’re talking about what piece of equipment might need to be fixed or what we should upgrade next. Before we had kids, we’d even take a long road trips every summer and drive though Iowa and South Dakota to look at crops in other regions. We’re nerdy like that.”
Abi, 32, and Lucas, 35, met as students at Purdue University, and started farming together in 2009.
Lucas grew up on a small farm and always had an interest in agriculture. Abi started working on her family’s farm as a young girl. “I was always helping my dad out,” she said. “I was probably the only kindergartener driving a skidsteer down the road.”
When Abi’s dad died in 2016, she and Lucas took over the 2,100-acre corn, soybean and wheat farm in Albany, Ind.
“The freedom, the ability to do your own thing, to make your own schedule — it gets into your blood,” Abi said. “I don’t know any other lifestyle than this.”
These days, Abi spends more time with their kids, Lucy and Charles, than in the field. Lucas also has a full-time sales job off the farm with Nutrien Ag Solutions.
Juggling work and family is sometimes “organized chaos,” Lucas said. “But I like the fact that every day is different. Like today, we’re hauling beans to the elevator, I’m going to pick up an auger and in between it all, I’ll be making calls to customers throughout the day.”
Still, neither Abi nor Lucas could imagine doing anything else — even with the challenges of today’s farm economy. The work they’re doing is too important.
“Obviously, farming is a business, and you have to operate that way,” Lucas said. “But you have to have people who care, who are emotionally engaged in the work. This isn’t big business. This isn’t Wall Street. Farming is still dependent on individuals out there doing the work, and you’ve got to have that personal touch to be successful.”
That personal touch — and a lot of hard work — is what makes it all worthwhile, Abi says.
It’s not always easy working together, Abi admits. And no one ever said farming was easy. But the Wrights can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I can’t imagine not having something to do every day,” Abi said. “There’s always something to fix, to clean — there’s always more work to be done. It’s never-ending, but I love it.”
by Miranda Broin | photo by Emily Spartz Weerheim
For Brent Pekelder, passion for agriculture quite literally runs in his blood. He is a fourth-generation farmer on his family’s land, a corn and soybean farm near Sheldon, Iowa, where — like many farm kids — he began working alongside his father, uncle and grandfather at a young age.
“I wasn’t just riding around with them,” said Brent, 24. “I was actually working with them, helping to get things done. They even trusted me to operate machinery. So being outdoors, working the land with them every day — I kind of fell in love with farming. And I knew that carrying on their legacy was something I always wanted to do.”
In 2017 Brent graduated from Iowa State University with an agronomy degree and went on to forge a career in a different sector of the ag industry: biofuels. He currently works full time as a grain buyer at POET Biorefining – Ashton, in Ashton, Iowa, but oftentimes his work for the day is not done at five o’clock.
In addition to the 40-plus hours he puts in at POET each week, Brent spends nearly as much time out in the field during the planting and harvest seasons. That means an additional 30 to 40 hours of work, and although that may sound daunting to some, Brent wouldn’t have it any other way. He is simply grateful to do two jobs that he loves.
“I wanted to be part of a company that was pushing the envelope for advancement in agriculture, and POET is definitely doing that,” he said. “And what’s even better is how supportive my bosses are about letting me farm. They see the importance in it — obviously POET thrives when farmers thrive — and their flexibility has been essential in my ability to do both.”
Brent’s educational background and dual career have given him a unique perspective of the agriculture industry. That’s why, despite the challenges many farmers currently face, he is optimistic about the future of ag. The key, he says, can be found in biofuels.
“I wouldn’t be working for POET if I didn’t believe in the power of agriculture to fuel the world,” Brent said. “I think the way we source things is going to change. We’re going to need more protein, more energy sources, more renewable products, and I think agriculture is poised well to meet a lot of those needs. Most of them are coproducts of ethanol production.
“Farm technology is improving and farmers are producing more all the time, but you can’t have high yields without demand for your product. You have to have a growing market for it, and the push for E15 is a good start. I truly believe that biofuel usage is going to be the main source to grow demand for farmers. It will be the biggest driver in the profitability of our farms.”
For now, Brent relies on the lessons he learned growing up on the farm to motivate him in these challenging times. “I was taught that the only way to get results is to put in the work. Feeling sorry for yourself when things don’t go your way won’t get you anywhere. Keep working, and it’ll eventually happen.”
by BryAnn Becker Knecht | photo by Jessica Braithwait Photography
In Paxton, Neb., a tiny dot on the map in Nebraska that is home to a tight-knit community of 600 people, agriculture is the life force.
Hannah Flaming, a third generation farmer, farms nearby with her husband Jed, a fifth generation farmer. They are raising four young children, and Flaming is intricately acquainted with the rise and fall of the ag markets because those numbers directly translate to her family farm’s bottom line.
Times are still tight for farmers in the community, she says, but it’s not as dire as it was a few years ago when she was worried every time she came into town about hearing the name of the next farmer who had decided to give up the farm.
“You were in town wondering who was going to go under next,” she said. “We feel more optimistic that we’re going to get a fair shake of the market.”
She credits President Trump, in particular, for helping to elevate the issues concerning rural America. “We felt that Trump was willing to go to bat for us.”
Hannah has noticed that the community outlook has been more optimistic and brighter over the past two years. “Honestly, I can really only put it to Trump. It was a slow progression,” she said. “Since our town is 600 people, the majority of them farm. Our whole fate depends on agriculture. When agriculture’s not doing good, no one is doing good.”
Overall, she recently has seen a new spark in the town. She said that while the market prices aren’t there yet to signal a strong economic recovery for the ag industry, farmers in the community have the belief that it will get better.
“We’re seeing that our purse belt is getting less tight. The market prices aren’t there yet. We have that security that they’re going to get there. That makes people more apt to find a new feed variety, or maybe upgrade their equipment.”
Thinking about it more, Hannah said, “Really what it boils down to is the community itself. Everyone in general is more upbeat.”
by BryAnn Becker Knecht | photo by Joy Young Photography
When Logan Weber left his family’s farm in Atlanta, Mo., after high school graduation, by all accounts he wasn’t planning to return to the farm. But it seems that his farming roots just wouldn’t leave him alone.
He obtained a welding certification at Missouri Welding Institute and started working at ethanol plants across the U.S. During his drive from his hotel to the ethanol plants, he saw farmers out in the field and felt a tug to go back.
“It’s in my blood. It gets you hooked. I missed the satisfaction of planting something. I enjoy sitting in a tractor and watching things grow through the season,” said Weber, 26.
In 2015, he decided to get back into farming and returned to farm with his dad, Stan, and grandfather, Warren, who raise cattle and also grow corn, soybeans and occasionally wheat. That’s a large part of the appeal, he said.
“It’s special to be able to work beside your dad and grandpa. That’s something that drew me back. That’s part of what I like about farming; it draws us together.”
Logan sees the possibilities in precision agriculture to continue to transform the future of farming. He first got into precision ag shortly after his return to farming, when he started working for a precision ag business and started selling precision ag equipment to farmers.
Soon after working in precision ag, he began incorporating those practices at his family farm. “I saw the benefits and how awesome it was. Since I was installing it, I saw the reaction of our customers and how much it was benefitting them and how much they used it.”
At their family farm, they now have row shutoffs on their planters, which saves money. Yield monitoring on their combines “helps us make better decisions about which variety to use.” Yield mapping provides data on where to place fertilizer on the field.
“It’s exciting to see how precision ag is changing farming. I’ve seen those changes,” he says, referring to last year’s crops. “We had a drought this past year, and the crops were better than expected,” due to the change in how far genetics have come in the seed.
Along with the boost that farming is getting from precision ag, Logan also sees another factor that farmers have on their side: resilience.
For Logan, what keeps him going despite the current ag conditions is having the right outlook.
“I guess it’s a farmer thing,” he says. “Farmers are optimists. They have a ‘we’ll get it next year’ attitude. It’s something you have to roll with. You have to have a good attitude and look ahead.”
by BryAnn Becker Knecht | photo by Diane Heckman
Since Marji Guyler-Alaniz started FarmHer as a photo project in April 2013, it’s become much more than that. You might even say it’s sparked a movement.
FarmHer has evolved from photo essays and stories to a monthly TV show on RFTD, a podcast called “Shining Bright” and a SiriusXM radio show, and annual events and apparel promoting the FarmHer brand. FarmHer highlights women showing up and making a difference in agriculture across the U.S.
Marji — who lives in Urbandale, Iowa — started FarmHer to address the gap she saw in the media concerning the representation of women in ag. After watching the “God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad in February 2013 — which was the top-grossing commercial of that SuperBowl — she realized that while the images were raw and powerful, there was something — a big something — missing: Women.
“That was wonderful but where were the women? And where were the women in agriculture?”
When Marji initially started her career working in corporate agriculture, she noticed that — much like in production ag — women weren’t very visible, which made it difficult to pave her path as a younger woman. “When I saw that, I took it to heart: This is a problem, and it’s a problem all throughout ag.”
Other women need to see that you can be a successful woman working in agriculture, Marji said. “If you can see it, then you can go be it. Let’s show people the amazing women that are there,” she said.
Beyond seeing other women as role models in ag, Marji views FarmHer as speaking to a wider audience outside of the ag sector. “From a consumer standpoint, we all should know and support the women who are working so hard to grow the food and raise the livestock that is part of all of our lives, and we just don’t see it.”
For Marji, the pulse of FarmHer is all about connection, specifically women connecting with other women in agriculture.
Hearing from other women how FarmHer has enabled them to connect — by hearing and reading the FarmHer stories, by meeting other women at FarmHer events — is “fuel on the fire” to continue doing what she does. “I posted something recently on social media on FarmHer and someone said, ‘I needed to hear those words at that time,’” Marji said.
Speaking to today’s current economic conditions in agriculture, she says that, as a photographer, she sees the resilience of farmers. When asked what she thinks keeps women working in what can be a challenging environment to make a living, she points to the “inherent love and connection to what they do” as the drive for their work.
For Marji, it goes back to that connection piece: to the land, to other strong women, to the ties of the land. “Whether that’s a passion to have dirt under your fingernails and a connection to the land, or a connection and want to raise livestock … they will dig at it to make it work versus walking away from it.”
Knowing that she’s making a difference showcasing women in ag is motivation for her and her team to keep running FarmHer, including traversing the country to film the TV show.
“The best thing we can do is to share those stories and to give back in that way. It helps you feel like you’re not alone. It’s a goal of ours in giving back.”