Fewer next-generation farmers grab the reins

2013-03-16T19:00:00Z 2013-03-18T10:59:58Z Fewer next-generation farmers grab the reinsMelanie Csepiga Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
March 16, 2013 7:00 pm  • 

Janny and Greg Kleine work for their father on their family's dairy farm in rural Cedar Lake where 100 cows are milked twice daily.

It's understood the two will be the next generation continuing the family business there.

They wouldn't have it any other way.

"When you live at your job, it's not going to work, really. I get up at 4:30 a.m. and walk 100 feet to my office, so to speak," Janny Kleine, 24, said.

She said she's tried to think about doing something else for a living, but can't really imagine it.

Greg Kleine, 22, said his high school friends were shocked when he said he planned to stay and work the farm.

"For me, I've helped my dad since I was little. ... It's become part of my everyday routine. Farming's more of a lifestyle. It's not your typical job," he said.

The Kleine Dairy Farm was founded in 1917 by their great-grandfather. Their grandfather, Herbert Kleine, 85, still rises early for his daily chore of feeding the calves and sometimes works alongside their father, David Kleine.

The next generation Kleines, Janny and Greg, know they're sometimes referred to as a dying breed.

Finding their niche


The median age of a U.S. farmer is 58, according to Top Producer Magazine, a farm trade journal. Only 119,000 farmers – a mere 5 percent of total farms – have principal operators under the age of 35.

It was this minority, clad in plaid shirts, heavy boots and baseball caps, that gathered under the ballroom chandeliers of the Hilton Chicago Hotel recently during a Top Producer event to learn and discuss the future of their businesses.

How can young farmers move beyond being known as "Joe's son" or "Bob's nephew?" asked Jeanne Bernick, editor of Top Producer.

Youthful eyes rose from white linen tablecloths littered with soda bottles, cups of coffee and remnants of a continental breakfast buffet. The question had hit close to home for many.

"You have to establish your own identity," said Bret Oelke, a regional extension educator for the University of Minnesota.

Finding a niche such as becoming familiar with innovative technologies is one way young farmers can develop distinct and marketable skills, Oelke said.

Raising millions of dollars to buy land and expensive equipment is another obstacle for aspiring farmers.

New technology


Lowell High School senior Garrett Corning, 18, isn't daunted by the challenges farmers face nor the fact he'll be a member of the minority. He's prepping for the day when he'll be the next generation operating the farm of his grandparents, Bill and Linda Hayden, whose family farm lies near the Kankakee River in southern Lake County.

"When my grandpa retires, my uncles will take over. ... Hopefully, I'll be the next generation. We don't talk about it, but if I have my choice, that's what I want to do," Corning said.

Two days a week, Corning leaves Lowell High School at 11:25 a.m. for his grandparent's farm where he'll put in a few hours of work. It's part of a vocational agriculture class at the school.

"I'll be going to Purdue or Michigan State for farm management or another ag-related (major). I'm leaning toward Purdue," Corning said.

In his 18 years, Corning said he has watched as technological innovations have changed how farming is done.

"I grew up riding on the tractor with my grandpa," he said. "Now they have tractors that steer themselves," he said.

While they still wear rubber boots into the milking parlor, the Kleines have cellphones in their pockets and open minds about technological advances to help them put their stamp on the family business.

Remembering when their father invested in the newest dairy innovation, an elevated milking parlor, about six years ago, Janny Kleine said she already has an interest in the use of robots for milking their dairy herd.

"That's what I'd like to do," she said.

Her brother said he recently read of "a kid who can control the irrigation on all their farms from his iPad. That's what he brings to the table," Greg Kleine said.

While he still prefers the hard work of lifting bales, Corning said the family now has an attachment that can lift 10 bales at a time. It signals the end to some of the decent paying, part-time work teens could get in farm country, but it's more efficient, he said.

Dick Wittman, who manages a 19,000-acre Idaho family farm partnership, told farmers assembled at the Top Producer event one key to expansion and improvement is process improvement. That means analyzing every step of farm procedures and pinpointing areas where efficiency can be improved.

"If you have no clearly defined standard operating procedures, bad things happen," Wittman said. Identifying jobs that are repetitive and replacing them with technology is one way to increase efficiency, but older farmers often resist that, he said.

'Feed America. Feed the world'


One way family farms can remain vital is through education.

Janny Kleine received her degree in farm management in 2010. Now she does the farm's books and is getting acquainted with one computer in their home devoted solely to agriculture markets.

While it may not be your grandfather's farm anymore, farmlife still has its appeal to those who were either raised in the tradition or rubbed elbows with it.

Janny Kleine said she finds working with the generation following her through her position as dairy co-superintendent for Lake County 4-H rewarding.

"We lease our animals to the kids, and they show them. ... I get to work with kids that didn't grow up on a farm," she said.

For her brother, "It's satisfying for me to be one of the few who put food on the table for the family. We're a small percentage. Feed America. Feed the world. That's big for me," Greg Kleine said.

For Corning, being part of a family farm offers so many intangibles, difficult to define, but all positive.

"I don't really know how to explain the attraction," he said.

Janny Kleine said farming is full of memorable moments.

"My dad and I pulled a set of twins (calves) at noon today. That's a special experience," she said.

Jessica Murphy of Medill News Service contributed to this story.

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