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Farming without him

In 2010, Marilyn Calvin lost her best friend and business partner when her husband, Kenneth, died suddenly of an aneurism. After his death, Marilyn continued to operate their Mt. Vernon, Mo., dairy farm, which she and Kenneth had established in 1972.

There’s not much time for grieving when the cows have to be milked.

“When we got married, Kenneth had a shotgun and a car payment,” she said. “We started with nothing and bought this farm a piece at a time. I didn’t want to lose that.”

Today, Marilyn partners with their son, Kenlee, to milk 200 cows, mostly Holsteins, and care for 170 replacement heifers. They also raise corn silage, grain and hay and maintain an intensive grazing system on 550 acres.

“I’m just as much a farmer as anyone,” Marilyn said. “I milk in the morning, feed calves every day and help at night when needed.”

According to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, 36% of all U.S. producers are female, and 56% of all farms have at least one female decision-maker. However, Karen Funkenbusch, specialist in human develop­ment at the University of Missouri Extension, believes women farmers are undercounted.

“Many say ‘I only handle the books,’ ‘I only order seed,’ ‘I only handle the marketing,’ or ‘I only handle the health of the cattle,’” Funkenbusch said. “These women don’t realize they make important business decisions.”

USDA doesn’t track the percentage of women carrying on farming operations after their husbands die, but there are plenty of women who do. Susan Jahn is one of them. She was widowed at age 40 when her husband, Kirk, was killed in an accident on their Jackson, Mo., farm in March 1999—just a month shy of his 40th birthday.

Susan was left with two young children, a large farrow-to-finish swine operation, an excavating business and 2,200 acres of row crops. It was Easter time, just before planting season. They’d already bought their seed for the year. She didn’t know what else to do but jump in the tractor and put that seed in the ground.

“I’d be out there in the field and plant some of my rows crooked, and I’d sit there and cry. I knew Kirk was looking down on me, and I couldn’t even plant straight for him,” Susan recalled, still misty-eyed when she talks of her late hus­band. “I had my faith to get me through, but I would still get so mad and wonder, ‘Why?’ He was supposed to be here farming with me.”

Susan and Kirk were high school sweethearts who married at age 19 and worked together for 20 years to build their farming operation. Their son, Scott, and daughter, Kelly, were 9 and 7, respectively, at the time of their father’s death.

After planting and harvesting that first season following the accident, Susan decided to cut back and focus more on her young family. She sold some of their larger farming and excavating equip­ment at auction. She gave up their rent­ed ground but kept her hog operation and the family’s own 400 acres, which she rented to other farmers.

In 2009, when Scott was a senior in high school, he told his mother he wanted to farm rather than go to col­lege. Susan put the tuition money she’d saved toward some land for him, and he picked up other rental acreage here and there to go along with the family farm.

“He’s Kirk made over,” Susan said. “Scotty always knew he was going to farm, he was going to excavate, he was going to do everything his dad did. He wanted to build it all back up again.”

Today, Susan and Scott together raise corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,200 acres. Susan helps with planting, harvesting and hauling dirt for the excavating business. She also manages 200 head of Duroc, Hampshire and crossbred hogs, mainly on her own.

“I’m doing everything I did when Kirk was here,” Susan said. “It’s hard, but it’s what I’ve always done. That’s why I picked it up so easily. I have friends who will ask why I’m still out there in the tractor or the combine all day long, and it’s simple. Farm­ing’s all I know how to do. And I love it.”

The same can be said of Frankie Knapp of Gideon, Mo., who, at 85, is still actively involved in the farm that she began oper­ating with her late husband, Rayvon, in 1952. Married at age 18, they farmed together 44 years before Rayvon died in 1996 from a series of health complications, including a heart valve replacement, kidney failure and lymphoma.

At the time, the Knapps were farming 2,000 acres of their own land and rented ground. Their sons, Ricky and Craig, had taken over much of the day-to-day farming responsibilities as Rayvon’s health failed. The brothers farmed for 10 more years until they lost contracts on their rental properties. The 700 acres they owned weren’t enough to support three families. So Frankie rented the ground to other farmers until 2018 when she offered her grandson, Jacob Knapp, a chance to take over the family farm.

Jacob, Craig’s son, grew up farming with his dad and uncle and started his own operation in 2006. But in 2008, the land he was renting was sold, and he had to quit. He worked as a farm­hand for other producers in the area until he began farming with his grandmother last year.

“I’m 85 years old. How much longer do I have?” Frankie said. “I’d rather have family farming it, and I think that’s what Rayvon would have wanted, too. Jacob’s the fifth generation to farm here.”

Taking active roles

Having intimate knowledge of their farming business made it easier for Marilyn, Susan and Frankie to take over management after their husbands died. Like many farm wives, they handled the bookkeeping and finances from the beginning of their mar­riages. They also participated in farm labor and decision-making.

“I always ran everything, even when Rayvon was alive,” Frankie said. “I did the books and the marketing. I was on call 24 hours a day.”

Taking active roles in the industry can also help position farm women—widowed, married or single—to be taken seriously in the male-dominated world of agriculture, Marilyn said. She worked her way up as a leader in the dairy industry for four decades. Every month, she attends a meeting of the Dairy Farm­ers of America Southeast Council, where she is the only elected female member. She’s also vice chair of the Midwest Dairy Asso­ciation Ozark Division. In 2013, she was named to the Missouri Institute of Cooperatives Hall of Fame—the only woman farmer to receive the honor.

“There’s still a stigma among farmers about female farmers until they get to know you—that you really farm and you know what’s going on,” Marilyn said. “I’ve worked hard and earned the respect of other dairy farmers.”

Susan has been active in Farm Bureau and is currently serving on the Cape County Soil Conservation and Farm Service Agen­cy boards. She said she’s made lifelong friends in these groups. Frankie kept books for a cotton gin in Gideon for 36 years, retiring from that job at age 69. The job gave her connections throughout the farming community and helped her gain first­hand knowledge of the marketing side of the business. It also helped keep grief from overwhelming her after Rayvon died.

“For a while, it seemed like having a job was the only thing that kept me alive,” Frankie said.

No matter how difficult the journey, carrying on their farming operations ultimately gives these women hope to preserve them for future generations. Scott and his wife, Laura, a schoolteach­er, now have a young son named Kirk, after his grandpa. The toddler likes to tag along with Susan as she farms—just like her own children did when they were little.

“Little Kirk is there, too, just taking it all in. He can identi­fy all our tractors, and he likes to see the pigs and ride in the combine with me,” Susan said. “I hope Scott continues on. I’m here to help his farm grow, and maybe he can do the same for his son someday.”

Frankie intends for grandson Jacob to continue the farming legacy she and Rayvon started more than 67 years ago. The 34-year-old now grows corn, cotton and soybeans, and his sons, Gavin and Brayden, are learning to farm with him.

“Farming is what I love, and I wanted my kids to be part of it, like I was raised,” Jacob said. “It works out great. I get along with Grandma, and she still helps me with all the marketing. She loves farming as much as me. It’s her passion.”

Sharing advice for farm wives

Susan said one of the hardest lessons she learned after Kirk’s death was that life as she knew it would never be the same. One minute, she, her husband and their kids were all working to­gether in their farm shops and hog buildings. The next minute, he was gone. She advises other farm wives to be aware of that harsh reality.

“If you’re not prepared,” she added, “people can take advan­tage of you.”

Knowing that the unthinkable can happen, Susan, Marilyn and Frankie also offer these considerations for carrying on a farming operation after a spouse’s death.

You have to love it. “Learn now what farm life is really like,” Frankie said, pointing out that many wives work off the farm or aren’t involved in day-to-day operations. “You don’t farm for the money. It’s hard work, and you don’t make that much. But you’ll have a good life.”

Take an active role in farm finances, including keeping re­cords and balancing the checkbook, Susan said.

Establish credit in your own name, Marilyn added. You can’t count on joint credit with your husband to suffice when you deal with vendors who don’t know you.

Build up savings and/or life insurance to assure you have the means to keep going. Also invest in crop, livestock and health insurance.

Get help. Frankie, Marilyn and Susan work with family members and hired help. If financing isn’t your forte, hire an accountant and make sure you understand lender expectations. MFA and other organizations can help with agronomic issues such as soil sampling and fertilizer application. USDA and the Extension Service also offer information, and USDA’s Women in Agriculture program provides mentors.

Protect your legacy for future generations. Consider setting up an estate plan to ensure the farm passes on according to your wishes. “It doesn’t matter whether you have red or green tractors, or beef or dairy cows, the land is your legacy,” Marilyn said. “Farmland is expensive, and if you sell it, there’s no way your kids can borrow the money to buy it back.”

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World of opportunity

On a typical work day, MFA personnel are dispersed into a variety of duties: spraying fields, applying fertilizer, making recommendations, deliv­ering feed, sampling soil, waiting on customers, handling grain or managing the business.

On Sept. 5, however, employees at MFA Agri Services Midsouth in Piggott, Ark., all had the same responsibility: teach.

More than 100 sophomores, juniors and seniors from five area high schools in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri attended MFA’s inau­gural “Ag Life” symposium, featuring educational sessions, facility tours and equipment demonstrations at the Piggott location. Topics included preci­sion technology, seed genetics, crop nutrition, livestock science, agricultural careers and much more.

The idea was to connect with the community and invest in local students, said Tony Lucius, MFA District 11 manager, who helped organize the event. He said the symposium’s tagline, “A World of Opportunity,” was purposeful.

“As we go around to the different stops, we’re not only edu­cating the students but also showcasing career opportunities,” Lucius said. “A lot of students think that farming is just driving a tractor, but there’s so much more to it nowadays. We want to broaden their image of what agriculture is and the world of opportunity it represents.”

Indeed, MFA’s multi-faceted operation gave the young people a varied look at agriculture in action, said Casey Simpson, instructor and FFA advisor at Piggott High School, who brought 40 students to the event.

“We talk about it in class and we show videos, but most of these students never experience these things in person,” Simpson said. “Here, they get to see every sector. There’s the ag business side of things, plant science, animal science, grain merchandising, fertilization—all of it. This is hands-on learning at its best. I wish we had more opportunities like this.”

One of his students, senior FFA member Catie Hill, said the event gave her and fellow classmates a chance to learn more about real-world agricultural jobs from people who were cur­rently working in those fields.

“Each mentor or speaker was kind and very informative, open to all questions and did their best to tell us everything they knew and offer insight into their jobs,” Hill said. “The field day was very much worth the heat we stood in, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity it presented me.”

Teaching high-schoolers may have been outside the comfort zone for many of the MFA employees, Lucius said, but it chal­lenged them to “think differently about what they do.”

“We had a cross-section of MFA employees involved, from specialists and sales people to managers and truck drivers, and there’s value in having them be part of this process,” Lucius said. “It helps them to teach others what they’re doing. Plus, they’re sharing knowledge from a first-hand perspective and making these students more aware of what really goes on in the agricultural industry. That’s important, because misinformation is everywhere.”

Even in the mostly rural communities served by the MFA Agri Services Midsouth group, accurate depictions of modern-day agriculture are need­ed, said Brad Tullos, instructor and FFA advisor at Campbell High School in Campbell, Mo. Many of his students aren’t directly connected to farm­ing, said Tullos, who brought his crop science class to the symposium.

“Traditionally, 40 years ago, many of those students would have been off the farm, but we don’t have much of that anymore,” he said. “If they want to be involved in agriculture, it’s going to be somewhere like MFA. I’m pleased that we were invited to participate in an event like this, especially locally. We don’t have the time or resources to travel very far.”

Based on the positive feedback MFA received from the inaugural Ag Life event, Lucius said he hopes to plan another one in four years to reach a new crop of students.

“We opened the opportunity up for 10th through 12th grade, and we don’t want to repeat anything,” he explained. “So we’ll wait until all these students have graduated, and then do it again. And we want to make it bigger and better. We could have easily hosted 400 to 500 students, but we needed to test the water. I think it’s been a success, and I think it will help connect us closer with the community. After all, MFA is a relation­ship company.”

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Farming on hog country

Larry Campbell wants his farm back. 

For the past 18 years, he’s been raising livestock on 600 acres surrounded by the Bell Mountain Wilderness area in Iron County, Mo. His cattle herd is thriving on the farm’s secluded pastures, but nothing he tries to plant here will survive. He’s tried to grow alfalfa and failed. His corn crops were a total loss. He can’t even harvest hay anymore.

Feral hogs have made those efforts futile.

“Anywhere I try to plant, the pigs will root it all up,” Campbell said. “What’s more, they root all the rocks to the top, which tears up your equipment. You can ruin disc mowers, rake teeth and baler pick-up bands. Where you’d been doing hay for 10 years, all of a sudden you can’t anymore. It’s gotten so bad I can’t even bush-hog. Those boars will dig ruts a foot and a half deep, and you can’t see that in the tall grass.”

Campbell isn’t alone in his feud with feral hogs, which can be found in at least 37 Missouri counties. These invasive, non-native pests first became an is­sue in the early 1990s after wild swine were released in the southern part of the state to establish hunting populations, according to Missouri Department of Conservation officials. Most feral hogs in Missouri are hybrids, genetic combinations that include Eurasian wild hogs along with an assortment of domestic varieties.

Between natural reproduction and continued illegal releases, the feral hog population exploded. Adult hogs have few predators and are very hardy, so natural mortality rates are low.

Plus, their numbers multiply quick­ly. Females are able to reproduce at 6 months of age, and they can have two litters of four to eight piglets every 12 to 18 months. Their annual popula­tion growth rate can reach 166% if no removal efforts are made.

“It doesn’t take long for one pig to turn into a whole bunch of pigs,” Campbell said. “They multiply like crazy and spread like crazy.”

Campbell’s farm is in the heart of hog country in southeastern Missouri, where the majority of the state’s wild pigs roam. This region is where nearly half of the 29 hog trappers employed by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are stationed. Their job? Eliminate the problem.

One of those trappers is Eli Holmes, a USDA wildlife specialist who trapped and killed 187 feral hogs on Campbell’s property alone this past year and around 2,100 throughout his three-county territory from October 2018 to October 2019.

“The terrain in this area helps the hogs thrive and multiply,” Holmes said. “There’s so much Forest Service land, so much wilderness and so many places to hide, away from humans.”

Trapping—not hunting—is the recommended removal method for feral hogs, Holmes emphasized. While it may seem counterintuitive, he explained, hunting and shooting feral hogs actually increases their numbers and distribu­tion because of illegal releases of more animals into the wild for future hunting opportunities. It also scatters the hogs and can interfere with trapping efforts.

Feral hogs travel in groups called sounders, generally comprised of a few related adult females and their piglets, which can number 20 animals or more. Holmes and other USDA-APHIS hog trappers will capture and annihilate a whole sounder at once, while hunters typically only get a few hogs at a time. Holmes has found as many as 37 in one trap.

“You can condition the pigs to come to a certain bait site before you build a trap, and the sounder will stay together so you can kill them all,” he said. “If you’re hunting, realistically you’re only going to kill two or three at the most, and then the other ones are going to scatter and become educated. Trapping is more suc­cessful in getting rid of larger numbers of pigs.”

The fight against feral hogs has escalated over the past several years in Missouri and other states where these animals have become a serious nuisance. In 2015, a collaboration of state, local and federal govern­ment agencies formed the Missouri Feral Hog Part­nership and created a strategic eradication plan. MDC banned the hunting of wild pigs on its 1,000 conserva­tion areas across the state in 2016, directing the public to follow a “Report, Don’t Shoot” strategy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers followed suit.

Most recently, the U.S. Forest Service is considering similar policy in a controversial proposal that would close hog hunting on the 1.4 million acres of the Mark Twain National Forest, which has the state’s largest population of feral swine. The proposal was open for public comment over the summer with more than 1,000 responses. At press time, the Forest Service was still processing those comments and considering whether to enact the ban.

One of the concerns is that a hunting ban would lead to “safe spaces” for pigs, but Holmes said that’s not the case. It would allow him and the other trappers to get into the Forest Service areas and get their job done without being harassed or the pigs being chased off before they are caught.

“A lot of people are upset about banning hog hunting in the forest land, and I under­stand where they’re coming from,” Campbell said. “I’ve hunted hogs, and it’s fun. But that doesn’t outweigh the damage they can do. Trapping them is a much better plan.”

As he knows all too well, feral hog damage can be widespread, showing up in croplands, pastures and more. As few as 10 hogs can destroy 20 to 30 acres of crops in one night as well as fencing, feeders and waterers. They wallow in wet areas near ponds, streams and wetlands, fouling water sources, and they compete directly with native wildlife for food and water, particularly with deer and turkey for acorns.

“Feral hogs will eat almost anything they come across,” Holmes said. “If there were no efforts to stop the hogs, desirable wildlife would be on a downhill slide quick. Especially in the wintertime, deer and turkey rely on that acorn crop. It’s nothing for hogs to move in an area and just wipe it out.”

One of the biggest concerns for agriculture is the spread of disease, he added. Feral hogs carry more than 30 diseases and parasites, and many of them are transmissible to livestock, wildlife, pets and humans. Two diseases prevalent in feral hogs, pseu­dorabies and brucellosis, have been eradicated in the U.S. domestic swine industry. However, reintroduction through contact with feral hogs could be economically disastrous.

The USDA-APHIS trapping program has been at work on Campbell’s property for about 18 years now, and he believes it’s working. The hogs aren’t gone, but he said their populations have definitely dwindled.

“It’s aggravating, but I think we’re gaining,” Campbell said. “I have probably at least 60% fewer hogs or signs of hogs than even three years ago. And if I see hogs, Eli puts a trap out, and they’re nonexistent in about three days. He easily takes care of them.”

Holmes agrees that more trapping and less hunting are making a mark on Missouri’s feral swine population, although their rapid reproduction makes exact numbers hard to pinpoint. Statewide, there were 9,161 hogs killed by trappers from January through October 2019, according to MDC. That’s on par with the 9,365 killed in 2018.

“When I first started, especially this area, it seemed like there were pigs every­where,” Holmes said. “It wasn’t hard to go out and find pigs to trap. Since we’ve been able to get more trappers on board, it’s definitely been harder to find pigs. It might be small, but it feels like we’re making an impact.”

While hog pressure is lower in the fall and early winter when there are plenty of acorns to eat, Campbell said he usually starts seeing the porcine pests start rooting around his farm in January and February as food sources become scarce. Spring and summer are the busiest times for Holmes to capture hogs, typically running 12 to 15 traps at a time.

MDC and USDA encourage farmers and landown­ers to report all feral hog sightings by visiting mdc. mo.gov/feralhog or by calling 573-522-4115, ext. 3296. The agencies will assist in trapping and eradi­cating the entire sounder.

“There’s no mistaking pig damage once you see it,” Holmes said. “Definitely get in touch with us. We’ll set up a meeting to see where the damage is, and we can start baiting them and get a trap up pretty quick.”

Eliminating Missouri’s feral hog problem will take everyone working together in this common strategy, Holmes added. It won’t be quick or easy, he said, but the goal is possible to achieve.

“Southwest Missouri is a prime example,” Holmes said. “Five years ago, there was an established popula­tion. Now, in certain parts of the region, they’re only chasing a few single boars. That’s why a hunting ban is so important. If you achieve extirpation, we don’t want them to show back up because they’ve been hauled in or scattered by hunting pressure. When we check an area off our list, we want it to stay off our list.”

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