Jeff Klinge’s Farm Legacy: The Importance of Mentors and More
A Farm Legacy Letter by Jeff Klinge, who farms near Farmersburg. Next time: Deb Tidwell, who is married to Jeff, offers her thoughts.
August 12, 2015
To future generations:
I grew up in this house near Farmersburg in Northeast Iowa. The original 1899 farmhouse was twice the size, but that was just too hard to heat so my parents built this new one in 1947. Our basement is the original limestone rock formation from under the original house, and my dad saved the flooring and other things from the original house that were incorporated into this one.
I own 240 acres outright, and Deb and I own another 80 acres. We always had crop rotation on this farm. When I was growing up, we had three years of corn and then a small grain and alfalfa. Now I’m certified organic, and you can’t have the same crop two years in a row except perennials like alfalfa.
Back in the early 1980s, my dad started gifting us four boys stock in the farming corporation he set up for their 750-acre farm. Three of us farm; my fourth brother basically sold out his share to my dad. That lowered our debt when we bought the farmland. My dad also set a sale price on the farmland about as low as he could allow without running into the gift tax, and land wasn’t so expensive back then either (this happened about the time of the farm crisis).
Another thing my parents did that made a difference financially was that they bought long-term health care insurance in their late 50s. As they got older they used these policies and didn’t have to dip into any of the net worth of their estate. When my dad and mother passed away, we boys were beneficiaries of their life insurance, which we used to pay off our loans on the farms. My dad was so thoughtful about this. People say life insurance isn’t a good investment, but it sure paid off for this family. Between the life insurance, the gifting of the stock and pricing the farm low, that made it easy for us boys.
When I think about growing up and living in rural Iowa, there are so many different things that come to mind.
One of my fondest memories was being with my grandparents on my mother’s side. They lived on a small farm and used a wooden cook stove. Next to the cook stove was a woodbox with a door that had an outside entrance and an entrance from the house. When I was a real little kid, I would go out into the woodbox and come out inside the house. That just amazed the hell out of me.
My grandparents raised these red Durrock hogs and my two brothers and I would chase the hogs into a little pen. One of my brothers would play like the auctioneer and we would bid on them. We were just little farts at the time but it was really fun. My grandparents and aunt and uncle took us fishing quite a bit. It was great being able to grow up fishing on the Mississippi.
My mother always raised longhorn roosters. You could buy them for next to nothing at that time because they were a kind of by-product. They would roost in the grove, and we boys would have to climb up the trees at night and catch them. One time we were missing chickens, and we knew a fox was getting them. My dad was determined to stay up all night to get that fox. I waited with him, but then couldn’t stay awake and went to bed about 1 o’clock. Just as the sun was coming up, the fox came in through the field there on a dead run and Dad got him with a shotgun.
We used to have some major snowstorms. One time when I was nine or ten, the neighbor kids got stranded here for several days, even though they only lived about 2.5 miles away. Some of the dairy men were digging tunnels in the snow drift to get their cows in and out of the barn. The county couldn’t get the snow plowed, so they hired all the contractors around the region to clean the county roads.
When I was in my early twenties here on the home farm, we had avian tuberculosis in our hogs. We went to one packing plant that condemned a whole lot of them. One of the neighbors told Dad to try a different packing plant because they don’t have the same inspectors. So we went to a different plant and got a whole bunch through. Then that plant started condemning them. The state veterinarian come out and thought it was brought in by birds and then they thought it was brought in by rodents. Then somebody from the USDA lab came out, and he didn’t really find any more. When 70 head were condemned, I asked a vet what was wrong with the hogs, and he said they had spots on the liver and we condemn them for that. “Is the meat fit to eat?” I asked. He said yes, and I said “why can’t we go down there and get some home to eat?” But once they were condemned, the rule was they couldn’t leave the plant. What a waste. Why didn’t they just throw the damn liver away?
As quick as the avian tuberculosis came in, all of a sudden we didn’t have it anymore, and we never proved where it came from. None of our neighbors had it. We thought maybe it was the air in our farrowing house, but we could have never proved anything. Yes, that was a significant time for this farm.
I enjoyed farrowing hogs. I ended up with the farm that had the cattle feeding set up, and that’s probably why I became a cattle feeder. My brother John lives across the field, and that place has the farrowing house and most of the hog finishing buildings. My dad used to farrow over there. Baling hay and filling the barn with square bails was something we did as a family and that continued after I grew up. It started off that my dad would load the bales on the wagon. As we got older, he drove the baler or did something else and then we boys did the loading.
In the 50s and early 60s, when we sent the cattle by semi to the union stockyard in Chicago, we would catch a train in Prairie de Chien–they still had a station back then–and we would watch the cattle sell then take in a baseball game. How great could life be! Well, the stockyards closed in Chicago about 1965. For awhile, we had packing plants closer to the cattle instead of having them in Chicago, but now we haul them to Eastern Colorado, which is between 800 and 900 miles. So Chicago was not far at all by comparison.
There were a few times when Dad and Mom bought calves right off the cow and brought them here from central Nebraska. When we put them in a feed lot, not only did they not have Mama but they were suddenly forced to eat feed and had very different water. They were really bawling. And it’s always in the fall of the year when it’s raining anyway and it tends to be dryer in central Nebraska than Iowa so they’d get respiratory problems. I haven’t bought bawling calves since I’ve had a business. You pay a lot more for feeders when they’ve been weaned. There is an animal welfare rule (in the natural program we use now) that says they need to be weaned 45 days before being sold, which is a good rule. And for my system, they should be bunk broken, which means familiar with eating out of a feed bunk rather than just eating grass off the ground. If they never ate out of the feed bunk before, that’s a big change, too.
One cattle mishap I remember well happened in the early 60’s, near Guttenberg. A car pulled out in front of a semi loaded with our cattle. The truck rolled over into a pond trying to avoid hitting the car. Some of the cattle drowned, and the rest got out and were running around Guttenberg. They managed to get them penned up again, I guess, but what a deal.
When I started working with cattle on my own, I lost so much money on the first group of cattle I owned, that it affected me for years to come. Then I fed Holsteins for 15 years. I had some about ready to go during the Dairy Buyout Program, and the government said, “Don’t worry, this isn’t going to affect the price.” I sent some to sale down in Tama the week that the buyout came about, and my Holsteins dropped about 25 cents a hundred weight.
The last 15 years, I have been feeding cattle for Laura’s Lean Beef. The Laura’s Lean Program that I used now has been discontinued, so I am going to have to find other markets for my beef and possibly switch breeds. So many markets I know are going toward grass-fed beef, which doesn’t work for me.
We’ve lost a lot of young farmers in this region of Northeast Iowa, Southwest Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota. We started seeing significant change even with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). There were a lot of young dairy farmers who usually started out on the roughest land, because that was cheapest and no one else wanted to farm it. When the CRP came in, their landlord could make more money by putting their land in the CRP than by having these young dairy farmers rent the land. The idea of the CRP, as I understand it, was to take some of the lower quality land out of production and by doing so help to lower the surplus and raise the overall price of grain. The irony of the program is that these beginning dairy farmers never added to the surplus but were forced out of farming so that the grain farmers on the better land could continue to make a living just growing row crops. So here’s a program that is supposed to help farmers but it resulted in a loss of beginning farmers. What’s a benefit to one usually ends up hurting somebody else in most cases. The CRP sure didn’t help beginning farmers.
We should have more farmers, not fewer. Almost every farm program we’ve had has led to continuous row crop production and more concentration and just growing a couple of commodities. Ethanol and subsidized crop insurance make corn and soybean farmers more profitable, but at what cost to everybody else? If we didn’t have farm programs just for the farmers that specialize in those two crops, the price of land could fall by as much as 50 percent. The big land owners would be crying something terrible, but it would be a shot in the arm for beginning farmers if they only had to pay half as much for land. If my land was worth half as much as it is, it wouldn’t bother me that much. High land prices are only good for somebody who’s using farmland as an investment to make money and not for the people who are actually trying to make a living farming it.
How do I want to be remembered in 30 years? That I got my giant ragweed under control. (Laughs.) I want my kids to remember how much they enjoyed coming here. I hope they had good memories when they grew up. They talk like they did anyway. Deb’s not their birth mother but she’s been real good with them. And they really appreciate her and that means a lot to me.
My top goal is to keep family harmony, to foster positive relationships among family members. Family comes first; close second is land. That’s what’s most important. I want to use the farmland to conserve and improve the soil, increase biodiversity, improve water quality and other conservation. There’s only so much land out there. Ever since I was a young child I didn’t like to see soil going down the river.
It is my duty as a farmer, as a human being, to try to leave this farm as good as or better than when I came. With my crop rotation, I hope the organic matter, the soil microbiology, is increasing.
I would like to see my farmland stay together, but if my kids aren’t going to farm it and there’s an opportunity to get more farmers making a profit on smaller pieces of land, that’s fine. I would like to provide land for my farming heirs to farm well, but I don’t think my children are interested in actually living here and farming the land. If they are interested in keeping the land that sounds good but what happens after their generation? Are any grandchildren I have going to feel attached and committed to this?
I would like to give all of my heirs an inheritance of equal economic value, but if one of them wants to farm, I wouldn’t be opposed to giving them some breaks that the other two don’t have. I want to provide a farm for a family to work. I’m not going to sell to an investor and if my children sell it, I’d rather they sell it to a family that works it (and doesn’t own six or seven other farms). I don’t know how much control I have over that.
I want to end with the importance of mentors. I didn’t always get along with my dad but he was a very good mentor. People like [PFI co-founder] Dick Thompson, my close friend Dan Specht and my brothers were mentors. Deb has been very important in my life. I have a tendency to get down on myself when things aren’t going right. She lets me know I’m my own worst enemy.
–Jeff Klinge, Farmersburg, Iowa