The Next Generation of Farmer Leaders
by Samantha Turner
“It is easy to be consumed by the operation and miss the opportunity to learn about the industry through influential agricultural organizations,” said Curtis Delgman, a soybean grower from Bowling Green. “If you’re always behind the wheel of your tractor, you aren’t going to know what the industry is fighting for.”
As a young, beginning farmer Curtis knows how difficult it can be to get involved and stay in touch with what is happening.
“We work long hours, and we want to spend time with our families, but we also have to stay on top of current events – specifically looking at America’s bean crop and the best ways to market it,” said Delgman.
Delgman fears the agricultural industry won’t continue to grow future farmer leaders. “An operation isn’t truly sustainable, unless there are generations to continue to grow the family’s legacy. I understood the legacy of my family’s operation, and knew the importance of agriculture on a local and global scale,” said Delgman. “If I didn’t work in production agriculture, I would be just another statistic of demise.”
The agricultural industry is experiencing a substantial shift. Across the country farmers are retiring, with hopes to pass down their livelihoods filled with years of stewardship and passion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates over 90 million acres, 10 percent of all farmland, will change hands nationwide by the end of next year.
Curtis Delgman is a first generation farmer currently working on his family’s row crop and livestock operation, Peno Creek Farms and Cattle. Additionally, Delgman and his family recently decided to diversify and implement an agri-tourism component by including a pumpkin patch and petting zoo to their farm. Curtis farms alongside his father-in-law, wife and three children.
Next generation producers are now assuming full-time management and landowner roles on their family farms, and are confronting the barriers presented by the modern agricultural industry. For these young farmers trying to establish themselves in the ever-changing agricultural environment, they are discovering there are many obstacles to overcome. Fortunately, we have driven Missouri farmers who are stepping up to the challenge and starting their own family farms.
As a young agriculturalist, Delgman is actively involved in Pike County Young Farmers and Ranchers, Pike-Lincoln County Cattlemen’s Association, Missouri Soybean Association and was selected to be in the current Agricultural Leaders of Tomorrow (ALOT) class.
Demanding Startup Costs
Farmers in America are getting older, and in many ways it is harder for coming generations to fill their boots. High start up costs and lack of available land can make entering in to farming an overwhelming task. As a first generation farmer, Delgman understands the risks and commitments of agricultural life.
“To come into the industry as a new, beginning farmer it is very costly to make mistakes,” said Delgman. “You don’t have a lot of margin to play with. You could be one and done, and it could cost you everything.”
“I am cognizant of my investments,” shared Delgman. “I’m not growing my operation until I feel I am maximizing each acre. Every acre has to have 100% potential.”
Dane Diehl, a fifth generation farmer from Butler, Missouri, also has his reservations about agricultural margins.
“I see the younger generation deterring from production agriculture simply because of the crop margins,” explained Diehl. “In recent years, the commodity markets have been risky. Crop margins in the future may continue to be slim, and we will have to be innovative to maximize production.”
Diehl farms alongside his dad and brothers, and predominately manages the family’s row crop operation of corn, alfalfa and soybeans. The Diehl operation also includes cow-calf pairs.
In recent years, the costs of production agriculture have surged. Inputs – seed, chemical, fertilizer and equipment – have continued to increase in price. Markets have not reflected these growing input costs, putting young farmers in a difficult situation. Growers, like Diehl, live and breathe these hardships each day, and work tirelessly to ensure their operation ‘pencils out in the black.’
“I believe as young farmers we are being progressive and not backing down to the challenges every day farming brings,” said Garrett Riekhof, a fifth-generation farmer, currently managing the Riekhof family’s century farm. “My goal is to provide a viable operation for the future.”
To fluctuations in the market, these next generation farmers work diligently to prepare for adversity to strike.
“People often bid against adversity,” said Diehl. “I knew it would be tough starting out.”
In 2017, Dane was selected for the DuPont Young Leaders program, which was developed to identify aspiring advocates within the agricultural sector. Diehl recently joined the Missouri Soybean Association board of directors, in addition to his participation in Bates County Farm Bureau and their Young Farmers and Ranchers organization. Diehl also volunteers with the Butler FFA Chapter, assisting with students’ Supervised Agricultural Experience projects and Career Development Events.
“I think it is essential that farmers know how their checkoff dollars are being spent,” explained Diehl. “I stay active in the agricultural community, because I want to ensure farmers’ checkoff contributions are being invested in projects that will continue to grow demand for our Missouri Soybean farmers.”
Adopting Modern Agricultural Technologies
Growing up on a multigenerational farm, Diehl learned from his grandfather that diversification was key. He also Diehl understands the importance of adapting to change.
“Agricultural technology is growing, and becoming more innovative,” said Diehl. “I don’t see a plateau any time soon.”
Curtis Delgman echoed that sentiment,
“Being a farmer today isn’t just knowing how to drive a tractor or plant a seed, you have to be cutting edge,” he said.
Garrett Riekhof has followed his father’s leadership through the implementation of agricultural technology. Starting out, he never envisioned the pace at which technology would be adopted.
Riekhof shared that he feels the pressures to continue to add these new technologies on his farm, and fights to keep up the latest tools that benefit farmers.
“Farming is an experiment,” Riekhof said. “We have to continue to do something different so it doesn’t get stagnant.”
Riekhof also conducts intensive research through test plots in his fields. Riekhof believes the crux of his challenge is discovering how to get the same or more bushels while using less land and inputs.
“We have to identify what we don’t need and make sacrifices,” he said. “Often, the path to profitability is to spend more, and it makes my head spin. You can’t always save your way to prosperity.”
Combatting Consumer Misconceptions
Dane Diehl is concerned about the consumer opposition to modern agricultural technologies. Farmers today are all working toward the common goal of producing more while utilizing less of our land’s precious natural resources. Embracing technology is needed to improve efficiency, preserve those natural resources, feed a rapidly growing population and provide an environmentally sustainable operation for future agriculturalists.
“There is going to continue to be resistance, and as a beginning farmer I will have to rise to that task,” said Diehl. “We must be proactive, instead of reactive.”
Even with the infinite benefits these technologies provide, many consumers are still uncomfortable with the modern food system. Diehl is worried that agriculturalists are not building trusting relationships with consumers.
“Everyone criticizes the farmer,” said Diehl. “Public perception is a prominent issue, and I often think about if we are approaching communication with consumers the right way.”
Consumers are flooded with conflicting information daily, and they are now craving transparency from our farmers. As a result, farmers like Dane are being asked to engage in a dialogue with consumers. Diehl understands his responsibility to consumers and hopes that in the near future he can help the public understand that farmers sincerely want to provide Americans with a safe, abundant and affordable food supply.
“Our generation has to make sure agriculture survives and stays sustainable for future generations,” explained Diehl. “It is a tall task, but I think it is our time to combat this issue.”
The Riekhof family farm includes includes Garrett, his wife Cara, and their three children, working together to raise white corn, soybeans and beef cattle. Garrett made production agriculture his livelihood shortly after his college graduation, when his father decided to retire and relinquish his day-to-day tasks on the farm. Garrett and his family are now starting their seventh growing season as an independent operation.
Giving back through volunteerism is deeply ingrained in the Reikhof family work of giving back to agriculture as well.
Riekhof currently serves on the Missouri Soybean Association board of directors, Lafayette County Board of Zoning Adjustment, Congressman Cleaver’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, and the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Issue Advocacy and Technology Committee. He is president of Lafayette County Farm Bureau, and previously sat on the Missouri Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Board alongside his wife. He was also a member of ALOT Class XV.
“It is critical for agriculturalists to be immersed in the industry to stay abreast of emerging issues, locally and nationally, that can impact their operations and communities,” Riekhof said. “I enjoy being apart of the solution, advocating for existing and evolving commodity demands that will aid in providing an abundant food supply for the future.”
View the rest of this issue in the magazine here