What do this engineer, builder and zoologist have in common?
The bookies don’t take odds on farmers, but if they did, Vegas would take a tremendous beating on a treble of Illinois operations. Whether part of an emerging trend or an exception that proves the rule, three producers have returned home after successful non-agriculture careers, and defied probability by living and working ground within a few miles of one another.
Even when a farm operation is profitable, the surplus can be wafer thin many years. In plain terms, there often isn’t space for two families. Father or child, the realities of agriculture often require someone to step aside. These hard margins triggered the life paths of three producers in Chatsworth, Ill., about 100 miles northeast of Springfield. Each walked away from farms for careers in software, construction and zoology only to return.
The initial exodus of producers John Wilken, Erik Kurtenbach and John Dassow isn’t uncommon, but the story of their return and proximity is singularly unique.
On flat ground just north of Chatsworth, Wilken, 45, grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 660 acres of rich black soil packed up to 18" deep. His fields are separated by hedgerows and ditches, with almost no trees to break up what is essentially prairie ground. Wilken originally left the farm for college in 1989, returning to help as he could. Halfway toward his degree in 1991, he was diagnosed with bone cancer and endured a gauntlet of chemotherapy. He emerged with permanently damaged kidneys (chemically burned during the treatments) that marked him untouchable by insurance companies.
When Wilken finished college, he started as a mechanical engineer at General Motors and later landed a position in a software startup. The software career took him around the world and brought lucrative returns, but despite success, the hope of returning to the farm stayed out of reach. “In my 20s and 30s, farming sat there in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t allow myself to dwell on the impossible,” Wilken says. “I couldn’t get health or life insurance, so farming wasn’t in the cards.”
Along came the Affordable Care Act of 2010. “Obamacare was an enabler for me and let me come back to farm. I could get insurance and I could farm,” he says.
Twenty-five years after his first steps off the family farm, Wilken made his return in 2014, alongside his wife and two daughters. The flow of activity beyond the field came at a fast pace: paperwork; seed, fertilizer and chemical decisions; equipment parts; and much more. “People expect me to perform and know. If I was still 20, they’d give me a break. Not at 45,” he laughs.
Wilken admits the opportunity to work with his father was a tremendous draw: “Working with my dad in the family business was probably a bigger pull to come back home than literally the occupation of farming.”
Precision technology and cover crops are high on Wilken’s priority list, changes supported by his dad. Wilken is still in the middle of a learning curve, but he wouldn’t trade farming for four walls again. “Now I won’t have to watch the family land sold, equipment auctioned or my grandmother’s house torn down,” he says. “It would have been heartbreaking to see generations of hard work disappear.”
Four miles south of Wilken’s farm, Kurtenbach, 35, grows 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans, with 300 acres set aside for livestock. “My dad returned to our farm in 1980 to help my grandfather. Now it’s my turn,” he says.
Kurtenbach knew he’d have to step away from farming and forge his own path, but he was never settled on an occupation outside of agriculture. His only stipulation? No office jobs. In 2001, he graduated from college on a Saturday and was framing houses the following Monday. Kurtenbach spent a decade in construction, remodeling and house flipping, but kept a flame burning for the farm, hopeful of opportunity that arrived far sooner than he ever expected.
Kurtenbach’s father, Ken, was eyeing retirement and came up with a plan for his son’s return. “My dad thought if he bought a sprayer, we could save enough and he could pay me enough to offset the costs. I wanted to get back and let my kids grow up like I did.”
Kurtenbach jumped at the chance, sold his house in Bloomington and made the shift with his wife and children. (He also remodeled his grandparent’s farmhouse and moved in.)
The FSA paperwork and crop insurance were initially overwhelming, but since taking over, Kurtenbach has increased the use of precision technology and says the effects are already paying financial dividends. He’s specifically using variable-rate spraying and seeding along with hydraulic down force.
“You just don’t see many people take opposite career paths and still end up in the wonderful life of farming. If someone is considering going back to farm, communication is key. Talk, talk and talk more to make sure everyone involved has the same expectations,” he advises.
Just 2.5 miles to the south of Kurtenbach, Dassow grows 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and occasionally buckwheat. Dassow, 33, when not working on the farm, spent his childhood outdoors hunting, fishing and trapping. He gravitated toward conservation and wildlife in college, gaining a master’s degree in zoology with a specialty in wildlife ecology. Dassow met his wife, Megan, in graduate school, and jobs took them west to Idaho and North Dakota, far removed from the black Illinois soil.
Dassow had always wanted to return to the farm, and in 2012, his wife got a job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Illinois, and he was suddenly staring at a chance to go home. In line with the couple’s move, Dassow’s father, Duane, was strapped for help and the timing was ideal. “Dad thought I wouldn’t be able to come back until I was at least 40, but I made it back at 28 and it’s been more than great,” Dassow explains.
On their farm, Dassow relies on no-till, strip-till, cover crops and specialized nutrient management. He also does consulting work on wildlife, CRP and wetlands as well. “My dad set up a sustainable foundation. I don’t have to implement major changes thanks to him,” he says.
Wilken, Kurtenbach and Dassow have bucked the “You Can’t Go Home Again” maxim and settled into new careers on old land. The irony and unlikelihood of their proximity isn’t lost on the three farmers. “I’d say it’s certainly rare to have three guys living so close that have had such huge lurches in and out of their farming lives,” Wilken adds.
Beyond a vocational switch, another common thread the three share is the benefit of paternal mentoring and guidance, an immeasurable asset, according to Wilken. “Our fathers helped us with our new careers and we couldn’t have done this without them,” he explains. “They overextended to build up the farm until their boys were stable enough to return. Now we’ve come home.”