Caleb Krusemark guides his winning Simmental heifer, Doris, out of the show ring to the cheers of the crowd at the Martin County, Minn., fair. He gives a nod and whispers thanks as his mind turns to preparing for a trip to the state fair. With his confident, bright and buoyant smile, the 19-year-old Krusemark represents the future of American agriculture.
His resumé could be a blueprint for any young agricultural leader. Home schooled by choice from the eighth grade on, Krusemark enrolled in a postsecondary program online through a local community college as a high school sophomore. He focused on farm management and marketing courses and completed 10 credits his first year. By the time he graduated high school, Krusemark had completed all college general prerequisites and obtained his associate degree. That’s allowed him to concentrate on his double major in ag economics and animal science in his first year at North Dakota State University (NDSU).
His mother, Rochelle, describes her youngest son as “a true people person,” which helps explain the leadership roles he can list on his resumé: one of 29 state 4-H Youth Ambassadors for the past two years; a Martin County and Minnesota Pork Ambassador; a Minnesota Beef spokesman; an officer in his local FFA chapter; an athlete at the local high school; and recently appointed as a member of the NDSU Junior Traveling Livestock Judging Team.
“The average person is three generations removed from the farm,” Krusemark says. “Being involved on a statewide and even national level can open your eyes as to what people don’t understand about where our food comes from. It’s our responsibility as farmers to communicate that message … before others move in and try to influence the issues on Main Street.
“It irritates me how anti-farming activists twist words and skew the facts. The older I’ve gotten and the more experiences I’ve had, the more knowledgeable I’ve become about what people outside agriculture think. It’s valuable to know this because this is how we shape the discussion for the future,” he adds.
A Lifelong Passion. Krusemark speaks with a passion that was born in the baby seat his mother and father, Brad, secured to the tractor cab floor when Caleb was just a toddler. “They either had to take me out on the tractor or else they’d find me in the pen with the boars,” Krusemark says with a laugh. As a fourth grader, the youngster started pestering his parents for cattle. So, on the advice of his Sunday school teacher, his parents bought him three Guernsey bottle bull calves. “Guernseys are difficult and a lot of work, so we thought maybe having to feed those would cure him of his itch for cows,” Rochelle says. “Then one of them died and we thought that would surely do it.”
Just the opposite happened. “Losing that calf just made me love working with cows even more,”
says Krusemark, who today owns a Simmental and Angus herd with 20 cows and two bulls. He helps his dad with the 2,400 contract feeder hogs and rents 30 of his father’s 1,100 corn and soybean acres. An October weekend home from college finds Krusemark stacking bales of cornstalks outside the cattle barn he designed and began building in eighth grade.
“Doing the barn project was when he really knew he wanted to farm,” Rochelle says. “Constructing his own building cemented his commitment.”
That commitment has grown into farmland ownership. Krusemark purchased 235 acres at public
auction this fall for $4,025 an acre. The farm is not prime land, but Krusemark will use his management skills and sustainable farming practices to produce respectable yields.
He had already applied for the young farmer loan program through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to fund inputs when he rented land to raise corn for cattle feed. Being engaged in farming and enrolled in farm management courses allowed him to qualify for reduced-rate interest loans through FSA and ag bonds through a local bank.
Krusemark also used his personal savings for the down payment. “Brad and I did not co-sign any loan but will contribute a small amount of cash and are securing his conventional loan with 65 acres of our land to be used as collateral for the first few years until Caleb builds some equity,” Rochelle adds. “If young agricultural entrepreneurs are willing to work hard, practice stewardship and fiscal management, and are willing to take risks, there are programs and incentives available that allow the next generation to become engaged in agriculture.”
With the postsecondary education online program, Krusemark concentrated on farm business and marketing courses. Between his rental acreage and cattle herd, he developed some cash flow and through his courses learned about spreadsheets and marketing.
“He’s been covering his own expenses and feeding his cowherd from the 30 acres he rents from us for four years now,” Brad explains. “We’re helping out a little now while he’s away at college, but we’re basically just paying his bills with his checkbook.”
“Farming on any level these days really is big business, so it’s more important than ever to have a good strong business background,” Rochelle adds.
While that might be in the offing down the line, Krusemark is intent on returning to farming and perhaps eventually partnering with his parents. “It’s such an exciting time in agriculture, with all the technical advancements alone. I mean, looking ahead to 300-bu. yields. Auto-steer, mapping and all the precision farming technology. My dad hardly touches our home computer, but he’s out in the hog barns and on the tractor working with computers all day long.
While Krusemark loves to be out on the farm, he knows he may do his best work talking to consumers about agriculture and where their food comes from. He believes ag advocacy must be a part of any young producer’s future.
“I want to be able to influence the issues down the road. My aim is to be a spokesperson for agriculture,” he says. —Tom Dodge
Different Skills Than Dad
As young producers are looking for opportunities in agriculture, they also need to be prepared with the appropriate skill set—which might or might not be the same as their dad’s.
"Agriculture is a business. It’s those management skills and techniques that need to be developed. Most students in my class like to get their hands dirty, but I’m introducing them to the language of business and thinking through the process,” says Guido van der Hoeven, North Carolina University Extension specialist.
An understanding of financial management is key, which means young farmers must guard against spending too much time in the tractor seat and neglecting to take the time to develop an overall business plan, says Ed Staehr, executive director of NY FarmNet.
“Employee management and human resources skills are another essential part that needs greater emphasis as a farm grows because the new manager will have to manage more employees,” Staehr says.
Although time away from the farm can be hard to come by, both Staehr and van der Hoeven recommend continuing education programs. These programs help young producers stay on top of management and market trends and allow them to practice their craft.
“Farmers work thousands of hours a year, but sometimes you can’t afford not to do this,” van der Hoeven urges. —Monica Burchett
Farmland Shifts Will Be Monumental
A trip down any road lined with farmland will reveal how machinery has changed on those farms during the past two decades. In many cases, the ownership has not.
In 1982 in Iowa, for example, 12% of the farmland was owned by someone older than 75, according to an Iowa State University study. In 2007, that percentage had more than doubled to 28%. Also in 2007, 55% of the farmland in Iowa was owned by someone 65 or older.
“This is a new phenomenon, and it’s to be expected because we live longer and because of technology we’re able to farm more,” says Mike Duffy, Iowa State University Extension economist.
This so-called aging phenomena isn’t specific to Iowa. According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, the national average age of principal operators increased from 55.3 in 2002 to 57.1 in 2007.
Of more concern is the fact the majority of farmland will inevitably transfer to the next generation within the next decade. This creates a short window of time in which to educate and prepare the next generation of farmers and landowners for the business of production agriculture.
“These numbers also mean that as we see people pass on, we’re seeing farmland go to multiple owners,” Duffy says. “That is a situation where I don’t think people do enough estate or succession planning. Our surveys show too many farmers make these decisions, and in a lot of cases, they are just making it themselves without talking to family or seeking good professional advice.”
Ed Staehr, executive director of NY FarmNet, a joint program with Cornell University, feels there’s still a lot of work to be done to get farmers to identify a successor earlier. “The number of farmers we work with has gone up. Ten years ago, we handled 25 transfers annually; now we’re up to 75 transfers,” he says.
“There’s more emphasis on trying to establish succession plans because farming couples’ net worth has gone up with higher land prices and investments,” adds Loyd Brown, president of Hertz Farm Management. “When they get ready to retire, they certainly don’t want all their income dumped into one year and they need plenty of time to transition out of farming.” —Monica Burchett
Top Producer, December 2010