With the Future in Mind

September 8, 2010 06:13 AM

The light, sandy soils Leon Knirk farms near the small south-central Michigan town of Quincy are a far cry from the luscious green fairways he played as a professional golfer less than a decade ago.
Yet the same determination, studiousness and good humor he brought to the game of golf now serve him well on the nearly 2,000-acre diversified family farm that he and his wife, Jennifer, own and operate.

“We farm a lot of dirt and rock most guys probably wouldn’t want to farm,” says Knirk with a wry chuckle.

Even so, Knirk’s roots run deep in the area, as he is the third generation of his family to make a living from the same sandy soils. Plus, much like Knirk’s father and grandfather had in the past, the young couple own and manage a cattle business—a 500-head Holstein feeder-to-finish operation.

Pilot project under way. Last spring, Farm Journal Media selected the Knirk family to participate in a new endeavor, the Ultimate Farm Quest. The program matched the family with a team of three expert advisers who are in the process of helping them raise the bar of excellence for their operation and reach the next level of success with their management, marketing and production practices. The program is sponsored by Case IH.

The Knirks’ team of advisers throughout the project are Chip Flory, editor and publisher of Pro Farmer, a newsletter that covers agricultural markets and policies and is published by Farm Journal Media; Missy Bauer, Associate Field Agronomist for Farm Journal; and Barry Ward, leader of production business management at Ohio State University.

The Knirks are representative of many young family farmers located across the U.S., Flory notes.
“The thing that’s really cool about Leon’s operation is it does a real nice job of representing that 30- to 55-year-old farmer who’s not completely debt-free but has lots of big plans, hopes and dreams as well as a lot of enthusiasm,” Flory says.

“Probably the most important thing we need to do is help them set some goals,” he adds. “We need to look further out into the future and get some vision of what this farm will be in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Ward agrees and says poor weather conditions are one thing that has kept the farm’s progress in check.

“The farm has good diversity and is well-managed, but they would sure benefit from getting out of these difficult weather patterns,” he says, noting that 2010 marks the fourth year in a row that Mother Nature has not complied with the Knirks’ production goals for corn and soybean yields.

“If the weather will cooperate just a little, they’ll be able to work into a stronger position,” Ward adds.

Tapping into technology. Bauer says that setting some agronomic goals will also help support the farming enterprise and identify new options. This season, Bauer worked with Knirk to establish a variety of large-scale plots around the farm to evaluate tillage practices that might work better than those currently used.

“We’ve tried multiple types of harrows with limited to no success on this rocky ground we’ve got,” Knirk explains. “I’m hoping vertical tillage will help us eliminate some of these density layers.”

He also is evaluating other technology, such as variable-rate seeding, which he used to plant 1,200 acres of corn in 2009 and again this spring. Knirk says he believes new technology can support and even supplement straight manpower on the farm.

For instance, he says, “We are using auto-steer now to create more efficiencies, and I can run longer hours. I think it helps me work more efficiently and probably more safely.”

Building a legacy. Ward commends Knirk and his father, Dick, for the excellent transition plan they put in place when Leon returned to the farm. Ward notes that, unlike many family farmers, the Knirks realized that investing in consultants’ counsel would enable them to develop a successful transition plan.

“They’ve done an excellent job with their estate plan and transition plan,” Ward says. “They looped in off-the-farm siblings, too, so everyone knows and understands the plan. I really commend them for that.”

Knirk hopes the work and effort he and his wife are investing now in their operation will one day benefit their own children: Lincoln, 1, and his new sibling, who at this writing is due to join the family at the end of August.

Flory says the Knirk family’s ability to be open to ideas and suggestions from outside help has impressed him.

“Their enthusiasm for the whole operation and Leon’s willingness to try new ideas are pretty amazing,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a real plus for the project and a lot of fun.”

Meet the Knirk Family

  • Leon and Jennifer Knirk operate a diversified, third-generation family farm near Quincy, Mich.
  • The farm operation consists of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay on 2,000 acres.
  • A 500-head Holstein feeder-to-finish operation generates income that enables the Knirks to employ full-time help.
  • The family taps into technology to boost production and supplement manpower. This season, Knirk is evaluating vertical tillage, variable-rate seeding and auto-steer.

In the coming months, the Knirk family will continue to be featured in the pages of Farm Journal and on a special | segment of “U.S. Farm Report” (RFD-TV).

To keep up-to-date on the project, visit www.UltimateFarmQuest.com.

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