The Herald Bulletin

March 27, 2012

Local farmers number below national average

By Rebecca R. Bibbs
For The Herald Bulletin

— Brian Shuter has a legacy he wants to pass on to his two young children when they get older. It’s the same legacy that was passed on to him by his father, and by his grandfather and great-grandfather before him.

The Frankton-area corn, soybean and beef farmer wants to pass down the 3,000-acre homestead where he grew up and that now supports three families — not including two full-time and a couple of part-time employees.

“If Grandpa and Dad hadn’t built this operation, there’s almost no way my brother and I could be farming right now,” he said. “If you don’t have a farm operation to come back to, it’s nearly impossible for people my age to put together the assets and land base to farm any more.”

Shuter, 33, and dairy farmer Tejo Willemsen, 40, pride themselves on preserving their families’ heritage while being technology savvy agribusinessmen, each with the goal of taking the farming strategies learned from their fathers to the next level.

The number of farm proprietors in Madison County is 1.4 percent of the county’s population — less than half the national average. And it’s corn that pays the bills for about half the county’s farming operations, which were estimated at about 735 in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

The risks of farming, including unpredictable weather, also mean farming can’t be for the fainthearted, Shuter said.

“Technology is changing so fast. Today’s agriculture is more like high-stakes poker,” he said.

As with Shuter, farming was in Willemsen’s blood. He came from a family of dairy farmers outside the town of Zolle in The Netherlands.

“It’s kind of a lifestyle. You like it, or you don’t like it. There’s nothing in the middle,” said Willemsen, whose brother opted to work in a Dutch bakery rather than the family business.

But much like American farmers, Willemsen and his father had to have other jobs to support their dairy operation — especially to pay for the pricey special permit that allowed them to distribute milk from their 60 cows. The younger farmer knew he could do better if he moved to the United States.

“I thought, ‘That’s not the way I want to farm. I wanted to farm for my family,” the father of four said. “I was not feeling comfortable about it, going into the future and raising kids.”

In fact, it was the sale of his family’s farm that provided the seed money for Willensen’s farming operation near Frankton.

“This country still offers you a lot of opportunity. And what we’re doing is the American dream to me,” he said.

Though his 1,800 dairy cows do pose some competition for other more established Madison County farmers, Willemsen is adamant that he came here to make jobs, not to take jobs, putting about 25 people to work. And his entrepreneurial spirit isn’t limited to farming. The owner of Willemsen Dairy also owns EverMilk Logistics, a trucking company to ensure proper handling and delivery of the milk from farm to factory.

“You’re welcome if you want to invest in this country and create jobs,” he said.