When You Come Home to the Farm

By Rachel Peabody

As of July 1, 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the millennial generation officially eclipsed baby boomers as the country’s largest generation. More than 80 million people were born between 1982-2000. Millennials are often characterized by their distinctive traits, including their love of all things digital, their penchant for constant connection and communication and their innate curiousness and willingness to try something new.

It’s a tech-savvy, multi-tasking group, and they are coming home to farm.

AgAmerica Lending cites that eight percent of farmers are now millennials and, on average, own 7.7 connected devices. This same group also states that between 2007-2012, the ag industry lost roughly 100,000 farmers between the ages of 45-54.

As they say – the times they are a changin’, and agriculture knows this to be true.

Chad Bell, Viola, Ill.

chad bellJoining his family operation full time in 2013, Chad Bell, age 33, farms 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad, Greg, in northwestern Illinois. He has a 2,400-head capacity wean-to-finish hog building. He and wife, Brittany, and children, Amelia, 6, and Charlie, 3, live in Viola.

For Bell, he knew it was always part of the plan at some point to come back to the farm. “When my dad had some health challenges in the fall of 2011, I came home for harvest and that spurred everything in me getting back on the farm,” he says.

If Bell had a specialty, you could say it is intensely managing every acre through the use of cover crops, which isn’t a practice you find much of in the northern part of the state. But being young and curious and interested in finding a way to combat soil erosion, he gave it a try.

“We first tried cover crops on 20 acres in 2012, then one-third of our acres in 2013, and then we jumped in 100 percent after that. We put cover crops on all of our acres every fall,” he says.

Primarily seeding with cereal rye, Bell likes the root system of the plant and how easy it is to get established. He’s not only finding soil erosion benefits but added weed control across his acres.

His next experiment includes working with double-crop wheat on a new 40-acre patch his family bought a year ago. The ground has zero history of cover crops on it and he plans to run trials.

“I’ll be doing straight corn and bean acres with no cover crop, and then double-crop wheat. I’ll also soil health test across those acres to see how we are progressing there,” he says.

And, he’s doing things a bit differently with technology, too, now that he’s back on the farm. He’s integrating more GPS technology into his equipment, particularly with his planter and sprayer. He’s making decisions based on data he’s collected with Ag Leader SMS precision farming software. “It’s all about making sense of my own data so I can make better decisions with it,” he says.

“If you’re not trying to improve or learn something new on your operation, then you’re not growing. You’re dying,” says Bell. “I’ll always be looking for different methods to try. It’s just the mentality I want to follow on my farm.”

Matt Mackinson, Pontiac, Ill.

matt mackinson“All I ever wanted to do growing up was farm with my dad and milk cows. It’s the same for my boys, Isaac, age 6, and Cameron, age 4, and hopefully our new baby due in October,” says Matt Mackinson, age 36, a corn, soybean and dairy farmer in Pontiac. He farms 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans, and milks 300 cows with his wife, Amy; dad, Donald; and uncle, Roy.

For Mackinson, it’s all about legacy, and creating a farm that the next generation gets the luxury to come home to, just as he did in 2004. And to preserve that legacy, he admits that he’s “always up for something new to try,” whether that be earlier planting of soybeans or data management.

“If I come home with some new idea I want to try, my dad has always been willing to let me try it out,” he says. “Growing and comparing new hybrids, or even giving new herbicide systems a go, I’m always willing to attempt something new if it means we can improve.”

Since Mackinson has been home on the farm, he’s helped institute several new practices on the crop side of their operation. “Now we buy our chemicals wholesale and save money. We also VRT (variable rate technology) spread all of our own dry fertilizer. We field map everything and we soil test,” he says. “The on-farm recordkeeping has definitely increased, but we are smarter today with our inputs. Why put it where you don’t need it?”

He cites willingness to try new practices to just being of a different generation – validating the traits that millennial farmers are becoming known for – non-conventional, self-starter ways.

And, the new ways are paying off, too.

“Particularly when I think of what we do now with data – I can take the iPad anywhere and I’ve taken it to meetings with landlords. They can make better decisions when they see pictures and a yield map that breaks everything down per square foot. I’ve gotten landlords to invest in drainage tile after some meetings because data has made the case for investment,” he says.

Be a Farmer for the Future

Farming will always be a business rooted in tradition, but it also is exciting to watch a new generation put their spin on the family operation.

Are you a young farmer currently taking your farm to the next level? Check out the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) Soy Ambassador Leadership Program. Participants get the opportunity to gain leadership experience and industry exposure while learning how to fill crucial future leadership roles in the soybean and agriculture industry.

Ag industry leadership needs the thoughts and talents of the next generation and there is no better time to get involved. Start young! ISA looks forward to meeting young farmers, who are encouraged to drop a line to ilsoy@ilsoy.org to learn about future leadership opportunities.