Defying trends, two U students plan to return to farm life

by Emily Ayshford

In high school, Jeff Ziegler milked cows for two hours before school and worked in the fields for three or four hours after school.

He said he cannot wait to do it again.

Ziegler is a part of a decreasing number of young farmers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of farm operators and managers ages 20-24 has decreased from 40,000 in 1990 to 25,000 in 1998.

Ziegler, a crop, soil and pest management senior, was raised on a 180-cow dairy farm with 900 acres of crops in the small town of Green Isle, Minn. He describes the town as having a “gas station, a post office and three bars.”

He originally planned to study computer programming and wanted to help create agriculture computer programs, but he soon felt the pull to go home.

“I just wanted to go home and farm,” he said. “That’s what I grew up doing.”

Chuck Muscoplat, College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences dean, said the college’s enrollment has increased 40 percent in the last four years, with many students coming from family farms. He said he thinks less than 5 percent of the college’s graduates return to family farms.

“Very few of them intend on going back to the farm,” he said.

Kevin Jones, a crop, soil and pest management first-year student, plans to return to his family farm. Jones comes from a 1,800-acre crop farm in Alfa, a small town in southwest Minnesota. Jones said he came to the University because of its reputation as a good agriculture school.

“You don’t get this kind of schooling in a small town,” he said.

He said he always knew he would go back to farming, and he considered not attending college at all.

“I was tempted to stay right away and make some money quicker,” he said.

To some, a college education might seem unnecessary for a family farmer. But Jones said that is untrue.

“I’ll have more knowledge and be able to grow a better crop that way,” he said. And if farming falls through, Jones said he will have the education to become a crop consultant.

“You can’t just rely on farming,” he said. “You need an education to fall back on.”

Muscoplat said a college degree has several advantages for a family farmer and might even be necessary.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be a good farm manger today without a degree and an understanding of all the basic principles,” he said. He said a student learns more than a job skill in college – they learn life skills, meet new people and learn to live in a new place.

Jones was first overwhelmed by the Minneapolis campus but said the size of the St. Paul campus helped him adjust to city life.

“The ‘U’ is so much smaller out here on the St. Paul campus,” he said. Although he enjoys the convenience of the city, Jones said he does not like big buildings and cannot wait to get back to his farm.

“The sooner, the better,” he said. “I like being out in the country and seeing crops and fields.”

Jones and Ziegler plan to take over their family farms as soon as they finish college. Ziegler will control the crop side of his farm while his brother will control the dairy side.

Jones said he will take over his entire farm when he gets back.

“It’s going to be overwhelming at first,” he said.

Ziegler said people have told him he is crazy for going back because owning a family farm is often not a lucrative career choice.

Farm incomes can vary greatly from year to year. According to a survey of 188 farms by the Southwestern Minnesota Farm Business Management Association, the average net farm income was $70,007 in 2002 – a 91 percent increase from 2001.

But Ziegler is not worried about money.

“If you do it right, there’s always money in it,” he said.

Ziegler’s father Don said the farm has been in his family since the 1860s, and he is happy to keep it that way.

“It’s a good way to keep young people involved in agriculture,” he said. He said his son’s education will help him experience life away from home and teach him innovative farming techniques.

“By going to the ‘U’ you learn a lot of the new technologies and new ways of doing things,” he said.

Jones’ sister Katie grew up on the farm with him, but does not plan on going back.

Katie Jones, an accounting senior at the College of St. Catherine in the Twin Cities, said she plans to live near the city when she graduates. Although she enjoyed farm life, she said, there are more opportunities for an accountant in the cities. But she said she has no doubt her brother will be successful in his farming endeavors.

“Kevin has always been the one involved in the farm,” she said. “He’ll do the job.”