Member News

    Outstanding In Their Field

    By John Kiefner, Chicago Farmers member

    I recently took a day off from work. I hope it will be one of many in the next 10 years as I try to slide gracefully into retirement. The USDA states that the average farmer is 58.3 years old. That means if I want be an above average farmer I have 4.1 years to go. Can I make it that long? Following is some background.

    A few years ago the price of scrap steel was insanely high. It was a good time to haul many old pieces of machinery to the scrap yard to be melted and reused. First I called my son to see if there was any chance he would be the fourth generation in the family to farm. I was fairly certain what the answer would be, but I wanted to verify it. His answer was honest and quite frank.

    My son was several years out of college at the time and climbing the corporate ladder. His reply to the query about whether he considered becoming a farmer was, “Not a chance, and remember, when you and mom die, we are getting dumpsters.” Perhaps I should have called my daughter and asked her instead.

    My son’s honesty has helped me to decide how to finish out my life as the last farmer in the family. There is no legacy of passing it on to the next generation. No need to build the business or desire to buy the newest technology.

    For my day off I traveled to Chicago to tour the office of The Climate Corp. This company is on the cutting edge of data collection for weather, yields, fertility, plant health, and equipment functions and, well, about anything you can imagine. The information that is gathered will be analyzed, sometimes instantly, and used by farmers to increase yields while reducing inputs, protect the environment and reduce waste. One would also expect that those who adopt and succeed with these technologies would also be more profitable, while lowering the cost of food even more.

    This technology is above my intellect. It was mentioned that the farmer of the future might very well be a computer scientist or agronomist. We were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement to be allowed to tour the offices and labs. That is remarkable, because I could barely comprehend the concepts displayed, let alone appropriate any of the cutting edge technology.

    Am I a dinosaur about to become extinct? Am I a relic, a holdout of farmers long gone? Retirement is going to come very soon for my equipment and me if these technologies evolve swiftly. That may please the realtors and developers that cannot wait to bulldoze the black dirt I have tried to save from erosion for most of my lifetime and build warehouses or subdivisions on my farm. Can I last long enough to become above average?

    The Climate Corp tour was in the West Loop, about two miles from where I met my wife for the train ride home. Ironically, in the middle of Chicago, there was a wheat mill right behind The Climate Corp office. I walked to the train and admired dozens of buildings under construction on Fulton, Lake, Randolph, Washington, and Madison Streets. Is it possible that any of my recycled steel was in the beams being erected?

    Upon my retirement or death, my remaining equipment will be reused somehow. The farm’s fate is uncertain. When I die, I hope they bury me and do not put me in the dumpster.

    Editor’s note: John Kiefner is a member of The Chicago Farmers. He farms 525 acres of corn, soy, wheat, oats, hay, and straw.  His farm, which also has a smattering of animals, including bees and laying hens, is 45 miles southwest of downtown Chicago and on the fringe of urban development.  The southernmost Metra rail station is only one mile from John’s farm.  

    John noted, “I wouldn't say that I am sad or depressed about urban encroachment, but I hope to make people think of what is the best way to grow cities and preserve quality farmland.  I originally lived and grew up right next to the Joliet Junior College Houbolt Road campus.  I remember when they built it next door to the farm my dad grew up on.  We have always had bulldozers working close to the farm.”