Members in Focus: Donkers/Irrthum family, Rice and Goodhue counties
What comes to mind when you think of the term “family farm?”
The farms of the Donkers and Irrthum families probably come close. The two farm families, connected by the marriage of Jim Donkers and Gail (Irrthum) Donkers, are longtime Farmers Union members and have kept their farming operation within their family.
It looks to stay that way, as Jim and Gail’s son Mitch has returned home to farm – and joined MFU.
“It’s not very often you see three generations on a farm,” said Paul Donkers, Jim’s father. “In the county, you can probably count them on one hand.”
The Donkers farm: Pigs, crops and partnership
Paul and his wife Connie live on a farm about a mile away from Jim, Gail and Mitch, in rural Faribault. He milked cows until 2008 and still has hogs and steers. Jim and Gail also keep Holstein steers and about 950 pigs at their place at a time. Paul has about 1,300 head of pig space at his farm. The family sells just short of 5,000 finishing pigs per year, raising them from feeders.
“My nephew buys the baby pigs and nurses them to 50 pounds, and we buy them from him,” Paul said.
“We’re one of the few farms that finish pigs that we own,” Jim added.
Paul grew up on a farm just north of Medford, the land of which he and his brother Marv still farm. He’s lived at his Faribault farm since 1968, where he raised his four children with his late first wife, Mary. Both became officers for Rice County Farmers Union, which Paul still is.
“We worked hard on the farm,” Paul said. “My kids worked with me hand-in-hand. Mary worked as a nurse. When Jim was in kindergarten, he went half-days and spent the afternoons riding with me in the tractor.”
Mary passed away in 2009 from cancer. Connie, who worked at a nursing home with Mary, introduced herself to Paul and asked how he was doing in the wake of losing Mary. They got to talking and soon began dating.
“It’s good to find someone when you get older whom you are compatible with,” Connie said.
Though she didn’t grow up on a farm, Connie had an agricultural life as a child. Her father owned a hatchery, so she would travel with him as he went out to test flocks for disease.
“I drove many times to Iowa with a big station wagon full of chickens,” she said.
As part of his estate plan, Paul and his family created a general partnership for the farm, PGM Donkers Partnership, which manages the crops part of the operation. The livestock and machinery are owned by the family’s LLC.
“The partnership rents the machinery from the LLC, which is all within ourselves,” Paul said. “It’s all part of making it work, and it’s a way to set it all up to be an estate to pass on to Jim and Matt (Jim’s brother).”
Jim began farming full-time in 1991, two years after graduating from the University of Minnesota. He married Gail two years after that, renting farmland for awhile until they moved to their current home in 1996. They have three children: Mitch, Abigail and Riley.
“We were just selling all the bull calves and this gave us room to actually finish out steers,” Jim said. “So we have always started out the calves at the main farm (Paul’s) and get them up to about a year old, then stuff comes over here.”
The Irrthum farm: Dairy and MFU legacy
Gail’s late parents, Walt and Pat Irrthum, farmed in Goodhue County, near Wanamingo. Pat was a schoolteacher for 27 years. After retiring, she invested more energy into MFU.
“She got to be really good friends with Dori (Klein, MFU Field Representative),” Gail said. “I know she went to at least one national convention, she went on the NFU Legislative Fly-in, and every Women’s Conference there was.”
Walt Irrthum began dairy farming full-time in 1974 and worked construction a little bit during the summers. Gail’s brother John took over in the mid-1990s and is still dairying today.
“I graduated from high school with 17 kids on dairy farms,” John said. “I’m the last one left (milking). That’s how much it’s changed in the last 20 years.”
John and his wife Linda have two sons, Marcus and Clint, both of whom have expressed interest in agriculture. Marcus joined MFU participating in the Next Step program at the 76th Annual MFU Convention and studies at Carleton College in Northfield. Clint is a junior at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and has an internship secured for the summer on a 600-cow Jersey dairy farm in Australia.
The next generation
Gail recalled that when her kids were younger, they loved attending Farmers Union conventions for a different reason than the parents did.
“They got to go swimming, and that was a big draw,” she said.
They’ve since grown up and become agriculturalists in their own right. Mitch has a degree in agriculture business from South Dakota State University. His girlfriend, Daiton Tietz, also participated in Next Step and wants to farm herself.
“I loved the idea (of coming home to farm) but I didn’t think it was going to happen right away,” he said. “It’s working out pretty awesome so far, I think.”
Abigail participated in FFA and 4-H and also studies at SDSU. She served as the MFU Camp Intern in summer 2017. Riley is in school at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and travels with the livestock judging team. He earned a $500 scholarship from Rice County Farmers Union this year.
On the Irrthum side, Marcus and Clint haven’t nailed down exactly what their careers will be. Marcus has done work with poultry farmers and gardeners. Clint is studying business and has great interest in dairy.
MFU for the whole family
Both the Irrthum and Donkers families have been part of MFU for many years.
“I joined in probably 1965,” Paul said. “I went to Fly-in one time in the 1990s, been a state delegate forever, been a national delegate once.”
He’s thankful for the voice MFU gives to farmers who don’t have time otherwise to be at the Capitol.
“They’re there watching out for the average farmer,” Paul said. “If there’s an issue we should be working on, they’re there.”
John applauded the organization for being a good source of agriculture information.
“We go to our county meeting and get an overview of what’s coming, what’s been decided,” he said. “If there’s something you really don’t like and you’re passionate about it, you can make your voice heard.”
With the next generation embracing Farmers Union and agriculture as well, you can bet you’ll hear from the Donkers and Irrthum families well into the future.