Leonard & Wenner family, Nicollet County
“I think we have a decent crop out there,” said Jeff Leonard. “Hopefully we’ll get some decent price opportunities.”
“That’s farming,” his brother-in-law and farm business partner, Doug Wenner, added. “There are going to be good years and bad years.”
You’ve probably had these same thoughts if you have your own farm operation. Jeff and Doug, who run a 14,000-hog finishing operation, along with 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans and sod, know it as well as anyone. The two of them are the fifth generation farming their land, with Jeff’s son Josh now on board as the sixth. It’s an endeavor of two families working together: Doug and his two brothers, Brad and Steve, used to have their own farm nearby. His wife, Nancy, is Jeff’s sister. Doug decided to join Jeff’s operation in 1988. When Brad and Steve retired, Doug and Jeff rented about half of their land.
Despite a tough weather year in southern Minnesota, Jeff, Josh and Doug are keeping their heads up.
“You just gotta be ready to make things happen when you can go,” Doug said. “You do what you have to do.”
Sows, sod and a computerized feed mill
Every farm has its evolution story. The Leonard-Wenner operation’s evolution is a little unique. The farm has long had hogs, and up until 2003 it included a farrowing operation. Doug and Jeff took it a little different direction: They got rid of the sows and started farming sod. Now they show up on Google Maps as Timber Lake Sod.
That comes with its own challenges, of course.
“I got a text message from someone saying he wants sod today, if possible,” Jeff said. “He’s going to get a lot of sod, which is perishable, so it has to be laid the same day.”
The pigs still drive the every day work at the farm. It was around the same time as the transition into sod that the family constructed their own on-farm feed mill.
“We’ve produced all our own pig feed since 1992,” Doug said. “Our father-in-law and uncle used to own an elevator in St. Peter, so we would haul our corn down there, they’d turn it into feed, then we’d haul it back. So when Jeff and I were getting started, we decided we needed to build our mill right on-farm. We borrowed the money and built the mill. It saved the trucking costs, paid for it within a couple years. We went to a computerized mill at that time. We don’t have to have someone sitting there tracking the ingredients. That’s part of Josh’s responsibility, ordering ingredients.”
Josh is in charge of keeping track of the different rations that go into the feed mixes. There are three rations that go into the nursery pigs and six to the finishing hogs.
“It’s all pre-programmed to try to optimize the hog growth and costs as much as you can,” Josh said.
Spreading the joy of pork
Doug and Jeff have both served on their local pork boards, and Doug is currently on a committee with the National Pork Board. He’s taken initiative to get farmers in his community out interacting with people – what better way than with barbecue?
“Back in 1999, we bought a grill to do promotional events,” he said. “We now have two grills. We do weddings, customer appreciation days, we have a booth at the Nicollet County Fair, where we serve pork chops, ribs, pork burgers, shredded pork. I organized it for five years, and it’s all volunteer work.”
He encourages his fellow board members to post on social media, so they can interact with consumers without having to spend too much time away from the farm.
“I can sit in the combine and put things on Facebook,” he said.
The family has also made a strong effort to welcome others onto their farm, looking to inform and answer questions about what they do and what they go through.
“We have a connection with the agriculture teacher at the St. Peter High School. I was on the committee that helped hire her,” Doug said. “They brought groups of students out to our farm, during harvest. They’d hop in the combine and ride for a little bit, or they’d come out to the sod field. I was also on the 7 Mile Creek Watershed Committee. They got a group together through Gustavus Adolphus College. They brought a lot of local people out for a crops day. We looked at the machinery and talked about what we do. We got a lot of unique questions and comments from people who’ve never seen that kind of equipment.”
It’s the price
The Timber Lake farmers are wary of the international trade disputes the United States have embroiled themselves in.
“We’re getting it on both ends, with soybeans and hogs,” Jeff said. “That’s hurting the bottom line for sure.”
Having been on a trade mission to China with the Pork Board, Doug emphasized that our trade relationships are products of hard work by farmers themselves.
“You do spend a lot of time setting up trade partnerships, and that just got the kibosh (from the Trump administration,” he said. “It’s hard to see because I don’t think someone that makes that decision has any idea how much time we spent making those relationships.”
An important point Jeff raised is how the control of meat packing companies has increased – often at the expense of family farmers.
“When the margins get tight for them, it all comes back to us,” he said. “We can lose money three years in a row and it doesn’t bother them one bit. It’s not like it used to be where they were farmer-friendly… There are no cash prices anymore because of the way it’s reported. It’s going to eliminate the independent producer. There should be some way to establish a cash price so we know where we’re at.”
And, the price of health insurance.
“That’s one of the reasons my wife, Natalie, is in town for her full-time job (at the hospital),” Jeff said. “Farmers are struggling just because of that health care cost. I don’t know what they’re going to do about it.”
Beyond their control
Farming is a gamble – you never know exactly what the weather is going to be like on a given day, if you’re going to have enough people to get the work done, if things are going to work out in the export markets. Doug, Jeff and Josh haven’t been able to start harvesting corn, since it’s too wet. And they haven’t faced the worst of the rain, and they have a solid group of part-time workers they can turn to.
“The battle you’re having now is the battle you’re going to be having six months from now too,” Jeff said. “You just put out the fires as they come up, that’s all you can really do for now.”