Meet DeKalb County Farmers
Kathy Bock is allergic to bee stings, but she’d be out of business without honeybees. She and her husband Steve own Honey Hill Orchard, near Waterman. They grow apples, raspberries, pumpkins, and gourds. Steve also raises honeybees, which are needed to pollinate all four crops. If you want to see what Kathy’s work day is like, you have to move quickly. She is always moving: supervising employees, leading school tours, and making sure everything is just right. Being in the orchard business thirty years gives her the experience to know what makes customers happy. Visiting the orchard on a sunny fall day is like walking into a picture book about farm life. A big, red “Apple Barn” sits in the middle of the farm with smaller sheds surrounding it. Apple trees stretch in neat rows down the peaceful hillside. A fuzzy little donkey, a big white turkey, and a curious gray goat watch from the petting zoo area. In the apple barn, the fragrance of apples and cider fills the air. No matter what you see or do here, Kathy has worked behind the scenes to make the experience special. As for Kathy’s bee allergy – “I’m not afraid of them. I just have to be careful,” she says with a smile.
If you want to know how important care and quality are to Bill Deutsch, just watch the cows. You can see they trust him by the way they crowd around when he walks into the pasture. Some of them even nudge him with their noses, like dogs asking to be petted. Bill has a friendly smile, and his big laugh makes you want to giggle along. One way to make him laugh is to ask about Sarah. He’ll say, “Which one?” There are three Sarahs in Bill’s life. One is his daughter. Another is a Blue Heeler herding dog who barks importantly when you arrive at the farm. The third Sarah is one of his dairy cows. How Bill’s dairy cows are cared for is no laughing matter. During his lifetime of dairying he has learned that healthy, comfortable cows produce more nutritious milk. As a farmer, “you worry about the cows before you worry about yourself,” he says, and owning 150 cows can mean a lot of worrying. But Bill has good employees—including his son—who milks and cares for the cows. Everyone who works with Bill is focused on keeping the cows content. As he says, “Happy cows produce more milk.”
In the world of modern pig farming, Doug Hartmann’s farm is unusual. Most pig farmers, known as pork producers, focus on just one stage of the growth cycle. The first stage is farrowing, when sows give birth to piglets. The second is finishing, or raising weaned pigs to market size. Doug has a “farrow-to-finish” farm, meaning he cares for pigs through their entire life cycle. Farm visitors may flinch at the pig aroma, but it is obvious Doug is used to it. He grew up raising pigs (also called hogs), showed them in 4-H and FFA, and never wanted to do anything but be a pig farmer. His children also grew up raising and showing hogs. His son Dan graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in agriculture and now farms with Doug. Dan is the 4th generation of Hartmanns who raises hogs as his living. Raising hogs takes constant dedication, says Doug. “You really have to care, and really have to pay attention,” especially when working in the farrowing barn. Sows are fed by hand, and baby pigs are watched to make sure they get enough milk from their mothers. Throughout each animal’s life, Doug makes sure it is healthy and safe. After all, safe, healthy pigs mean safe, healthy food for people.
Kurt Sanderson loves fishing, 4-wheeling, and snowmobiling. He works two jobs: one with the Sycamore street department and another as a farmer who raises corn, soybeans, and beef cattle. Kurt got “Jenny”, his first calf, as a 4-H project when he was 8 years old. He was in charge of feeding, caring for, and keeping records on Jenny. As often as he could, Kurt would lead her around the pasture so she would be used to being handled when it came time for the 4-H fair. Jenny was the start of a new adventure for Kurt’s family farm. Today Kurt and his family own a cow-calf herd. Some of the calves are raised to be show cattle while others are raised to become food for people. The heifers (females) are kept to become mothers to more calves. Kurt knows awareness is important when handling livestock. “You know a wild one from a calm one—you can see it in their face,” he says. Being aware of his animals means being able to provide the best care. He also wishes more people were aware of the true nature of modern farming. “Science class should teach where your food comes from.”
Jamie Walter grew up on a farm, went away to college, and became a lawyer. Then he came back to the
farm. “I realized farming was the lifestyle I wanted for my family,” he says. Now Jamie is a crop farmer raising corn and soybeans.Like most farmers, Jamie spends a lot of time in the farm office. Much of the farm business gets done here: ordering seed and fertilizer, selling grain, and deciding whether to repair or replace machinery. Jamie also sells seed and crop insurance to other farmers; that paperwork gets done here, too. When he is doing field work, Jamie still conducts business. Thanks to his cell phone, he can sell last year’s corn while planting this year’s soybeans. Jamie’s favorite word is “sustainability”. As a businessman, he wants his farm to be profitable so it can sustain his family. As an environmentalist, he wants his farm practices to protect and sustain the land and water. As a global citizen, he wants the food he grows to nourish and sustain people. Jamie’s young son Josh is often with him while he works. Josh loves to help his dad by sweeping the shop or riding safely along in the “buddy seat” of the cab tractor. Seeing Jamie on the farm with Josh makes it clear why he wanted to be a farmer rather than a lawyer. Here, his family can be part of his life all day long
Randy Willrett likes “watching the sky… seeing the sun rise, seeing the sun set. It’s a beautiful place to live.” He loves the land, and being able to enjoy it every day is his favorite part of farming. Randy grows organic corn, soybeans, oats, and wheat on his farm near Malta. He also raises beef cattle in partnership with his cousin and nearby farmer, Jamie Willrett. Randy is modest, so he won’t say what soon becomes obvious: It took courage for him to switch to organic farming. Very few farmers in his area grow crops this way, with no processed fertilizers or pesticides. Those who do have formed a strong working community from which Randy can learn. Being an organic farmer means giving up many usual ways of doing things and trying new methods instead. Fertilizers are still needed to help crops grow, but they must be unprocessed and from natural sources (like potassium sulfate from dried lakebeds in Utah). Weeds must still be controlled, but rather than using herbicides, Randy uses people and machines to remove them from the fields. Sometimes the new methods don’t work and Randy has to try something else. In the twelve years since he started farming organically, he has slowly discovered what works best.