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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Ralph Kurtz checks soybeans for moisture and temperature.

  • Three generations of Kurtz farmers: Ralph Kurtz, rear, started farming with his father, George, and now son Matt.

Sunday, October 22, 2017 1:00 am

Midwest farms lag in crop diversity

IU researchers find multigenerational operations do better

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

The business is farming and the legacy spans seven generations.

The profit machine includes a diverse mix of products ranging from corn, soybeans and wheat to cantaloupe, pumpkins and squash.

Ralph Kurtz represents the sixth generation. He works on a farm with 26-year-old son Matt and said he never doubted farming would be his career.

“I always had a genuine interest in it,” Kurtz said last week. “It was just all I ever knew. I enjoy being outside.”

If a farm becomes multigenerational – the one where children and grandchildren become involved – it's often because it relies on more than one crop or commodity.

That was the finding of a recently published study by researchers from Indiana University's School of Public Health in Bloomington. U.S. farms have moved from producing an average of 4.2 crops and animals in 1950 to just 1.3 in 2000, partly due to advancements in technology, according to the study published in the Journal of Rural Studies. In 2012, the number was 1.2, the study said.

Areas of the Midwest, known as part of the Corn Belt, are the least agriculturally diverse in the country, IU said in a news release this month about the study.

“We know that product diversification is an avenue for farms to increase their economic and environmental resiliency,” said James Farmer, assistant professor at the IU public health school. “This study aimed to better understand what motivates farmers to diversify their agricultural outputs.”

Farmer and four others connected with IU studied diversified and non-diversified farms in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The team interviewed five farmers and 13 agricultural advisers, and sent a 10-section questionnaire to 1,000 farms in the study area.

“Our principal finding is that farmers who want their farms to be able to employ their children and grandchildren as adults have a more favorable outlook on further diversifying their agricultural products,” Farmer said.

Farms typically add products when their children are in their teens in order to save money for college or to satisfy the requirements of the youth's participation in FFA or 4-H.

Roger Hadley of the Allen County Farm Bureau said after the 1950s, many people who worked in agriculture moved onto non-farming jobs.

Corn and soybean farms have been most dominant in Allen County, so Hadley questions whether the 1.3 average for crops and animals on area farms is descriptive. Farms in Illinois and Iowa, he said, might be more prone to just have corn.

Farms that have sold land may find it more difficult to diversify. But Hadley sees signs of more interest in hog farming, particularly since a processing plant opened not long ago in Coldwater, Michigan.

The new milk processing plant Walmart last year announced it would build in Fort Wayne could generate more interest, he said.

There's a “much better picture of profitability on it when you can market (product) close by,” Hadley said. “People used to say, 'Well, the hogs is what paid the bill.' ”

Drew Cleveland, a regional manager with the Indiana Farm Bureau, said diversification makes sense.

“With some very profitable years not that long ago, but still in the rear view mirror, there wasn't much need to diversify,” Cleveland said in an email response. He oversees Adams, Blackford, Delaware, Jay, Randolph and Wells counties.

Diversifying the farm operation helps reduce risk and increases opportunities for more family members to join in, Cleveland said. Many Indiana crop farmers have welcomed a son or daughter by adding livestock.

“This does indeed allow for sustainability of the farm, because once a farm loses the next generation it has basically sealed its fate,” he said.

“It is exciting to see the younger generation coming back to the farm and how they are bringing great educations and knowledge of technology to implement new ideas and practices,” Cleveland said. “One of the hardest or biggest barriers to entry into farming is just having the opportunity to start – access to land and capital – as well as access to wisdom and experience the older generations bring to the table.”

Kurtz, who will be 54 in December, farmed nearly 30 years with his dad, George Kurtz. Tom Kurtz and John Kurtz, brothers to George, also were part of the farm operation.

Corn and soybeans and a little wheat take up much of the nearly 1,500 acres on the Kurtz farm. About 50 acres of the site is devoted to specialty crops – cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkins, gourds and squashes. The family has a roadside market. At one time, the farm included livestock, but Ralph Kurtz said the found the produce operation more to his taste.

“We did do both at one time, and it was just 12 hours a day,” he said. “I don't mind working hard, but there's a limit to everything.”