of farmers, graziers and businesses informs transition
One of the first moves organic farmer Norm Oeding made
when he began working with the Janzens was to put 220
acres of formerly hard red winter wheat ground into
triticale, a wheat-rye cross, for grazing cattle and
for providing green manure in spring. “It’s
primarily just a forage crop for winter grazing, which
allows us to make use of the manure,” explains
Norm. He plans to use organic fertilizers to enhance
the crop rotations, along with cattle manure and green
He also established boundaries for crop-rotation practices.
One field of 240 acres is now four distinct patches
using terraces as the defining boundaries. As no chemicals
have been applied, these crops will provide habitat
for beneficial insects along with wind protection for
immature plants in neighboring patches. John Janzen
advanced water management by reestablishing native prairie
grasses and renovating a 3-acre farm pond on his own
15-acres, which adjoin the Janzen Family Farms land.
Spring crops could include soy or grain sorghum (milo),
which may even yield a price premium, depending on the
market, since they’ll be officially in “transition”
to organic, one-year chemical-free, he notes.
Anxious to get the grass-fed meat business off the
ground as soon as possible, Janzen and Oeding worked
together to find cattle that would be appropriate for
the Kansas climate and successful in the consumer market
there. Settling on Angus, they purchased a small herd
of 10 grass-fed Angus bred heifers and three steers
from breeder Torrey Ball, of Grassroots Cattle Co. in
Hutchinson, Kansas. Including six red and four black,
the heifers are all expected to give birth to black
calves this spring to form the core of a new Janzen
herd. Oeding, Janzen and LeRoy Hiebert, who has worked
on the farm since 1951, prepared for the cattle putting
up semi-permanent electric fencing from Jako, Inc.,
a farm-based business in Hutchinson serving farmers
doing management-intensive grazing.
Oeding will have the cattle on pasture all year, not
just maintain some minimal “access to pasture”
outlined by the USDA to support grass-fed claims. “We
feed them prairie hay to diversify their diets,”
Norm adds, “so they can have a good digestive
system working.” The herd is hormone-free with
vaccines and antibiotics kept to a bare minimum.
In addition to Torre Ball, say these transitioning
farmers, key Kansans involved in natural or organic
foods and grass-fed meat who have been helpful include
farmer Paul Sallee of Penalosa; Melvin Epp, botanist
and president of the Wichita Organic Gardening Club,
of Whitewater; and farmer Lee Quaintance of Soaring
Eagle Farms in Edgerton. Other local resources included
Becky Nickel, co-owner of Prairie
Harvest natural foods store in Newton and Jana Beckman
at Kansas State University’s Kansas
Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Parallel to
the transition of the land and the introduction of the
grass-fed Angus, Norm Oeding and the Janzens are also
custom grazing cattle for other local farmers. Currently,
for example, Oeding is temporarily putting up some of
Ball’s 100-percent grass-fed steers. He also custom-grazed
a neighbor’s 55 calves and yearlings on the triticale,
which provides both income and manure. “By not
using fertilizers, we’ll hopefully have the dung
beetles back,” Norm says.
At the same time, the farm will continue to custom
feed up to 800 steers owned by other cattlemen in their
conventional feedlot, as well as up to 1,000 hogs in
confined pens. “There are some aspects I cringe
about,” says Oeding. “But in the meantime
… you’ve got to pay the bills, salaries,
taxes and the fuel and feed bills. The important thing
is we’ve got things growing out there that will
get us away from all these other things.”
Making the transition from conventional to organic agriculture,
or from one generation of farmers to another, can be such a difficult
process that a farm may not survive the change. But one Kansas family
discovered that managing both transitions at once allowed them to
save the land they all loved.
Like so many other farming families across the country, the Janzens
were in a bind. They had a farm, but no young farmer. If they sold
the land, which had been in the family for more than a century,
they would likely gain significant revenue in the short-term. The
family members who had been farming all their lives would be free
to retire and pursue other opportunities. But an all-out sale would
mean leaving behind part of their heritage and community and would
cut them off from a potentially valuable economic asset in a new
food economy of higher grain prices. Either way, the risk of damaging
valued family relationships remained high.
With so much at stake, these relationships were strained. Instead
of parting ways, however, family members began to muse whether the
organic/sustainable food movement and its new marketing options
would provide a unique opportunity. Now embarking on this new path,
they hope their experiences—both the ups and the downs—may
prove useful to others facing similar shifts.
Family in a pressure cooker
After working the farm for nearly 30 years, Mark Janzen Sr. and
his wife, Hennie, of Newton, Kansas, decided they wanted to retire
from farming around 1999, when Mark would turn 55. But neither Mark’s
and Hennie’s three children, nor their eight cousins, planned
to take over the 640-acre farm.
“It was a wonderful, creative place to grow up,” says
Mark Jr., now 37. “But I’m not somebody who enjoys the
routine of farming.” Besides that, the staggering financial
ruin that hit many farmers during the farm crisis of the 1980s left
an indelible message, Mark Jr. explains. “One day, my Dad
went to the bank and he came back ashen-colored. The bank unilaterally
had cut the value of the collateral in half. My brother and I experienced
this as: Farming is very, very dangerous financially. That experience
was burned into us.” His parents stayed on the farm, but they
decided to simultaneously pursue off-farm careers for added security.
Tension mounted as Mark Sr.’s 60th birthday approached and
he was still farming. Anxious to move on, he wanted to focus on
a separate IT systems consulting business he had established. But
even if he had really wanted to get rid of the farm, he could not,
since he shared ownership with his three siblings.
Finally, Mark Sr.’s eldest brother, John, and his wife, Reinhild,
both professors, invited the family for a weekend meeting at their
house adjacent to the farm in October 2004 to decide what to do.
About 15 folks—including me, the wife of John and Reinhild’s
son Bernd Janzen—participated. Thick with memories and potential,
the atmosphere was heady for such a tightly knit family. In several
well-organized sessions, everyone discussed farm history and finances,
as well as the state of the booming organic food market.
Despite their commitment to one another, however, family members
could see they held different levels of attachment to the farm,
and they viewed organic food and farming differently. They agreed,
however, that direct marketing specialty products—in particular
grass-fed beef—was an interesting business proposition for
a medium-sized farm like theirs. By the end of the meeting, John—the
sibling most interested in avoiding a sale and a major stakeholder
in the farm corporation—realized combining transitions might
meet everyone’s goals: allow the current farmers to retire,
retain the land, improve environmental standards, remain financially
viable and involve younger family members.
Searching for a farmer
The family launched a nationwide search through notices in farm
and Mennonite church publications for someone who could become an
integral part of the operation, and who might eventually own a stake
in a new organic or sustainable enterprise at the farm.
Their offering was a well-oiled farming unit that Mark and Hennie
had maintained fastidiously before and after the 1980s farming crisis,
and it was financially successful based on the conventional model
of crops, a cattle feedlot and hogs. They had various equipment,
farm buildings and an impeccable Depression-era bungalow farmhouse.
They realized, however, that to an organic farmer, some of these
supposed assets could also be seen as liabilities, especially the
A variety of candidates answered the ad, including people from
out of state and encompassing a wide range of experiences and age
With deliberate care, they selected an enthusiastic 28-year-old
with mechanical skills and a farming background who transitioned
from his role as a youth pastor in Maryland. He signed a one-year
contract to work 32 hours a week as he learned the ropes and took
over management of the farm. The family began farming again on cropland
they had been renting out and bought some new equipment in anticipation
of the new farmer’s takeover.
In a blow to their hopes, the candidate did not renew the contract.
He felt called to attend seminary. The effort of working with him
had also taken more time for Mark than he had spent on the farm
Some of the family feared the setback would mark the end of the
transition experiment. But John in his role as a farming partner
kept moving, confident he could still make it work, perhaps through
insight gained managing complicated transitions over the years at
the university. And so he reengaged the network of contacts he had
established during the first search process, casting a wide net.
John’s persistence was paired with healthy family commitments
to the process. Even when they disagreed, family members continued
to communicate, and even amid high tension and long hours, they
remained civil. From the start, various off-farm relatives offered
whatever they could: Bernd, for example, wrote the ads and provided
moral support, a sounding board and an outside perspective; Mark
Jr., who runs a software company, helped analyze financial data
and developed spreadsheets for revenue and expenses.
Time spent with the first candidate had been an important learning
experience, as well. This time, the Janzens realized the time commitment
involved and had a better sense of the type of person who might
find it most rewarding. When they relaunched the search, they were
already a year into their organic management transition.
Evolving with a new organic farm operator
Enter Norm Oeding, a farmer from neighboring Kingman County who
had been using organic methods since 1999. Already running his own
milling and baking businesses, Norm had a lot of experience
in the organic movement and with grain. He also already had certified
organic land and produced fresh, whole-grain bread from his own
stone-ground, certified organic flour. His Little Red Hen Bakery
brand breads and artisanal flours were known and available at area
farmers markets, local retail shops and over the Internet (www.normsflour.com).
As well, he had won the Best in Show award at the Kansas State
Fair in 2004 for his grain sorghum (an honor he repeated in 2007
after he was on board with Janzen Family Farms). He also held first
place in the market wheat show at the Kingman County fair twice
in four years.
Oeding had been farming a long time and had deep experience with
organic and sustainable agriculture. He was familiar with the local
land and climate. At 55, he had worked out his life’s direction
and was ready to take on leadership at the farm.
Though he lived just miles away, Norm discovered the latest Janzen
farm posting while “perusing the ads on New Farm,” he
says. He was already looking for options for new land due to restrictions
on his home farm. “Sometimes you gotta surf the net to find
out what’s going on next door!”
In spring 2007, Norm accepted the position as farm operator. He
was excited to expand into livestock, first cattle and perhaps later
pastured chickens. “I had no resources on our home farm to
run cattle,” he says.
This time, the contract specified a full-time commitment for the
new farmer. Meanwhile, John and Mark patiently negotiated the complex
financial details that would disentangle Mark’s and Hennie’s
personal assets from those of the farm corporation and trust, allowing
the latter couple to move to the city—a change of life that
has gone well for them. This allowed Norm and Malinda, his wife,
to move into the farmhouse.
Developing strategies, financial and organic
John Janzen and Norm decided to continue to pursue livestock and
mixed grains, in line with the farm’s history, but with some
distinctive, value-enhancing differences: They opted to go with
100-percent grass-fed Angus beef cattle, certified organic artisanal
grains and grain products (including bread and flour) and a strategy
of direct marketing these specialty products to local consumers.
Eliminating middlemen and dealing in high value-added products would
hopefully overcome the low per-hour return from dealing at the commodity
level that contributed to Mark’s departure from farming. The
idea was to sell the grass-fed animals in halves and quarters directly
to consumers and as locally as possible.
“I can offer the whole hamburger—bread and meat,”
Norm Oeding says of his plans.
Diversification is a key part of the plan. “Any one dimension
can falter,” John Janzen says. “For example, if we would
not have had cattle feeding that disastrous wheat crop last summer
would have wiped us out,” he says, referring to the results
of the prolonged 20ºF temperatures that struck the entire Midwest
in April 2007.
To manage the transition without raising a significant amount of
outside capital, Oeding and Janzen decided to establish the new
grass-fed system parallel to the existing conventional meat operation,
including the cattle feedlot and hog pens. This step-by-step plan
also hedges against losses during the land’s transition to
organic. The hope is to move out of conventional meat as soon as
it’s financially possible.
“As I see it, the farm needs to do conventional, custom
cattle feeding for the foreseeable future of as many animals as
the pens will hold, and then have an organic/grass-fed dimension
that is complementary,” John says. “That’s really
the only way this is going to work.”
To be sure, even among the family, some are more sanguine than
others about the long-term prospects for the double transition.
“I’ve always thought that the family took a huge gamble
by trying to do both transitions at the same time,” says Mark
Jr. “Either one alone is enough to keep you busy.”
It’s safe to say, however, that everyone agrees the transition
has gone well so far, despite the difficulties with the first farm
operator. “I’ve heard from a lot of people they were
surprised we got through it without any animosity,” says Mark
Sr. John’s wife, Reinhild, agrees. “I have a feeling
that we have sort of achieved what we wanted for the first step,
and things look fairly stable,” she says.
Yet the Janzens know many more changes lie ahead. Most immediately,
a micro-mill is on the way. John and Norm are planning to remodel
a portion of their old “round-top” farm building so
it can house Norm’s stone-ground flour mill and grain-cleaning
equipment, which currently resides at Norm’s Kingman County
farm. At the same time, they are coming to terms on a revenue-sharing
arrangement for the bread and grain products, taking into account
that Norm will be farming the Janzen land and around 250 acres back
on his home farm for the time being.
Norm and the Janzens are continuously focusing on their marketing
strategy. “Farmers, to survive and excel in this type of boutique
food production, have to create strong brand identities,”
says Bernd. “They have to know how to convey the special qualities
of the food they are selling to restaurants, retailers and individual
buyers.” Carefully considering sales avenues and tools like
a website, logo, brand names and labels are all part of that effort.
(Oeding and the Janzens have recently started the website www.janzenfamilyfarms.com.)
Other pressing projects include determining the optimal forage
mix to plant for the cattle in the Kansas climate and expanding
the herd with spring calving. Also needed is a better system for
delivering water to the animals on pasture. Developing more and
better relationships with local slaughterhouses, and perhaps cooperating
to create new value-added meat products, is an ongoing job. Determining
the right number of animals and the stocking rate per grazed area
is another task at hand. And the structure of the farm corporation
may evolve further, especially if the eldest Janzens desire increased
financial liquidity as they age.
The family members heading up the transition feel strongly that
these challenges are worth facing. With so many people calling out
for high-quality food from local producers, and with farmers’
markets and Internet sales on the rise, farmers have options that
weren’t available even a decade ago, Bernd says. Signature
food products with high appeal and retained farm identity are in
high demand by well-informed consumers, and they’re willing
to pay more for the stricter standards and special production.
“Enterprising farmers are learning they have an alternative
to reliance on the faceless commodity markets that dictate prices.
The best restaurants in the country identify the suppliers for their
main offerings by naming them on the menu.”
Given the economies of scale possible for their medium-sized farm,
the strategy of grass-fed over grain-fed fits both economically
and ecologically, says John Janzen, Bernd’s father. “When
grass-fed hamburger goes for $5 a pound, that’s economically
a lot more interesting.”
Too familiar with the vagaries of the weather, consumer tastes
and markets to deem any farming venture a sure thing, the Janzens
decline to make any definitive predictions, but they feel like they’ve
turned the corner on the transition.
As Bernd puts it, “We have a really good platform to see