Deep commitments carry family through dramatic double transition at a Kansas family farm
New Farm classifieds links enterprising farmer to nearby opportunity. His new land leads to his further success in “baking the view” as an artisan baker capitalizing on local demand for high-quality organic food that’s miles fresher and better.

By Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen


Photos by Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen and John Janzen

Network of farmers, graziers and businesses informs transition steps

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 manure.

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.”

~ k.b.j

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 hog operation.

A variety of candidates answered the ad, including people from out of state and encompassing a wide range of experiences and age groups.

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 in years.

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 specialty 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.”

Challenges remain

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 some success.”

Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen writes about organic, sustainable and local food/agriculture. Residing in Maryland, she is contributing editor at Edible Chesapeake and co-publishes www.realpeopleeatlocal.com. She writes periodically for Ohio-based Farming Magazine (www.farmingmagazine.net), and her articles on these topics have also appeared in the online edition of Mother Earth News and AcresUSA.