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A new calling

Agriculture.com Staff 07/07/2010 @ 9:09am

With a four-year master's degree in divinity, Greg Wirtjes answered a call to be a youth pastor in his hometown of Forrest City, Iowa, in 1998. Greg had dreamed about working with youth in a farm setting, even though he didn't grow up on a farm. Three years later, he found himself answering a call to farm -- and he hasn't looked back.

Greg and his wife, Kristi, credit a number of people for helping them get started. Kristi's mother, Mary Lou Johnson, gave them the opportunity. Dan Yegge, who runs a financial advisory service called Ag Performance in Buffalo Center, Iowa, has dispensed valued financial advice. And several neighbors have patiently answered all of Greg's practical questions.

If Kristi's mother had listened to the bankers and lawyers when her husband passed away in 1998, she would have sold the machinery and rented out the land. Instead, she kept the machinery and asked Greg if he would be interested in farming 160 acres that her husband had been renting for many years.

Greg says that offer made him swallow hard. "I had done some tillage and had baled a lot of hay, but I'd never planted, I'd never cultivated, and I'd never sprayed," Greg says. "I'd never marketed grain or dealt with government programs either."

Greg got his feet wet in 1999 and 2000 while working full time at the church. He started farming full time on a crop share with Kristi's mother in 2001. She had rented the family's own land to neighbors with the understanding that if someone from the family wanted to farm, they would take it back. Greg and Kristi recently bought 400 acres from the family.

"Dan Yegge was a huge help to me," Greg says. "He came down one morning and showed me how to plant. He came another time and showed me how to spray. And a third time he showed me how to cultivate. I asked lots of questions -- even today."

The biggest challenge in starting on his own, Greg says, is being by himself and learning things as he goes. "Sometimes I just wish I had some help for simple things -- like taking the chopper off the combine or hauling water when I spray. I look around at my neighbors, and most of them have someone working with them."

With a four-year master's degree in divinity, Greg Wirtjes answered a call to be a youth pastor in his hometown of Forrest City, Iowa, in 1998. Greg had dreamed about working with youth in a farm setting, even though he didn't grow up on a farm. Three years later, he found himself answering a call to farm -- and he hasn't looked back.

The business side would be a big challenge, too, if it weren't for Yegge and his help with cash flows and marketing, Greg says. "I'm not one to go into debt anyway, but Dan tells all his customers to keep their debt low. He and I think alike that way -- we're both very conservative."

Greg and Kristi now farm 1,100 acres but don't have the desire to expand their crop acres. He has some cattle now and would like to have more -- and has considered starting a small organic dairy. He feels the livestock would help them pay off their land debt more quickly.

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