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Farmers for the Future: Going with the Grain

Jeff Caldwell 07/11/2010 @ 11:00pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.


Photos by Harlen Persinger.

At times, the Sampson family wondered if they'd ever get the 2009 crop into the bin. After a cold and wet October caused historic delays, November weather cracked open a window of opportunity.

The final push came down to the wire, with Clint combining, his wife, Darby, driving the grain cart, Clint's dad, Alan, hauling grain, and Clint's mom, Kathy, taking her lunch hour to move them to the next farm. They crossed the finish line December 19.

"It was one of the latest harvests we've ever had," Kathy says. "Our typical goal is to finish by the first day of deer hunting, the third Saturday in November."

Fortunately, for this Melrose, Wisconsin, family, there was a silver lining. "The yields were good," Alan says.

After 32 years of farming, Alan, 52, is able to put weather setbacks into perspective. Both he and Kathy grew up near Melrose, where Alan's dad operated a milk-hauling business and a small farm.

They had their first date at the Jackson County Fair, married in 1978, and gained a foothold in dairy on a small farm 8 miles north. In 1980 they bought a larger farm overlooking a deeply carved valley near the Black River that empties into the Mississippi 30 miles south at LaCrosse. They moved there on November 20, and their son, Clint, was born four days later. The family also includes two daughters.

Alan milked and drove a milk route, adding crop acres when the opportunity arose. In 1987, he bought his dad's milk-hauling business, and he added another truck route in 1995. Today, Sampson Trucking includes four routes.

Kathy began working off-farm in 1982 at the Co-op Credit Union in Melrose, where she is branch manager. "After we bought the farm, the economy got bad," she says. "I continued working for health and retirement benefits."

Kathy does the bookkeeping for the farm, as well as the milk-hauling business.

Clint, 29, started his own beef herd in 1992 as a 4-Her, and expanded it through high school. He joined the operation 10 years ago, after finishing the farm short course at University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2001, he bought land when a neighbor's farm came up for sale.

"When I started farming, corn was $1.50 to $1.80 a bushel," Clint says. "It wasn't cool for guys my age to start farming. The first couple of years were tough."

With Clint's commitment, the operation began evolving. In 2004, the Sampsons sold their registered Holstein herd. Today they raise 120 head of beef cattle and finish their calves.

"I lean more toward raising beef and grain," Clint says. "But it takes time to acquire enough of a land base."

Darby, 28, grew up 25 miles away, near Pigeon Falls, where her parents had a hobby farm. She attended Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, majoring in animal science.

"Clint and I knew each other since we both showed livestock at the Jackson County fair," she says. "But we didn't date until I finished college in 2002."

They married in 2004. In 2007, Darby and Clint moved onto the family farm. Alan and Kathy built a new house with a panoramic view .5 mile east.

"We raised our three children on that farm, and now Darby and Clint have started their family there," Kathy says. Colby Clint Sampson was borrn in January.

As the Sampsons expanded cash grain acres, they set a 50%-50% goal. "We started at about 65%-35%," Alan says. "When land came up for rent, Clint would bid on it. As we reached our goal, we began renting land together, splitting costs evenly."

When land becomes available, Clint puts a priority on pasture. He started by trading labor for the use of his dad's equipment. When Alan traded, Clint assumed payments on new machinery.

Two of Alan's milk trucks are housed in a shed on the home farm, and he sometimes subs for his drivers. Milk is delivered to AMPI in Blair, Wisconsin.


Recruited to work at home base

Since Clint joined the farm in 2000, the cash grain operation has grown to 2,150 acres from 600 acres.

Darby worked in nearby Arcadia at a feed lab until about three years ago, when she was needed on the farm.

"She was a little rusty at first," Alan teases. "Now she does all of the cultivating." She also rakes hay and chops silage.

"During planting and harvest, I fill in with the cattle chores so Clint can get to the field earlier in the day or work later at night," Darby says.

"If there's a problem with the cattle, Darby finds out at 5 p.m., instead of me getting to it at 10 p.m.," Clint says.


Cost containment is objective

The Sampsons strive to be self-sufficient. "We avoid custom-hiring by putting our seed into the ground to applying our chemicals and fertilizer to hauling our grain to market," Alan says.

This strategy also has led to doubling their on-farm storage capacity. In 2002, they built a 30,000-bushel bin and dryer setup. They added a 60,000-bushel bin in 2007 and a 72,000-bushel bin in 2009. "We need to dry our own grain," Alan says. "We don't have time during harvest to haul grain to the elevator so we can dry another batch."

They bought a semi in 2005. "If we need another, we might convert a milk truck," Alan says. "A straight truck would be easier to get into the field," Darby says.

The growth of the operation has required investment in technology and equipment. "We have GPS mapping on our combine," Alan says. "We can do a lot more acres with a 30-foot cultivator."

The Sampsons gain a premium by growing some non-GMO corn. Clint is studying low-linoleic beans, but says the Prairie du Chien delivery point is too far.

Recently they've focused on conservation. "We had 70-foot strips on our hills, but now we do more no-till and buffer strips to save time and soil," Clint says.

"We worked with DNR to put in a well on one farm, and we worked with NRCS to build a calving shed and pit for runoff," Darby says. "It keeps cattle from the creek."

The Sampsons are active in the Jackson County Farm Bureau. Alan is director; Kathy serves as secretary. Darby now chairs Ag in the Classroom. Alan and Clint also enjoy hunting white-tailed deer on their wooded acres.

Over the next decade, Alan and Kathy plan a gradual transition to Clint and Darby. "We never wake up without anything to do," Kathy says. "Sometimes we wish we could."

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