21 young and beginning farmers ready for 2021
In 2020, farmers faced volatile markets and uncertainty thanks to adverse weather, changing markets, and COVID-19. Yet they remain optimistic and focused on what drives them each and every day. These 21 young and beginning farmers and ranchers are examples of persevering by seeking new opportunities.
Meet 21 diversified farmers and ranchers eager to welcome 2021.
Katie Carothers, 35, Anthony, Kansas
“You have to think outside of the box to make farming work right now.”
Katie and Kregg Carothers both come from a long line of farmers. The young couple farm outside of Anthony, Kansas, raising 500 cow-calf pairs, Berkshire hogs, Navajo-churro lambs, chickens, wheat, and hay as well as their two boys, Cooper and Callan.
In 2015, they opened their meat business, KCK Farms, providing quality meat directly to consumers throughout the United States while educating consumers about the industry. So far, the Carothers have shipped their meat to 39 states.
“For us, 2020 was a hard year, but it also worked for us,” says Katie Carothers. “Prior to COVID, we purchased a walk-in cooler and a building downtown to serve as our headquarters. We have some big goals for 2021 that are scary but exciting.”
The Carothers have their 2021 and 2022 butcher dates booked, which has never happened this far in advance. “The next couple of years are going to be busy, but we’re thrilled to continue growing our business and sharing our family farming story,” she says.
Read Carother's full story here: Young Kansas farmer finding value in direct-to-consumer meat business
Lillie Beringer, 24, Cascade, Iowa
“There is willingness and openness of consumers who want to learn about our ‘why’ of farming. We just have to give them the tools to do that.”
A full-time animal nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition and a full-time farmer, Lillie Beringer is constantly sharing her “why” of farming on the Beringer Family Farms website and social media. Currently, Beringer is working to direct-market beef to consumers across the country.
“The gap between farmers and consumers is growing every day,” Beringer says. “Families want to know where their food comes from, and I’m just a piece in that puzzle when I can share how and why I care for our cattle.”
Beringer believes there’s a positive mind-set for the farm-to-plate movement. As she continues to expand her clientele and share her farming story, she has made connections with people across the country who appreciate her explaining the why behind the business.
“I’m excited to continue growing my social educational platforms as I think that’s the best way to reach the most people. I hope consumers are able to gain more trust in where their meat comes from by me simply sharing my day in the life.”
Read Beringer's full story here: The 24-year-old farmer building a business, a cattle farm, and an off-farm business
Peter Lizza, 24, Schoharie, New York
“I went to a place to meet and make friends with people who were doing what I knew I wanted to do.”
Peter Lizza grew up in Long Island, New York. A city kid most of his life, his parents bought a small acreage Upstate that was meant as a weekend getaway. Over the years, the family turned it into Lizza’s Valley View Farms, a pick-your-own pumpkins and fall festivities farm.
Lizza, however, grew to love the area, knowing someday he wanted to farm full time. After graduating from high school, Lizza set out to Iowa State University to learn about farmers in the Midwest.
“I come from a fishing family,” Lizza says. “I went to the Midwest to learn from and meet people that know how to farm. I’m a first-generation farmer here and was using my fishing career to fund my farming career.”
Lizza now farms nearly 500 acres of hay and corn, a cow-calf operation as well as continuing the pick-your-own pumpkins. He’s currently building a 150-head feedlot. Although he still has an off-farm job with his family’s excavation business, Lizza is looking forward to making the transition to full-time farming in 2021 and reaching his dream of farming 1,000 acres.
Read Lizza's full story here: From fisherman to farmer
Austin and Kendall Heiniger, 35, Fairview, Kansas
“Our drive is to grow the farm so if our three sons want to come back, we can find a home for them.”
Third-generation farmers, Austin and Kendall Heiniger farm nearly 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans, and winter wheat; maintain a feedlot operation and hog barn; and raise their three boys, Caleb (9), Jackson (5), and Simon (4).
Although Austin grew up on the family farm, Kendall grew up a city girl. After moving to the farm, she quickly realized how little her friends in the city knew about agriculture.
“We started Facebook videos called Farm Chats to educate and advocate to people just like me,” says Kendall. “We really enjoy sharing our family story to be more transparent to consumers about a typical Kansas farm. Doing so, we are also able to provide a future for our sons as well.”
The Heinigers continue to expand their acreage to provide a future and legacy for their family.
Read Heiniger's full story here: Kansas couple works to provide a future for their three young sons
Gavin Spoor, 22, Martinsburg, Missouri
“From 6 to 600 acres.”
Four years ago, Gavin Spoor was cash-renting 6 acres for soybeans all while enrolling in his first year of college. Fast-forward to 2020, and that 6 acres has grown to 600 acres of corn and soybeans as well as 40 acres of popcorn.
“I direct-market the popcorn through 14 local grocery stores and sell it online across all 50 states,” says Spoor. “That’s how I’ve diversified due to these low corn and soybean prices.”
Spoor has wanted to farm for as long as he can remember. He went to college to get an agribusiness job and slowly started picking up ground throughout the next four years.
“The last person to farm in my family died in 1977, so I’m really a one-man show,” Spoor says. “I finished up my education in May. I’m excited to be farming full time and look forward to growing the operation both in size and profitability.”
Read Spoor's full story here: How a first-generation farmer went from 6 to 600 acres in four years
Scott Thellman, 30, Lawrence, Kansas
“I saw the opportunity and need for local food systems, and it just takes somebody willing to find those markets.”
First-generation farmer Scott Thellman has been farming since he was in junior high. The 30-year-old now farms 1,200 acres of hay, alfalfa, and row crops and now 40 acres of a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“In March of this year, a local meat distributor and I launched Sunflower Provisions, an online grocery store,” says Thellman. “There are about 200 items on the store with at least 120 of them local items. Today, we’re up to well over 6,000 orders.”
This year, Thellman found strong value in the Farmers to Families Food Box as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.
“It’s been a powerful program to help support local and regional food systems, and has also served the most vulnerable in our community in a time when there needs to be a strong safety net,” he says.
Thellman is currently working to develop a processing kitchen, as their 4,000-square-foot stock house is overcapacity. He’s also eager to be building more greenhouses, expanding the loading dock, and moving the online store to its own facility away from the farm.
Read Thellman's full story here: A first-generation farmer growing a niche farm business in a pandemic year
Dayne Jessup, 30, Sheridan, Indiana
“I’m not going to risk my family’s livelihood on something that isn’t profitable. That’s what drives me to find ways to make farming profitable – because I truly want to do it.”
Dayne Jessup feels blessed to have had guidance from local farmers as he started as a first-generation farmer.
“I traded labor with Allen Lyon, a local farmer, to use his equipment on my farm,” Jessup says. “I was farming 300 acres in 2014, and Allen was my crutch to get me going.”
Jessup now farms 480 acres on his own. He was able to pick up his grandfather’s farm, and he maintains a job as a district sales manager for Indiana Farm Solutions. Although he has plenty to keep him busy, Jessup has a many more ideas for 2021.
“I dabbled with non-GMO corn this year, and I’m going to be looking into it more as we go into the new year. I’d also like to get licensed to custom-spray as quite a few farmers have asked me, so I know there’s opportunity there,” Jessup says. “Overall, I would really like to be farming 1,000 acres and just grow a good, honest working farm.”
Kate Edwards, 34, Solon, Iowa
“One day I was walking to work in the Twin Cities and really wished I was walking to a barn.”
In 2010, Kate Edwards quit her steady job as an engineer and started farming with one acre. A generation removed from a farm, she grew up spending every summer she could on her grandparents’ farm, longing to one day have her own.
“I wanted to be a row-crop farmer but quickly realized I didn’t have family land or any money,” Edwards says. “I started researching types of farming and realized the value per acre raising vegetables.”
Edwards started a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, and over the past 10 years Wild Woods Farm has grown to feeding more than 250 families in the Iowa City area. Currently it is the largest CSA in Iowa according to Edwards.
“A typical CSA has a 40% retention rate. Our CSA has a 75% retention rate because we focus on quality and community as we build a relationship with our customers. Next year is going to be a fun year as the commitment with our customers has gone way up in 2020,” Edwards says. “I also mentor new farmers and think it’s exciting that more and more people are wanting to be part of a CSA both farmer wise and customer.”
Laney Brentano, 28, Saint Paul, Oregon
“I want to see my generation start stepping up to the plate with our roles on the farm.”
A sixth-generation Oregon farmer, Laney Brentano has been farming with her family for the past three years, raising grass seed, hazelnuts, garlic seed, green beans, edible pumpkin seeds, and a wholesale nursery of a variety of trees.
“We’re very much a family farm,” Brentano says. “On any given day you can come across four generations of our family, on both sides of my grandparents, on the farm.”
Brentano enjoys sharing their farming story on her social media and hopes to make that into a business in the coming year.
“Being the younger generation, I’m seeing my grandpa’s generation fade out, and I want to be taking those photos and telling those stories. I don’t want it all to become lost to future generations. If we can maintain our core values, our solid team and keep working our hearts out, this way of life can continue with our children and children’s children.”
Jorden Berkenpas, 18, Le Mars, Iowa
“It’s my dream, and who doesn’t want to chase their dream when it provides safe and wholesome food for a growing world.”
Eighteen-year-old Jorden Berkenpas has some vast dreams when it comes to his family’s farming operation. The high school senior enjoys working on the farm of 500 acres of corn and soybeans and 800 head of custom-fed cattle.
“My biggest dream for the farm is to take on more land and expand our feedlot to feed 4,000 head of cattle,” Berkenpas says. “I’d also like to take over my step-dad’s operation and run both farms to keep the traditions alive.”
Berkenpas looks forward to graduating from high school in May and plans to farm full time.
Brady Wulf, 25, Starbuck, Minnesota
“Our main focus will always be the cows, but we’ll grow cropland as the good Lord allows and opportunities arise.”
In January, Brady Wulf returned to his family farm to work alongside his parents and brother Travis. The Wulfs raise Simmental and SimAngus seed stock, hold their annual Bred for Balance Bull Sale, calve 370 cows, and farm 450 acres of no-till land.
“The crops are my portion of the farm that I manage,” Wulf says. “This year was a lot of learning experiences, so I’m looking forward to next year optimizing what I learned this past year.”
Brady is also venturing into learning how to direct-market their beef within the next year.
“With the seed-stock operation, we have superior genetics and health protocols that would not be rewarded at the sale barn in a small group. By direct marketing and finishing out our cattle, we can take advantage of those positives and capture profit all the way to the consumer,” he says.
Tyson Coles, 36, Idaho Falls, Idaho
“We go through cycles and we’re in a few of those years where we’ve just got to keep going and work our way through it until times get better.”
Raising wheat, barley, alfalfa, and 75 cow-calf pairs, Tyson Coles farms alongside his wife, Stefanie, and their five kids.
“For the past five years, I’ve been transitioning the farm down the regenerative ag path with cover crops and some rotational grazing for the cattle,” Coles says. “Being a fifth-generation farmer, I want that legacy to continue. That’s why I’ve really focused on regenerative ag to provide better soil for my kids if they chose to continue farming.”
Coles added 50 cow-calf pairs last year and would like to continue growing the herd. The family also added a mobile chicken coop to rotate behind the cattle to help with fly control and overall cattle health. Currently, he is adding the number of crops he grows to diversify his crop rotation.
Sara Shivers, 36, Eureka, Kansas
“We couldn’t do any of this without our parents. They built this home and ranch for us to come back to.”
After spending six years doing nonprofit work in Texas, Sara Shivers and her husband, Jay, along with their two daughters, moved home to the Kansas family ranch—a move the couple knew they always wanted to do.
“I run our ranch with my dad,” says Shivers. “My husband has the town job, but we’d eventually like to move him to the farm full time. We farm a few thousand acres of corn, soybeans, raise 200 head Angus breeding stock, as well as a cow-calf operation.”
Two years ago, the couple started Salt Creek Farms, enabling them to sell their meat directly online and grow the farm in their own way. Due to COVID-19, Shivers has booked out on their locker dates through the end of 2022; however, they are always looking for opportunities to grow.
“Next year we’re hoping to offer more honey, grow the poultry operation to offer more chicken and eggs, and add lamb cuts as well,” Shivers says. “We’d also love to open our own locker and become more vertical in our supply chain to process our own meats.”
Justin Mensik, 21, Morse Bluff, Nebraska
“I’m afraid someday there isn’t going to be any way for small, independent farmers to survive.”
Alongside his twin brother, father, and uncle, Justin Mensik is living out his dream farming on the family’s fifth-generation farm. Mensik graduated in May from a two-year diversified agriculture program, excited to bring new ideas home to the farm.
“With my dad in charge of the cattle side of our farm, I’ve been working with him on how we can sort cattle better,” says Mensik. “The way he works cattle is different than how I would work them and how we learned in college.”
Mensik has had success bringing in new ideas. This year he talked his dad into building the Bud Box system in cattle pens to easier handle, sort, and load them, which has saved time for the handlers and reduced stress to the cattle, Mensik says.
“My brother and I are constantly looking for ways to make something bigger and better and continue successful progress moving forward for our futures on the farm,” he says.
Mark Gingerich, 30, Iowa City, Iowa
“There’s something about enjoying the fruits of your labor and being able to share that with people who aren’t familiar with farming.”
Mark Gingerich, with his wife, Kristina, started The Berry Basket Farm, a pick-your-own strawberry patch, three years ago as their way to return to the family’s third-generation farm. Alongside his dad, Gingerich also farms a few hundred acres of corn and soybeans.
“When I was interested in coming back, Dad wasn’t ready to retire,” Gingerich says. “I thought maybe I could do something totally different to give me that opportunity for a few years before transitioning the rest of the farm.”
As a beginning farmer, Gingerich says he realizes he has a unique opportunity he wants to take advantage of, but also wants to navigate keeping his parents on the farm as long as they desire. He says farm transition is a large part of their conversation these days.
“We will see how it all fits together in the next two years. We’ll keep doing the strawberries as that’s something my wife and I are very passionate about, and it overlaps well with our other farming processes,” he says.
Gingerich believes 2021 will be a year of learning for him and his wife as they take on more responsibilities on the farm and continue to grow Berry Basket Farm.
Kenneth and Kathryn Mentzer, 33, Assumption, Illinois
“Although we are working to provide a living for our family, more than that, we want to provide a legacy and opportunity for our children.”
Kenneth and Kathryn Mentzer have been farming with Kenneth’s family for the past seven years. In 2021, Kenneth’s dad will be retiring, leaving Kenneth in charge of the family’s 1,600-acre corn, soybean, and wheat operation.
“It’s a little scary,” says Kenneth. “Although we do a lot of ‘fly by the seat,’ I know I can trust Dad and it’s all been worked out and talked through.”
Kenneth says the operation is getting more streamlined with equipment and efficiencies. They erected a new bin this fall to speed up the harvest and are currently working on cover crop tests.
With four young children, the Mentzers want to carry on the legacy Kenneth is now receiving but believe it’s getting harder and harder to do.
“We believe anyone can be involved in the farm and want to be able to help them in any way. That’s what really drives us every day,” says Kathryn. “In five years, we’ll still be farming, but it may look a lot different. We might have some cattle, hogs, or something totally different that could be opportunities for our children.”
Matt Sanderson, 34, Grantham, North Carolina
“It’s been one of the toughest years in a while for everybody.”
Raising 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and peanuts, Matt Sanderson farms with his father; his wife, Andrea, and their two children. Andrea and Matt also own and manage a 7,200-head feeder-to-finish hog operation. In early August, Sanderson was notified Maxwell Foods, the farm’s pork integrator, is closing its doors in February.
“We have a really great relationship with Maxwell and hate to see them go,” Sanderson says. “They’re great people to work with, but the pork industry has been hit hard this year.”
Although Sanderson is concerned about finding a new pork integrator, the young farmer is looking forward to expanding the peanut acreage.
“We started our first peanuts acres last year and this year we doubled it,” he says. “We finally bought our own harvesting equipment this year and are excited to start growing the peanut side of the farm.”
Mitch Brummond, 31, Stewartville, Minnesota
“I’m hoping we can be a start to fix the water quality and soil erosion issues we have right now.”
When their father, Ron, passed away four years ago, brothers Mitch, Adam and Jeff Brummond carried on their father’s legacy by taking over the family’s no-till corn and soybean operation. However, the brothers are making it their own.
“We’re flipping our whole farm over to a no-till, organic farm,” says Mitch. “It’s really quite challenging , but we have a lot of hope and more passion for it than the conventional way we used to farm.”
This year was the first year R.D. Brummond + Sons had certifiable organic land with 150 acres of corn as well as 150 acres of soybeans. The entire operation will be organic by 2023. 2020 was also the first year the team used cover crops as well.
“We’ve seen a huge difference in just one year of cover crops. I’m really looking forward to seeing how we can make this type of farming work large scale for the future. I’m eager to see how our cover crops are going to do next spring. It’s not going to be easy, but the challenge is what drives us to learn and prove ourselves,” Mitch says.
Kaden and Emily Roush, 27, Lebanon, Kansas
“We’re still new to marketing with a private label, but we’ve had to increase our knowledge dramatically in just the last six months.”
When Kaden and Emily Roush moved back to his family farm five years ago, they started their pig farm from scratch – no barns, pigs, or much of anything to start with. Five years later, the couple have built it into a successful private-label meat business.
“We knew if we wanted to do pigs, we would have to be niche,” says Emily. “We didn’t want to be big, and we didn’t have the capital to be big either. Over the years its remained important to us to stay small and be able to care for the pigs ourselves to raise a quality product.”
They sell 90% of their private-label meat through their website and both say COVID-19 has propelled their meat business into a world of opportunities.
“Our plan in the next six months is to add some additional proteins to our offering,” says Kaden. “We’d like to involve more local producers that desire going the niche route. This fall we added a sheep producer and added sheep cuts to our site this past fall.”
Willis Jepson, 43, Orlinda, Tennessee
“If you’re staying where you’re at, you’re going backwards.”
Willis Jepson raises 8,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, tobacco, pumpkins, watermelons, and indigo alongside his father, wife, two sons, and their farm managers on his family’s seventh-generation farm, a farming operation that Jepson describes as nothing they would have imagined.
“We’re raising three crops my father and I would have never imagined growing in our lifetime,” Jepson says. “But we’ve continued to be open to new opportunities and maintain a forward-thinking attitude.”
He believes he had opportunities growing up due to his family’s diversified operation as a registered Holstein dairy and tobacco farm. Although the Holstein operation is no longer, the family still grows a few acres of tobacco, keeping up with their heritage.
“If my two sons want to farm one day, I want to provide them that opportunity. I also realize the farm could look completely different by then with different crops or even livestock,” Jepson says.
The farm has recently added honeybees to help pollinate the watermelons and pumpkins and now produce honey. His sons have also found their own interest in raising and selling popcorn.
Britany Wondercheck, 27, Newman Grove, Nebraska
“Every year is another opportunity to be better and improve from last year.”
Raising corn, soybeans, and alfalfa, Britany Wondercheck farms with her husband, Dan, near Newman Grove, Nebraska. While Dan also sells Pioneer Seed, Britany spends the majority of her time on off-farm pursuits.
“Farm Girl Next Door is my website and social media platform where I educate other women in agriculture on the basics of grain marketing,” says Britany. “It became apparent to me when I was working for a grain company that a lot of women on operations don’t feel comfortable asking grain marketing questions. My goal is to be a relatable perspective for them to ask questions to and learn from.”
When Britany isn’t working on Farm Girl Next Door, she is continually working with Dan to better leverage their technology.
“There are so many different solutions out there, and we’re still trying to find the best fit for us to more efficiently manage all aspects of our operation,” she says.