The concept of passing along a family business from generation to generation isn’t as common as it once was. Think about how many movies and shows are based around the idea of children leaving home as soon as possible, eager to make their name doing anything other than what their parents do. For that matter, think about how many of your friends have made this choice.
Still, this idea lives on in one of the most universal, timeless professions: farming. Chad Holder recently spent three weeks driving around middle America to visit various dairy farms for a multimedia project with Kohnstamm Communications.
They wanted to tell the story of ten farms in ten states. Kohnstamm wanted to show how the farms were different and how they were similar. I was brought on to execute the production. I teamed up with the creatives for the first three farms, then shot that remaining seven by myself.
No two farms are going to be the same, even if they produce similar goods. But there are clear parallels we can draw between the places Chad visited. All of the farms profiled feature some sort of multigenerational workforce, and many of these roots run deep. Take the Coblentz family in Chouteau, Oklahoma, whose dairy farming operation began during the Great Depression and have continued on since.
Adam’s great-grandfather apparently was the first person to bring Holstein [cows] to the country in the 1930s. Adam’s dad, Charles [center], saved up to buy 20 heifers and rent 120 acres of land from his mother in 1972, a handful of years after Adam’s grandparents had decided to cease the dairy operations altogether. After realizing a lot of his money was going to feed companies, Charles started to produce his own grain for the cattle. After more time, he decided he needed to spend less on inputs and built a barn.
At present, this 7,000-acre farm has more than 1,000 cows and a variety of crops. Adam — top left in the above family photo — has developed into an agricultural jack-of-all-trades, filling any role he needs to in order to keep the farm humming. While he’s successfully incorporated cutting-edge technology over the years, Adam’s mission statement hasn’t changed a bit.
It’s not uncommon to go from milking cows to managing fertilizer inventory to ordering feed to ordering parts within 15 minutes. We don’t cut corners in dairy farming. We take pride in producing a good product and we take care of our animals the way it needs to be done.
As you can infer from the sheer volume of space these farms take up, Chad had to work efficiently — even more so because of the state-hopping aspect of the project. Once Chad got to a farm, he’d tell the workers to act as if he wasn’t there and just do things as they normally would. In seeing the labor up-close, the Minneapolis-based photographer better appreciated the versatility of the farmers’ skillsets.
I spent more time driving than shooting the farms. I would spend about three hours shooting each farm, then drive five or six hours to the next farm. I’d show up and the farmers would look at me and ask, “what do you need me to do?” I told them to try to pretend that I was not there and go about their day doing whatever they would normally do.
I realized that these people not just farmers, but also mechanics, welders, and veterinarians. They have a head for business, the weather, and caring for their family and community.
Humanization is one of the best solvents of stereotypes. When Chad meets members of a farming community, he interacts with resourceful, intelligent individuals who instill enduring virtues in their children while simultaneously teaching them modern agricultural methods. We can find a great example of this in Jansen, Nebraska, where Brooke, Adam, and the rest of the Engelmans have made sustainability a big part of their farming identity. As with many of Chad’s visits, this one gave him the chance to capture multiple generations hard at work together.
Brooke’s husband, Adam, grew up on the farm and is a fourth-generation family farm owner. The fifth generation is likely on the way, as their oldest daughter is in high school and her current plan is to go to college for dairy management and come back with aspirations to be the head herdsman and eventually take over the dairy.
Sustainability is huge at this farm, especially when it comes to water re-use. They cool milk in a plate cooler with water, then transfer it into a holding tank before it is then used to flush the parlor. That same water then goes into the first stage of the lagoon, which then pumps back into a second water silo and then eventually flushes the free-style barn. As it leaves the free-style barn, the sand from sand stalls that is flushed is dried and re-used.
While it can be challenging to get members of the older generations fluent with what we’ll call computerized farming, technological updates have become a necessity. In Dubuque, Iowa, the farmer Chad met, Megan Kregel, “recently invested in new milking technologies,” but is having some trouble getting her dad up to speed.
Regardless, those new advances are financially and scientifically beneficial, as Chad discovered in Junction City, Kansas, where Melissa Reed and her family opened up a milk processing facility on site a decade ago.
They are literally pumping the milk out of the milking barn via an overhead stainless steel line that feeds directly into the processing facility. From there, it’s pasteurized, homogenized, bottled, and packaged under the Hildebrand Dairy name. It’s the only dairy on the tour that has a processing facility.
Melissa and company are doing some really innovative things with medicine and breeding. For example, they’re able to tell genetically which cow’s milk has the A2 beta Casin that some people can digest better.
Melissa’s is another case of being the latest in a long line of farmers within her family. She’s the fourth generation and, in some ways, sees this work as therapeutic. “When you’re in the barn with the cows, it’s hard not to fall in love with the peacefulness they can provide as well as the day-to-day challenges.”
Like farming methods, the challenges of the work evolve over time and can be specific to the location of the farm itself. In Bentonville, Arkansas — a name you might already recognize for a decidedly non-agricultural reason — Ryan Anglin and his family are keeping multiple traditions alive at once.
Ryan’s mother-in-law was a personal secretary to Sam Walton years ago. Triple A Farms is literally in the shadow of the HQ of the largest company in the history of the world, near Walmart’s global headquarters and almost within view of two of their largest warehouses.
As Bentonville’s population has skyrocketed due to retail, dairy has become almost invisible. Nearly 750 dairies existed in the county when Ryan began and now there are just 40 in the entire state. Nonetheless, Ryan’s farm is an agricultural oasis in a sprawling, growing city, and Ryan likes to brag that, as large as Walmart is, annual dairy sales in the state of Arkansas still surpass the retailer.
The perpetual tension between the corporate world and the agrarian sphere is as American as apple pie and immigration, the latter of which also shows up in Chad’s project. Why have people made their way to the U.S. for centuries? It usually boils down to one word: opportunity. That’s what brought Dutch immigrants Corne and Conny van Bedaf to Carrington, North Dakota.
We immigrated to North Dakota to give our children the chance to do what’s kind of in our blood. We knew if we made this step, we could create an opportunity for and with them. We never made them stay but, in the end, it worked out because they wanted to join our dairy. It’s been wonderful seeing them grow within our business. One day, they’ll take over our responsibilities.
There’s that inheritance of the family business we touched on earlier, an incredibly organic situation in the van Bedafs’ case. The same can be said for Rodney Elliott, an Irishman who has been in America since 2006. In less than 15 years, Rodney has raised a family and laid the foundation for three generations of farmers to ply their trade in Lake Norden, South Dakota.
Rodney said he believed in the abilities of his family (which included children ages 10, 12, and 14 at the time of the move) and in their combined vision. The local community has since embraced the family with open arms. All of the kids are married. In fact, the oldest son has returned to work on the farm and now has a son of his own.
Not every family story Chad heard was smooth and uplifting. The most gut-wrenching tale came from Mark Fellwock in Monett, Missouri. A fourth-generation farmer, Mark has dealt with losses of his predecessors and successors while also overcoming his own injuries.
The farm has been filled with setbacks — the death of Mark’s father in hospice, the passing of his third child when she was four years old to a brain tumor, and a bad explosion and fire just last year that put Mark in the burn unit. He was recovering from multiple skin grafts, which required family members and friends to kick in with extra support while he was incapacitated.
For this man, farming is a joy as well as a chance to put aside the avalanche of tragedy that has befallen his family. His 19-year-old daughter, Bailey, is learning the ropes and is set to take the reins in due time. If she’s anything like her father, she’ll love the work. From Mark:
Every day is challenging in itself, but there’s nothing more rewarding then stepping out in the barn and seeing the cows come, eat on the feeding floor, and knowing we’re taking good care of them. It’s what I enjoy.
Though each story is unique, there are a host of commonalities that bind these enterprising men and women. The farmers Chad met are naturally modest, the kind of people who find attention-seeking cringey and prefer to let their work do the talking. Even so, their trials and tribulations deserve an audience. The agricultural world is constantly changing and there are numerous factors at play that sit squarely outside of the farmers’ control. All they can do is work hard, adapt when necessary, and hope there’s still a fair slice of the pie waiting for them when it’s all said and done.
Overall, I was impressed with how hard these folks work and how much their hearts are in what they do. These farmers want to get to their chores and get them done. The last thing that they want to do is stop, be the center of attention, and be photographed.
I feel simply showing who they are and what they do will help their cause. The Midwest is referred to as “the flyover states,” and that makes me think that the people in those states are often overlooked. By documenting a bit of their lives and work for a brief moment, perhaps I can help them get a little more attention.
Oklahoma: The Coblentz family
Nebraska: The Engelman family
Iowa: Megan Kregel, Kregel Farms
Kansas: Melissa Reed, Hildebrand Farms Dairy
Arkansas: The Anglin family
North Dakota: Corne and Conny van Bedaf
South Dakota: Rodney Elliott
Missouri: Mark Fellwock, Fellwock Dairy
Minnesota: Margaret and Michael Johnson
Illinois: Amy Hildebrandt
See more of Chad’s work at chadholder.com.
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