Coming Home to Roost

College Graduates Choose Farm Over Off-Farm Employment

When Dereke Dunkirk left the family farm to attend the University of Illinois a few years ago, he had already secured his post-graduation job. He planned to return to the farm near Morrisonville, Illinois, where he grew up raising hogs, and help expand the operation.

“I always knew I wanted to farm. When I graduated in 2002 with a degree in farm business/farm management, I knew I could use my education now on the farm and use it later if I seek off-farm or seasonal employment,” he says. “I enjoy working in the livestock business and see tremendous opportunity for the industry in Illinois to grow.”

Dunkirk was already a partner with his father and grandfather in the pork business when he left for college. During his time at the University of Illinois, he bought deeper into the business. The family moved into feeder pig production when Dereke was a sophomore, and he directed the family into SEW (segregated early weaned) pig production after he graduated. Today, he is a 50-50 partner with the operation, which includes a new 1,500-head wean-to-finish barn. He lives in the primary farmstead with wife Chelsea.

Dereke’s family celebrated the opening of the new facility and their 100-year history with an open house in August. He noted at the time that the new operation would bring more economic activity to the local economy by consuming an additional 25,000 bushels of grain per year and adding approximately $4,500 in tax revenue to the county.

To help make the new operation a reality, Dereke bought his first 60 acres in 2004. The purchase established a land base to provide the collateral he needed for the hogs.

“I also used the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) cost-share to improve the environmental aspect of the operation including construction of the pit, development of a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP), and a manure utilization incentive,” Dereke says. His careful planning and development of these and other significant environmental measures help his operation become effective, productive and simultaneously, environmentally engaged.  He adds, “EQIP helped this project become a reality.”

Jason Keller followed much the same pathway. He holds the same degree from the University of Illinois, and always planned to return to the family pork operation near West Liberty, Illinois, and farm with his father and grandfather. Today, Keller Grain & Livestock supports the three families with 2,600 acres of grain and a 2,800-sow, farrow-to-finish operation. Hog finishing is contracted with other local operators.

“I took business and farm management classes, crop and animal science and any other courses that provided hands-on instruction to prepare for this career,” Keller says. “Our family farm made it through the challenging economics hog producers faced in 1998, and remains on good ground for the future. Pork production in Illinois will continue to expand and flourish, as long as we use the right management savvy to keep our farms and the industry successful.”

Keller and Dunkirk appear to buck the current trend of young people choosing not to return to the farm. According to USDA, a 1983 study found that children of farmers were 30 times more likely than the average worker to follow their parents’ occupational or business choice. But more recently, that “traditional pattern of intergenerational transfer of family-operated farm operations from parent to child has reportedly become less common as fewer farm children choose farm careers. The annual number of new farm entrants under 35 declined from 39,300 during 1978-82 to 15,500 during 1992-97.”

“As a young farmer, pork production has provided me another opportunity to be a viable partner in my family’s farm and remain in this community,” says Dunkirk. “The new building has many technologically advanced features that increase the efficiencies of raising pigs long-term, but will also improve the welfare of the pigs.”

“One of our greatest needs as a society is a safe, quality, affordable food supply,” adds Jim Kaitschuk, executive director, Illinois Pork Producers Association (IPPA). “By being allowed to expand, adapt new technologies and increase efficiencies, Illinois pork producers can meet that need better than anyone else in the world, while caring for the environment, being a good neighbor and adding development to our economy.”