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Making the Best Better

Curtis and Holly Delgman build their family farm on education, conservation and advocacy.

By Joann Pipkin

Delgman''s high tunnel greenhouse

As the four-lane winds us north from the capital city, we venture deep into the heartland. Fertile fields lay barren on this early spring day as a gentle rain fades in the midday sky. Cattle rest lazily in barn lots alongside antique villas. With the sun peering through clouds, we trek east, then north again, across rural Missouri’s landscape. 

baby lambs

Along the path, tiny farm towns yearn for warmer days when planting season finds them bursting at the seams. This day, our journey ends as we exit off the four-lane to Old Highway 61 not too far from the muddy Mississippi, near the nostalgic metropolis of Frankford. 

Here, a new homestead takes root atop a hill in land once claimed by generations before them. Yet, for Curtis and Holly Delgman, moving back to her family farm didn’t mean they would settle into the same way of farming Holly learned from her ancestors. With today’s agriculture much more consumer-driven than times gone by, the Delgman operation focuses on diversity in their quest to make the best better.

Back to Her Roots

After living in Columbia for a while, Holly and Curtis moved back to northeast Missouri in 2013 to help fill a role on her family’s row crop and cow/calf operation. Holly’s parents, John and Sandy Scherder, were recipients of the 2018 Missouri Leopold Conservation Award®. In addition to helping Holly’s parents, over the course of the last eight years, the couple has built their own farm through conservation-minded diversification and agritourism. Corn, soybeans and wheat as well as a 140-head commercial cow/calf operation anchor the operation. An agritourism venue featuring a pumpkin patch and corn maze as well as a high tunnel greenhouse for growing vegetables further diversifies the farm.

cattle grazing

While Holly’s ancestors originally settled on a Pike County farm in 1917, it would be some 100 years later — in 2017 — when Curtis and Holly were able to buy a 95-acre parcel that would complete a puzzle of sorts.  With their purchase, 450 contiguous acres are now owned by Holly’s family. Curtis and Holly’s portion of the family-owned land includes a 260-acre spread that flanks two sides of Old Highway 61. 

“Four generations, a hundred years to the nose later, we bring the family farm together as a whole,” Curtis says. “It was really emotional for my wife, really important and a very proud moment for me to be able to achieve that for her and have our kids mark the fifth generation.”

With Curtis managing the farm’s daily tasks, Holly works in insurance sales for Missouri Farm Bureau and helps out as her schedule allows. The couple’s three children — Wyatt, 10; Bailey, 7; and Roxie, 3 — also pitch in when they aren’t in school. 

Passionate about creating a learning environment, Holly’s ultimate goal is to build an operation they can eventually bring their children into. 

“It’s really important to me for our kids to learn from the farm,” she says. “I grew up on the farm, and that’s how I learned how to work. That’s how I became me. I think it’s very important for our kids to understand that and give them a good base for when they go out into the real world.”

Count on Conservation

Curtis’ foresight in conservation-minded management brings a unique perspective to the operation. While soybeans are commonplace across the gently rolling hillsides of northeast Missouri, Curtis knew he would need to increase the size of his cow herd or find other ways to generate revenue on their land.

“To me, the simple idea was to rotational graze and increase my stocking rate,” Curtis explains. 

The 95 acres the couple purchased had been continuously grazed, stocking 35-40 head of cows. By implementing rotational grazing methods, Curtis was able to double his herd size on the same number of acres. 

Calling himself “proconservation,” Curtis works one-on-one with Natural Resources Conservation Service to ensure he’s implementing stewardship practices on his operation. The Delgman farm sits amid both the Peno and Spencer Creek Watersheds, which makes it a top priority for helping to maintain a good ecosystem in the streams. 

solar charger

With NRCS assistance, Curtis fenced out riparian areas enhancing the farm’s wildlife. Above ground waterers were installed as part of the farm’s rotational grazing system, which includes 12 paddocks that cattle are rotated through weekly. 

“I’m not brush hogging near as often, which is a huge benefit,” Curtis says of the rotational grazing system. “I’m stockpiling grass like crazy. Every week I had plenty of grass.” 

With conservation top of mind, Curtis says it was their biggest driver when he first came back to the farm.

"It’s the responsible thing to do,” he says simply. 

Cover crops have been an integral part of the operation since Curtis and Holly began farming with her parents. In their early years there, drought plagued the area. Adding cereal rye to the mix not only helped save soil, but also provided much needed forage for the farm’s cowherd. 

As commodity prices rose during the same timeframe, Curtis says a lot of conservation reserve program (CRP) and hay/pasture acres were put into corn and soybeans.

“I thought, if you’re taking it away, you’ve got to replace it with something,” Curtis says. That resulted in cover crops becoming a mainstay in the family farm operation. Today, he says nearly a thousand acres or about a third of Holly’s family’s farm production comes from cover crops.

cover crop planted for conservation

In addition to cereal rye, over the years varieties have included tillage radishes, peas, crimson clover, turnips, millet and hairy vetch. 

“Every one of them has had a significant role in the operation,” Curtis says. 

No-till is also key to the operation. He explains that with conventional tillage, carbon is released into the atmosphere. As fields are left fallow, nothing is being added back into them.

“So, having the cover crops on the fields all winter and then no-tilling and never opening that soil back up helps sequester oodles and gallons of carbon,” Curtis says. “There is a lot more underneath the soil profile that’s going on, that’s beneficial.”

Not Grandpa’s Farm

While Curtis is grounded in agriculture, he’s the first to say his experience didn’t come on the production side of the equation. His unique insight into the industry, though, serves as the true hub of the Delgman operation. 

corn maze entrance

“We’re both very passionate about agriculture as an industry, but the outreach and education is probably our biggest driver,” Curtis explains. “There’s so much distance now between the kids and the farm. The generational gap is huge.”

The fact that Curtis didn’t grow up on a farm, he says, is a force in shaping the scope of their current operation. The program’s diversity helps make it successful, and as a first-generation farmer, he says getting to choose what to bring into the business is based off of their interests. 

To help cultivate their passions and educate themselves, Curtis and Holly stay active in the agriculture community. Both took part in Agriculture Leaders of Tomorrow (ALOT), which gave them an inside look at the vastness of the industry.

“I think it’s critical for everyone on the farm,” Curtis explains. “Don’t just stay confined within the borders of the farm. You’ve got to get out and educate yourself, see what others are doing. We’ve been all over the state, the country, and looked at so many different facets of agriculture, and everybody does it different.”

Because of their open-mindedness, Curtis and Holly are able to grasp new ideas and take risks others might not consider, according to Ryan Bailey, assistant vice president, FCS Financial.

Delgmans with FCS Financial  loan officer

“(Curtis) is looking for a lot of different ways to generate revenue that aren’t traditional to help pay for the farm,” Bailey says.

The Delgman’s agritourism venue is a prime example. While the experience provides added revenue for the farm, it actually serves another purpose, too.

“I like that intimate relationship with people coming out to the farm,” he says. 

Through that relationship, Curtis is able to help adults and children connect the dots between producer and consumer. From sunflowers and pumpkins to a corn maze and small petting zoo, one-on-one interaction helps bridge a gap between agriculture and the non-farming public that exists even in rural Missouri.

corn stalks on the ground

The Delgman’s vision for their agritourism venue includes adding a brick oven pizza, a casual dining experience that fits nicely with the current over-sized deck and play area.

“Every year we want to try to expand our pumpkin patch and start doing other things throughout the year that are agritourism-related,” Holly explains. “We’ve talked about a sunflower festival this year, things that don’t require a lot of space or a ton of time. Those are very concentrated during a month, month and a half and with high yield income.”

Last year, the Delgmans added a high tunnel to the operation, which was a nice add-on to their agritourism experience. Coupled with additional greenhouses Curtis acquired, the indoor garden helps complete his vision of a commercial farmer’s market. 

“The desire to have something like that in the area with consumers has grown a lot because people realize this a better and more reliable food source,” Holly says. “It was a great way for people to get fresh, high-quality, consistent food.”

Curtis adds that during and post-Covid, farmers and ranchers have been very adaptive. “This is a huge market disruption, and it’s a great way to adapt to that disruption,” he says. “Direct marketing your product to the consumer adds value to it.”

baby calf

The Delgmans will host their first wedding in September. Holly also hopes to add an apiary to the farm. “We want to do bees and honey,” she explains. “I think it goes hand-in-hand with the high tunnel and what we’re trying to do.”

They’re also exploring the addition of chickens to their livestock inventory. The birds would follow behind the cattle in the farm’s rotational grazing system. They also direct market some beef to local consumers and hope to expand on that in the future.

Partnering for Progress

When the Delgmans were approached with buying the 95-acres, they were only familiar with conventional lending having never purchased a farm before. But because of their involvement in the community, they were familiar with FCS Financial. 

“We knew a lot of good people that worked there and had done business there,” Holly says. “We knew that they had good support for the agricultural industry and other groups and organizations. So, it seemed like a good fit for us.”

A good fit, indeed.

Holly says the lending process has been simple and straightforward. "We refinanced when (the interest rate) was lower,” she says. “It was so easy.”

Curtis Delgman with Ryan Bailey

For FCS Financial’s Bailey, who works with the Delgmans on their real estate loan, working with the couple is exciting because he can help them accomplish their goals. 

“I can see that Curtis didn’t grow up on a farm, but he wants to pass this operation on to the next generation,” Bailey says. “It’s neat that they’re looking farther down the road. I think that is key with their conservation efforts, too. The goal they see is that it doesn’t get better unless you do something.”

Passing on Their Passion

Curtis and Holly Delgman’s passions are sincere — agriculture, conservation and sharing their story with others. Whether with their own children or with consumers, this couple’s desire for sustainability and education resonates in their everyday work on the family farm and as they volunteer in the community.

Active in the Pike County Young Farmers and Ranchers (YFR), the Delgmans are both hungry to tutor others while learning for themselves at the same time. The group provides scholarships and other agricultural opportunities for schools, FFA chapters and 4-H clubs in the area. 

While Curtis and Holly advocate for agriculture, their devotion to raising their family in the industry and transitioning the operation to the next generation remains steadfast. 

“I think he (Holly’s grandfather) would really appreciate what we’re doing here,” Curtis says. 

Holly concludes by remembering a conversation she and Curtis had recently. She recalls, “Curtis said, ‘It’s going to be really nice if we happen to come back here during the day and see the kids laughing and playing at the pumpkin patch.’ I said, ‘You know what’s going to be even nicer is when the kids get older and they understand the business, and we can sit over here during that whole time, and the kids can just run it.’”

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