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Young Farm Family


Article & photos by Joann Pipkin.

Their stories are different. Yet, they are the same.


Young, beginning and small farmers are making their mark in agriculture but not without steadfast determination, willingness to work hard and an eagerness to serve — all to enjoy the livelihood farming provides.

Time management, communication and networking are critical elements in how three young FCS Financial customers are finding success in juggling part-time farming with full-time jobs. Here’s a look at how each finds balance between the two.

Jonathan Cooper • Meadville


Jonathan Cooper wasn’t raised on a farm per say, but he’s sure got it in his blood.

Though his family owned 40 acres near Meadville, Cooper’s dad was an industrial arts teacher and coach; his mom a registered nurse. A few cows and hogs dotted their landscape, but Cooper learned the ropes of farming from a neighbor who hired him on to help with cattle and row crops.

What began with Cooper raking hay in seventh grade eventually turned into a lot of on-the-job training that framed the path for his future. “They gave me a lot of responsibility,” he says of the neighboring farmer who would eventually turn over hay baling and spraying responsibilities to Cooper.

[rich-callout title="During the Day" image_id="2730"]Jonathan Cooper works with farmers like Richard Carpenter, Breckenridge, at T&R Soil Service.[/rich-callout]At 17, when a 143-acre farm north of Meadville came up for sale, Cooper was determined to buy the property. His parents co-signed the note.

Still, the young entrepreneur realized it would be hard to start a farm on his own. He headed for college first at North Central Missouri College in Trenton and finishing at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville all the while returning home to work on the farm.

In exchange for labor, the neighboring farmer Cooper had worked for agreed to help. Cooper would purchase the inputs and trade out labor for use of their equipment.

Cooper’s path would be tempted when he learned part of Butterfield Grain in Meadville was for sale. He’d developed a relationship with the business owners while working for his neighbor and immediately was interested.

Ownership plans were finalized in August 2002, nine months before Cooper would graduate from college with a degree in agriculture business management and a minor in geographic information systems.

A young man now in his early 20’s, Jonathan Cooper’s plate suddenly became very full. He was owner of a 143-acre farm, part owner of a grain company, and still worked some for the neighboring farmer.

Yet, all things work together. About the time, the neighboring farmer’s operation changed direction, T&R Soil Service in Chillicothe came for sale. Along with the owners of Butterfield Grain, Cooper purchased ownership in that business and headed there to manage it.

“We have a great working relationship,” Cooper says of his business partners.

But, being part-owner of two businesses and farming all at the same time means 30-year-old Jonathan Cooper often burns the candle at both ends.

“Whenever I was farming a hundred acres, finding time to farm wasn’t a big deal,” Cooper says. “Planting could be done on a Sunday afternoon.”

Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon for Cooper to leave the business at 9 or 10 at night and head straight for the field, working until 2 or 3 in the morning.

“The key to it all is being efficient,” Cooper says, noting that he doesn’t need a $300,000 combine. Instead, he trades out labor with friends in exchange for him helping with harvest on their operations. And, his dad is always near to lend a hand on the farm.

Connections and knowing the right people are crucial to his success, Cooper notes.

“If you are going to farm 500 acres after 7 at night, then you have to have the equipment to get the job done,” he further explains the need for efficiency. “You can’t afford breakdowns. But, that doesn’t mean your equipment has to be new.”

Cooper has seized opportunity when it came knocking on the door.

“I’m sure there were challenges along the way,” Cooper says of his journey, “but I didn’t know any different. I just got up every morning and did the job.”

Advances in technology have saved Cooper’s business many miles during his tenure. When busy season hits the fertilizer business, Cooper can load trucks and monitor phone calls. He’s also able to text his employees any changes in orders.

His equipment is GPS-guided with swath control. “I can see about 10-15% efficiency in what those machines can get done in a day compared to those equipped with less technology,” Cooper notes.

And, his tractors on the farm are GPS-guided, which according to Cooper, “enables me to do 15% more after work.”

He adds, “If you’re not on the cutting edge of the technology you’re going to get left behind.”

Whether in his role as business owner or farm manager, time management is the real key for this young entrepreneur. “That doesn’t mean, though, you can do something when it’s the wrong time,” Cooper explains. “You have to be able to manage your time when the time is right. You’ll make more money at the end of the day if you do a job at the right time than if you spend the time doing it wrong.”

Josh & Kayla Gwennap • Seymour


[rich-callout image_id="2729"]Josh and Kayla Gwennap, along with daughters Kendall and Carlee, balance owning a business with part-time farming.[/rich-callout]Josh Gwennap grew up on the outskirts of Springfield. His wife, Kayla, was raised in Rogersville where her family had maintained a small Polled Hereford operation. Although Josh’s family had horses, it wasn’t until he married Kayla in 2005 that the cow bug bit him.

Their start in the cattle business wasn’t a pleasant one, though, Gwennap says.

At the time, the newlyweds lived in Rogersville. Their newly purchased registered Simmental cows had just weaned calves and when those cows were put to pasture, they escaped in three different directions.

“We ended up putting ‘lost cow’ signs in the neighborhood,” Gwennap says laughingly.

Eventually, all three cows were captured. Still, the tiny hurdle didn’t keep the Gwennaps out of the cattle business. Instead, they grew their operation purchasing a 125-acre farm southwest of Seymour.

Today, the Gwennaps own 225 acres at Seymour and rent another 500-600 scattered across south Springfield and west to Republic that is used for both pasture and hay production. Additionally, they run about 125 head of cows in a commercial and registered cow/calf operation.

And, farming is just Gwennap’s part-time job.

After discovering college wasn’t right for him, Gwennap joined his father as co-owner of Mr. Green Gene’s, a mowing and landscaping business headquartered in Springfield.

Gwennap had worked in high school for a landscaper, so when he formed the 50/50 corporation with his dad that added some diversity to the operation that initially provided lawn mowing services.

“I run the landscaping side of the business and dad does the mowing,” Gwennap explains.

So, what’s a typical day like for the Gwennaps?

In a word, “Crazy,” the 29-year-old quips.

“Springfield is where our bread and butter is, so that’s job one,” Josh explains.

But that doesn’t mean he can leave for work and forget about his farm. Travel back and forth to Springfield can be challenging for Gwennap.

On a recent morning, he pulled a calf before leaving for work. And on another occasion, Kayla called him mid-morning with a cow having trouble calving so Josh left work and headed back to the farm, making a second 30-mile one-way trip.

Gwennap says his father is available to help look after cows at their rental property west of Springfield and Kayla’s parents only live five miles away so they are always near when a hand is needed.

“It’s nice owning your own business,” Gwennap says. “If we have a slow day we can fix some fence or move some cows.”

Summer is prime season for landscaping, mowing and putting up hay. Josh is quick to credit “great help” as being key to making both businesses successful. The young farmer has come to realize he can’t do it all.

“It works out well having employees that can take charge,” Gwennap says. “I know the job is getting done and that gives us a little more freedom on the farm to do hay.”

In addition to having credible employees at the landscape business, Gwennap notes Kayla does her share of work on the farm while caring for their two young daughters, Carlee, 4, and Kendall, 2.

Gwennap’s business is active year round as fall leaf and winter snow removal services pick up some of the slack time in the off-season. Those times of year provide opportunity to catch up on farm work and family time, too, Gwennap says.

“At some point I’d like to be able to turn more of the business over to some of the employees,” Gwennap says. “I love what we do with the business, but I’d rather be here taking care of the cows.”

In hindsight, Gwennap’s only regret would be to have grown his operation a little more slowly. “We dove in,” he exclaims.

“We bought this place and then the land across the road was for sale, and it was affordable,” Gwennap says. “We had to buy it.”

“It’s taken some years to make everything work,” Gwennap continues, “but we’re at a point now where it’s all going pretty good.”

Early on in their farming operation, the Gwennaps worked hard to learn the ropes of raising cattle, whether from their veterinarian or from family or friends.

“The biggest thing young farmers need is knowledge and the ‘people connections’ to get the job done right on the farm,” Josh Gwennap states.

Jesse & Diana Schwanke • Leonard


Jesse & Diana SchwankeIt was simply love for the farm and the community in which he was raised that brought Jesse and Diana Schwanke back to the farm.

As an engineering major in college at the University of Missouri, all it took was an internship in a factory setting for Jesse to realize that wasn’t what he really enjoyed doing.

“At that point, I decided I would come back home and farm,” Schwanke explains. “I could help dad with his fertilizer business.”

Jesse and Diana married about a year after college, and Jesse spent much of his time the next few years running a sprayer and fertilizer truck—but not farming.

Then, the adult agriculture instructor position came open at North Shelby High School in nearby Shelbyville. At the time, Schwanke was on the selection committee to find a replacement. He eventually ended up applying for the job himself and he’s now been at the school in that role for seven years. He’s also the junior high football coach.

“We practice from 6:30 until 8 in the morning,” Schwanke explains. “That’s a lot of fun. It’s over the first week of October, just in time for harvest.”

Diana is quick to note that Jesse working off the farm has been good for their family as it’s allowed her to stay home with their young children. The couple are parents to Luke, 7; Mary, 6; Samuel, 4; and Lindy, 3. A speech therapist, Diana is able to work part-time and sets her own schedule.

The Schwanke’s farming operation near Leonard in Shelby County is surrounded by land that has been in the family for generations. Jesse’s grandparents own the place just across the road and his parent’s home sits just east of his and Diana’s.

The couple purchased their cow herd from Jesse’s father about four years ago and have grown the operation from there. Today, their farm encompasses 60 head of cattle in a cow/calf operation. They rent 200 acres of crop ground and help Jesse’s dad farm another 1200 acres, trading out labor for equipment use.

A sideline grid sampling business Schwanke began a few years ago is now growing by leaps and bounds as well, he says.

“We go out with a hand-held computer and GPS,” Schwanke explains. “A software program will drive the border of the field and grid and navigate to points where samples are taken. From there, we can develop variable rate fertilizer and lime prescriptions for a field.”

With so many pieces to the Schwanke’s puzzle, one wonders how this young couple puts the whole picture together.

“(My job) works well with farming,” Schwanke notes. “The adult ag ed job requires me to work with farmers. I spend a lot of time working with them on financial management and education. A lot of that is done in the winter when they have time.”

He adds, “When the farmers are busy, I can be farming, too. When row crop season slacks off, that’s when we can step it up on the adult ag education.”

Yet, there are surely challenges with spending a lot of time away from home. Jesse credits Diana’s support at home for making their situation work.

“There are times of the year that I don’t see the kids a lot in the daylight,” Schwanke admits.

“Communication is important,” Schwanke states adding, “We’re learning to be better at that. Diana’s flexibility has been huge for us. And, her forgiveness.”

According to Diana, “If we need to see Jesse, we just pack up and go to the field or to the football game. And, the kids are fine with that. They understand the importance of helping others in the community.”

Diana and the kids also have the luxury of seeing Jesse at home on the farm. “The kids can ride on the tractor or we can go watch the combine,” she says. “We take meals out to the field and help move equipment. The kids are very involved and very excited about the farm. Farming is a way of life for them and they’re excited at carrying on the tradition.”

For the Schwankes, having a support system is extremely critical. With Jesse’s parents close by, they’re available to lend a hand whether with the farm or the children.

“The job at school is not something I do for the money,” Schwanke notes. “It’s something I do because I’m helping farmers, because I was in their shoes before I started that job.”

Schwanke explains that farmers understand how to set a planter and fix a combine, but financial management and record keeping is something that challenges them.

“Many young farmers don’t know what working capital is or what a current ratio is and why it matters. Those are things that are pretty important,” he maintains.

Schwanke says his role as an adult ag educator has indeed become a passion for him. “I don’t think all farmers understand the risk of inflation, rises in interest rates, cash flow. And, I don’t think there’s enough education to help farmers understand how to mitigate those risks by keeping in good financial position.”

About half of the producers Schwanke works with are under age 34 and the adult ag education program is voluntary. “It’s a big challenge because I have to be wanted,” he says. “Not many farmers enjoy sitting down and looking over dollars and cents.”

At 34, Jesse’s full-time job has offered his family multiple rewards. “We’re not just farmers,” Schwanke explains. “We’re service oriented. We look for a way to serve others and to produce food.”

And, in doing so his family reaps the rewards.

“Understanding and respecting each other goes a long way,” Diana Schwanke points out. “You have to learn to be content where you are. We have learned the simple joys of life and farming is a part of that.”

Finding Success on the Farm


Yes, their stories are different. Still, they are the same.

Three young farmers find success on the farm and off. Not an easy task when farming alone is a full-time job.

FCS Financial’s Jack Glover says it’s important for young people to have an open mind to other opportunities. “Self-evaluation is critical.”

Support, whether at home or through others, is imperative. “It all doesn’t come down to dollars and cents,” Glover says.

Still, by embracing networking, communication, technology and time management each has been able to enjoy the lifestyle farming affords.

And yet, young farmers like Jonathan Cooper, the Gwennaps and the Schwankes are the right “food insurance” for sustaining American agriculture.

As FCS Financial partners with young, beginning and small farmers, Glover says information alone is powerful.

FCS Financial’s Tera Dover adds, “Young farmers need information and a trusted place to go.”

Visit page 22 in our HeartBeat magazine to learn more about what FCS Financial is doing to enhance communication and education with our YBS Farmer customers.
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