SIOUX FALLS, S.D.— It’s a beautiful September afternoon, and there’s no place Morgan Kontz would rather be than in her office — even though she’s been working since dawn and likely won’t get home until after dusk.
Of course, her “office” is the cab of a John Deere tractor. She’s driving the grain cart while her brother-in-law combines a cornfield just a couple of miles away from her home north of Colman.
“Some farmers combine without having someone run alongside them with the grain cart,” Kontz says. “But by doing it this way, we’re more efficient. The combine can keep moving, and nobody has to waste time unloading. We’re a well-oiled machine when things are working properly. When things are trucking along, no one is sitting around waiting.”
They’ll finish this field of dry corn today. But on a large-scale family farm like theirs, the work is never over. On any given day, Kontz might be feeding cattle, hauling grain, cleaning the shop or running for parts.
Kontz speaks with the certainty of someone who has spent a lifetime on the farm. But in reality, she’s a first-generation farm wife, having married into the Kontz family farm operation in 2009.
Today, Kontz, 25, is a proud farmer and spirited, positive advocate of the country’s oldest industry, speaking and blogging about what it’s really like to live and work on the farm with the goal of bridging the gap between the farmers who grow food and the consumers who buy it.
“Farming isn’t just a job here,” Kontz says. “It’s a passion and a way of life.”
Though she didn’t grow up on a farm, the world of agriculture wasn’t completely foreign to Kontz.
She grew up outside of Indianapolis, in a town called Mooresville, with her mom and sister. Her dad and stepmom, both professional pool players, lived in the city.
She was in 4-H as a kid and participated in FFA, and she even worked for a sheep farmer for a bit while in high school. She studied ag education at Purdue University.
But how does the daughter of a professional pool player from Indiana end up married to a farmer in South Dakota? The Internet, of course. Kontz met her husband, Jason, on a dating site called FarmersOnly.com.
A friend introduced her to the site, which offered newcomers three free days of service, Kontz says. “There was no way I was going to pay for a dating service,” Kontz wrote in her blog. “My husband, on the other hand, fell for the $15.95 a month hook, line and sinker.”
They communicated over email and via text messages for a month before they spoke on the phone. She later drove to South Dakota to meet Jason in person and spent a week following him around on the farm and hanging out with his family.
Kontz went back to Indiana, the two decided they were in love and she ended up transferring to South Dakota State University, where she finished her degree in ag education and married the man of her dreams.
“I really have enjoyed telling the story and love that people get a kick out of the beginning to the rest of our lives,” she says.
Studying agriculture is one thing. Experiencing it is entirely different. And Kontz learned quickly.
“I was going to school for ag, but I didn’t even realize how much hard work goes into making one pound of hamburger,” she says. “I knew a lot about agriculture, but I was solely a consumer. It is completely different to go from being a consumer to becoming a producer. I never understood the amount of time it takes to plant crops. Or the amount of people it takes to make harvest run smoothly and efficiently. The science behind it I understood, but seeing it in action is a completely different story.”
The Kontz family farm, known as Triple K Farms, is made up of Morgan and her husband, Jason, his two brothers, Brad and Troy, and their wives, Kelly and Michelle, and his parents, Ray and Susan. Oh, and eight children, all under the age of 12, among the three siblings. They farm about 3,000 acres of soybeans, corn and alfalfa hay, feed approximately 2,000 head of beef cattle a year and raise more than 100 cow/calf pairs.
“Working with family is such a different dynamic,” she says. “But we take great pride in being called a family farm.”
The cattle are fed in the morning. After that, family members all meet in the shop for coffee and to go over the game plan for the day.
“Being a farming family is a lot like playing for a team,” Kontz says. “We work together, eat together, fight together and laugh together.”
Kontz does a little bit of everything on the farm — whatever needs to be done, really.
“I’m a firm believer that there is no dirt work, no grunt work on the farm,” she says. “It all needs to get done, no matter what.”
Kontz and her sisters-in-law also take care of the farm’s accounting and bookwork. She enjoys the task. “It’s rewarding to see how everything comes together,” she says.
And they have a rotating schedule for making food for the noon meal. Kontz enjoys cooking, but sometimes it can be frustrating, she admits.
“Sometimes you will plan for four people to cook for and have six show up,” she wrote in her blog, Stories of a First Generation Farm Wife. “Other times, you will plan for six people and have only one show up. Or, at about 11:40, 20 minutes to noon, your husband will call and say, ‘We aren’t coming. Is there any way you can bring sandwiches to us?’ Even though you made spaghetti. Trust me, it happens. And you have to put on your farm wife smile and say, ‘Yes, dear.’ “
Flexibility is definitely key. “I believe in a schedule, but I’ve really learned to be more flexible in the last few years,” Kontz says. “Plans are always going to change.”
During harvest, it’s all about getting the crops out of the field — which means working upward of 12 hours a day. Kontz spends much of that time running the grain cart, with her 6-month-old daughter, Elliette, usually along for the ride.
“We’re learning to adjust our schedules to be able to work with our little princess constantly attached to us,” she says.
The other kids help when they can. “They love it when we let them help,” Kontz says.
It’s essential to expose the kids to the day-to-day aspects of working on the farm — “even if they’re just riding along in the tractor,” Kontz says. And it’s not just because the Kontzes all hope that someday at least a few of the kids will want to take over the family farm. It’s also because it’s so important to them to understand where food comes from and how it is produced.
“They know how their sweet corn grows, where their beef comes from and that chocolate milk doesn’t come from a brown cow,” Kontz says.
While agriculture is still South Dakota’s No. 1 industry, more and more families these days are at least a generation or two removed from the farm. Because of that disconnect, there are a lot of questions — and misconceptions — out there regarding the farming industry, Kontz says.
People are concerned about cruelty when there are large numbers of animals on a farm. They’re worried about hormones and antibiotics in their meat. They’re not sure what to think about genetically modified foods. And they’re confused about all their different organic options, Kontz says.
“These are all hot topics,” she says. “But don’t just trust what you see on the Internet or from Dr. Oz. Do your own research. . Please keep an open mind to the world of agriculture. Farmers work hard every day to feed the world.”
That’s why Kontz jumped at the chance to volunteer with CommonGround.
CommonGround is a grassroots movement that’s designed to foster conversation among women on farms and in cities about where our food comes from, says Sarah Even, communications director for the South Dakota Soybean Association & South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. Although everyone has a connection to food, not everyone gets a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how food makes it from the farm to our plates. So farmers created CommonGround to bridge the gap between urban consumers and farmers to share the story of today’s agriculture and the food it provides.
With more Americans growing up in urban and suburban areas, miles from farm life, the lack of firsthand knowledge about modern agriculture and the food system can cause concern and confusion, and it can often propel food myths, Even says. CommonGround strives to bridge this knowledge gap and build trust in America’s food system and the people behind it.
Speaking to different groups and organizations is never a problem for the talkative, sociable Kontz. “My heart lies in teaching, so blogging and working with CommonGround gives me the chance to talk about our farm, what we do and how we are providing a safe, healthy and affordable product,” she says. “I love talking about my family and sharing stories of what we do on the farm.”
But it’s her blog that’s probably the best platform for educating others and deflecting some of the negativity that can be associated with farming.
With social media, a video depicting animal cruelty, for example, can spread like wildfire in an instant. “And when people see a bad video like that, they assume all farms are like that,” Kontz says.
Kontz wants to make sure people “see another aspect represented when they Google.”
That Kontz is a real person — a wife and a mom — helps advance her message, says Sarah VanDerVliet, the ag education teacher at Tri-Valley.
“Nowadays, consumer thoughts and opinions are valued so much,” VanDerVliet says. “Think about it — if you’re going to buy a stroller, are you going to read the reviews, or go just by what the manufacturer says? (Kontz) does a great job engaging people and teaching people about different aspects of agriculture.”
She has blogged about why the family plants genetically modified organisms. “We plant GMOs because we can get more bushels per acre, have a resistance to certain pests and feed more people. (Really, there are tons of reasons, but I will keep it simple.)”
She has blogged about treating their cattle with antibiotics. “I believe in treating individual animals that are sick with antibiotics. Feeding antibiotics in a feed ration every day is something I do not believe in. There is a big difference. For all types of antibiotics that have been approved for use on animals, there is a withdrawal period before the animal can enter the food supply. If that animal were to be taken to a locker for processing with antibiotics in their system, that animal can’t be used. So we lose the profit of one very big calf.”
And she has blogged about bigger chicken breasts. “You might be surprised to know that federal regulation prohibits the use of hormones in chickens. . So why such a big breast? Easy. Breeding. As a society, we have gradually started wanting more and bigger when it comes to food. So over time, we have bred chickens to reflect those genetics. . They have not been pumped full of hormones or antibiotics to make the breast bigger. Just as we breed dogs to get certain characteristics, chickens have been bred to have certain characteristics.”
The blog is intended to be a conversation with her readers, Kontz says, and she welcomes questions.
“I know I’m not going to change the world in one night, but I want to keep people engaged,” she says.
But mostly, Kontz says, she wants consumers to feel educated about their decisions and confident about their food choices at the grocery store. “Don’t just jump on the bandwagon. As I always say, make the right decision for you and your family.”
Back at the Kontz farm, the harvest is now over — about a month early this year because the crops matured so much faster because of the drought.
The work, however, is never done, Kontz says. “In the fall, there are three months for harvest, in the spring two months for planting,” she says. “In the winter, you are always moving snow if you have cattle, and in the summer you fix everything that has been too cold to fix through the winter.”
It’s a never-ending cycle. But Kontz can’t imagine doing anything else.
“Farming is our life, our love and our livelihood.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com