It's often said that what you don't know can't hurt you. But, what you're not willing to learn might.
That kind of thinking has helped first-generation farmer Jared Kunkle, Monmouth, Illinois, build his business while navigating the tough economic and weather challenges of the last few years.
"You have to love what you do," says Kunkle, who raises corn and soybeans with his wife, Rachel. The couple has two children, Jayden, 8, and Ada, 11. "I try to be efficient and flexible. I look for opportunities. I am willing to do things I might not really want to do."
Those opportunities include getting a commercial driver's license (CDL), pilot's license, farm-management and real estate broker's license. Kunkle is also a licensed insurance agent. Snowplow driver, carpenter and volunteer round out his current repertoire.
And, it is those tasks that have helped the Kunkles manage today's farm challenges. They have reigned in purchases and family living costs, which has helped Kunkle be a better farm manager. Job diversification has not had much impact on overall income quite yet, but he's hopeful.
"We put everything back into the businesses, and I do odd jobs to bring in additional income to pay down our debt as quickly as possible," he says. "Dealing with the weather brings another set of challenges. I just have had to adapt to what the weather allows and change crop plans as necessary. I have to be challenged all the time. I have a work-hard, play-hard mentality."
EARLY INTEREST IN FARMING
That drive started early in life when Kunkle would frequently visit his grandparents and a great-aunt, who lived on a farm in Marshall County, Illinois. While both of his parents grew up on farms in the central part of the state, neither pursued farming as an occupation.
"I was very close to my great-aunt, and she would always try and run me to the field to be with the farmer who farmed the family ground," he says. "Thus began my love of it [farming]."
During high school, Kunkle's FFA instructor at Dunlap High School, near Peoria, gave him a brochure about custom-wheat-harvesting opportunities. Once he was in college, he got his CDL and worked for Westlake Harvesting, Crookston, Minnesota, during the summers of 2004 and 2005. He drove trucks and learned how to operate farm equipment.
After graduating from Monmouth College in 2007, Kunkle worked for two farmers in central Illinois. "I gained different experiences from both operations that helped me be where I am today," he says. In 2008, Rachel's uncle gave them the opportunity to rent 80 acres. They worked with a local farmer to trade labor for equipment use.
The couple moved to Monmouth the following year. Rachel was from the area, and Kunkle had gone to school there. They both felt like it was home. By fall 2011, they started adding more rental acres while he continued to do custom harvesting for a local farm.
He was finally able to start farming full time in 2016, renting 1,200 acres that year. Today, Kunkle has grown his operation to 2,100 acres, including 75 acres he bought in 2019.
With more acres comes more management time and responsibilities. So, Kunkle decided to start scouting fields from the air. With the use of an airplane from the Monmouth Area Flying Club, he can make quick work of scouting to make crop-treatment decisions and even take friends and family up for rides. He does not scout from the air for other farmers.
"I would love to have my own plane someday," he says.
The couple also owns Land Management Partners LLC, which includes farm-management and insurance businesses, with Adam and Julie Martin. Kunkle manages farm ground and financials for mostly out-of-state landowners. That includes talking with tenants to make sure everything is properly handled on the farms. Kunkle is comfortable working in farm management since it goes hand in hand with his own operation. That personal experience, he adds, helps him bring parties together with fair management agreements.
Land Management Partners also offers real estate services and a full line of insurance. Rachel works as bookkeeper for the farm and for the businesses. She also is an insurance agent.
"Insurance provides another income stream for us. We are our own bosses as much as we can be," Kunkle says. "Rachel and I are a good team. We play off each other's strengths and weaknesses."
And, even with all he has going on in agriculture, he still enjoys taking odd jobs to help friends. He helps one plow snow during the winter and enjoys carpentry.
With a strong belief in mission work, Kunkle volunteers with Community Care Days, in Monmouth, an undertaking put together by seven churches that seeks applications from local residents who need assistance with projects around their homes. Kunkle helps with constructing ramps and other similar work.
"We are active in our church and invested in being part of our community," Kunkle says. "I was raised to give, and this is one way that allows us to do that in our community. Building relationships is very important, and this is a great avenue to do that."
Kunkle recently stepped down as president of the Warren-Henderson County Farm Bureau, having served in the role for seven years. Meeting people and knowing who he could call on with questions about farming was one of the advantages of the leadership and critical to his success.
"I do not have family backing in farming, which means I have to invest in everything," he says. "I don't have a grandpa or father with an empty shed where I can park equipment, so I have to find farmers with space I can use. I have learned to talk to my banker honestly and completely."
One benefit to being a first-generation farmer, Kunkle says, is not having a set way of doing things. "I can change on a dime and switch from one thing to the next, because I don't have family involved in our operation. Every day is a challenge to myself of what I can tackle."
He plans to become more technology-driven with the use of yield and fertility-management tools that can dial down costs and increase income potential by field. He also will continue to grow the farm, but only if it makes sense.
"Right now, I am at a point where I may need to hire someone to help me rather than just rely on part-time retired help," he says. "I want to make sure hiring someone can be sustained. I just don't want to hire help and then in six months have to let them go."
Will a second generation of licensed Kunkles take over the farm someday? "If our kids show interest, that will play a role in whether or not we grow for the future. If they are not interested, that is OK, too," he says. "I would also love to mentor another first-generation farmer. It makes me happy to see people passionate about their business. It is a struggle, but first-generation farmers can make it work. You get to make your own path forward."
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