Farmer Steve Kaufman is another of my Leadership Idaho Agriculture classmates. He was good enough to give me some of his valuable time during harvest to talk with me, and I very much enjoyed learning more about him, and about his farm. I know you’ll enjoy reading all about Farmer Steve!
Farmer Steve Kaufman lives in Lewiston, ID with his wife Christina and sons Ben, 4 and Will, 2. While his family has been farming since they arrived in the Lewiston area in 1899, this is Steve’s first season as a full-time farmer.
Steve worked for Northwest Farm Credit services for 9 years, while farming with his family part-time, before making the jump to full-time farming. Steve is now the 5th generation to work his family’s land. He has about 1,700 acres himself, and his family farms about 10,000 acres total. His father, uncle, and brothers are also farmers; they share equipment, time, and advice.
Steve grew up a farmer, and loved it. He says it is very hard work, with long hours, but so rewarding to produce food that feeds the world. He enjoys working with his family and how the job changes with the seasons.
The crops he grows are mainly winter and spring wheat, as well as winter canola. Steve also grew about an acre and a half of sweet corn, which was something new this year. They harvest the sweet corn on Friday and sell on Saturday at the Moscow Farmer’s Market. They normally pick 2,000 ears, and sell out each week. They are getting ready to sell through the Co-op in Moscow as well.
About 5 years ago, Steve and his wife began partnering with his brother to start a corn maze, which runs during the month of October. They have formed a partnership with U of I College of Agriculture and Life Sciences student clubs. The students help with labor to cut and run the maze, and they get half of the profits for their club budgets. About 10,000 people come visit the Clearwater Corn Maze each October.
The land Steve farms is dryland, meaning it is not irrigated. A lot of his ground is in a winter wheat followed by fallow rotation. If crop prices are high, he will do some spring cropping, or if he needs to “clean up” some ground, he’ll plant spring wheat or winter canola. (Clean up means that he has an area that has excessive weeds, or a type of weed which is hard to control).
Half of his operation is no-till, meaning that the ground is not tilled after the crop is harvested, and before the new crop is planted. The other half of his land is minimum-till. These soil management practices help reduce erosion, improve the nutrient content of the soil, increase water in the soil, and help protect new plants. Steve also has contour strips that help reduce erosion. Contour farming is when the land is worked along the lines of elevation (see photo).
One of the biggest surprises to non-farming folk, Steve says, is that farming is a pretty sophisticated business now. There is a lot of technology, computers, and high-tech equipment. With all the GPS and variable rate technology that is becoming available in agriculture, to be a farmer, you almost have to be a fighter pilot. Everything is automatic these days. A farmer can coordinate yield maps from the combines with the seed drill to put varying rates of fertilizer in the ground. You have to be really smart, a hard worker and good at a lot of different things to be a successful farmer. The old, simple ways just don’t work anymore.
Farming is a big game of risk, and although the government does have programs to support our farmers, the government also contributes to the uncertainty of farming. We always have uncertainty in the government farm programs, and we have to choose between programs. The government is a year or two late before they do anything – we frequently are already into the farming season (which begins in the springtime) before the government decides what programs they’ll be offering.
The crop prices are around break-even right now – just barely enough to cover all farming costs and family’s needs. The yields off Steve’s 2014 crop were average – not devastatingly low, and not a bumper crop. With new Farm Bill, there are no direct farm payments any more. This is a big deal in dryland farming. We just hope we break even every year. Steve adds that if you’re a low-cost producer, you’ll always stay in business: keep costs down!
Despite the uncertainty and risk of farming, Steve loves the work. He really enjoys being his own boss and getting to work out on the land. It’s pretty nice to look out of my office; the shed or tractor cab, and see the land and sky, Steve says. He likes working with his hands and getting to see the fruits of his labor. Also, in the evenings the deer come out, and the moon rises over the hills, and it’s wonderful. A person has to farm for the love of farming, which Steve definitely does.
Along with being a full-time farmer, husband and father, Steve is also a CARET rep for U of I – Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. He goes back to DC at least once a year to lobby for funding for agricultural research and extension. Also, every spring he helps teach local 5th and 6th graders about farming and agriculture.
When Steve and his brothers were little, his family took on some ground that needed to clean up following a cereal rye program. Rye is closely enough related to wheat that it couldn’t be sprayed out, so we had to pull it out by hand. Steve and family would go out together pull rye. The wheat was as tall as the kids were, so their parents couldn’t see them in the field. They had some hats – neon pink and green that their parents made them wear while pulling the rye.
Steve sees his farming as his way to ensure that peoples’ basic need for food is met, so that they can contribute to society in other ways that he and others people might benefit from. Farming is not something that people can substitute away from, and he is proud of the role that all farmers play in society.
Please visit the website for the Clearwater Corn Maze:
If you have any questions about farming and agriculture for Steve, please ask in the comments section!