By Lura Roti, for the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce
The sun isn’t shining and South Dakota winds are gusting, but that doesn’t seem to faze cousins Bode Sweeter, 6, and Kade Sweeter, 4, who are goofing around in a pickup bed while their parents and grandpa work cattle.
It’s the first Saturday in December and three generations of Sweeters are gathered to pregnancy check a group of heifers on their farm just outside of Worthing.
“There’s no better place to raise kids than on a farm. Here they have room to play and run around and we don’t have to worry about them getting into trouble,” says Grandpa Ken Sweeter, 66.
Agreeing with the fourth-generation farmer, his daughter-in-law, Wendy, 36, added, “I enjoyed growing up on a farm and liked the way of life, so I’m glad our kids have some of the same opportunities we did. They get to be around animals, do chores and develop a good work ethic.”
Wendy grew up on a farm near Hartford. The agriculture journalist met Ken’s son, Kurtis, 36, when they were both students at South Dakota State
University and judging together on the collegiate meat judging team.
Although they didn’t meet until college, the couple share many similar childhood memories. Growing up on South Dakota farms in the ‘90s they were both 4-H and FFA members and spent time showing and judging livestock at area county fairs as well as the Sioux Empire Fair and Sioux Empire Farm Show.
After they married, returning to Kurtis’ family farm to start their life together made sense. Actively involved in his family’s farm since childhood, it was Kurtis’ goal to return home after college and farm with his dad and younger brother, Mike. “Farming gets ingrained in you. There’s just something about being able to work out in the dirt and with cattle - getting dirty and seeing calves born, crops grow and see what you care for do well,” explained Kurtis, who received his master’s in meat science in 2004.
With degrees in hand, the couple who married in 2003, returned to the farm to work and raise their family. Unlike both of their dads, who a generation earlier made a fulltime career of farming, both Kurtis and Wendy maintain off-farm careers.
Wendy served as editor of one of the state’s largest agriculture newspapers, the Tri-State Neighbor, resigning in 2012 to spend more time with their young children, Karin, 10, and Bode, 6. Today, she is self-employed as a photographer and freelance journalist and serves as the assistant editor of The Cattle Business Weekly.
Kurtis works fulltime as an assistant procurement manager in charge of animal handling for Smithfield (formerly John Morrell).
Juggling farming and a full-time career means Kurtis’ days begin around 4 a.m. and during harvest and calving can run until 10 p.m. or midnight.
Obviously, it would have been easier for Kurtis to work full-time on the farm, but that isn’t the reality for him or his brother, Mike, 30, who also puts in 12-18 hour days farming and working full-time as a combine mechanic for Sioux International.
The men cite the cost of land and its scarcity as the largest challenge to farming full-time. However, neither has let this obstacle stand in the way of their passion for farming.
“We look for opportunities where they present themselves,” Kurtis explained. “We aren’t afraid to pasture our cattle 30 miles from home if that’s where the opportunity is.”
The brothers rent some crop acres, but they have focused most of their expansion dollars on increasing their cow/calf herd by leasing pastureland, which is most often not desirable for farming, therefore rent is much less. “We rent land from Worthing to south of Canton and south of Centerville. We have 10 head here and 20 head there - renting small 20-acre or so pieces of land, it’s a lot to manage, but at the same rate, it allows us to have the cow herd we have,” Kurtis explains.
“Times are different,” Mike added. “In today’s world you have to do this to have the land you need. You are not going to have land available right around your home - you have to expand out. There are farmers who drive farther than us.”
Although the brothers and their dad share crop ground, pasture, labor and equipment, they keep their farm finances separate, splitting costs for rent and inputs, like seed, fertilizer and fuel.
When it comes to marketing, the Sweeters market their corn and soybeans to local grain cooperatives or ethanol plants. They sell their cattle at the Sioux Falls Regional Livestock auction market in Worthing, which is within sight of their house.
“You can’t beat the freight rate,” joked Mike.
Mike and Kurtis both live within a few miles of their childhood home where Ken and their mom, Marlene, who works as Lincoln County auditor, continue to live. Mike and his wife, Jennifer, have two young children, Kade, 4, and Aubree, 2. Jennifer works as a nurse at Sanford.
Although work keeps the families busy, they make time to get involved. “I’m terrible at saying ‘no,’” said Wendy, who has volunteered her time and served on numerous boards and committees helping agricultural organizations across the state. “If there is something I think I can fix or make better, I want to try. If there is an organization I think I can help, then I do.”
She credits her parents, Gilbert and Rosemary Mohrhauser, with instilling this mindset.
“We were always involved in church and 4-H - growing up on the farm, the things we kids looked forward to most each summer were the bookmobile, swimming lessons and getting ready for the Sioux Empire Fair,” Wendy said.
Wendy has helped with the Sioux Empire Farm Show in one capacity or another since 2000 when, as a freshman in college, she was asked to help with the youth livestock judging contest. Wendy served on the Chamber Ag Committee for 11 years and was the 2011-2012 chair.
“The Sioux Empire Farm Show is so important to our community. It showcases agriculture while bringing together people from all over the state and region to show and sell livestock,” Wendy said.
Together, the couple is also involved in their church and volunteer their time to help put on 4-H and FFA livestock and meat judging contest.