Changing technology, unpredictable weather challenges family farm

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CRESCENT, Ia. — Almost every day from the time he was a small boy, Kenny Schnack is up early and at work on a farm.

As a child on the land that his family had owned for generations, he milked cows and delivered their babies. In the three-story farmhouse he helped with household chores; hand washing dishes, doing laundry and tidying up his room. He learned to drive tractors before he learned to drive cars and he learned everything he needed to know to run the farm himself one day.

Eventually, the farmhouse and the land became his and his three children grew up on the farm as well. The cows were gone but they also learned to drive tractors and did the household chores, with the help of a dishwasher. They explored the large 100-year-old house with joy, crawling through the laundry chute and bouncing around the attic-like rooms on the third floor.

Then, the opportunity came for Schnack to have his own house and his own land, built from his own hands. He and his family moved from Gretna, Neb. to Crescent, Iowa. They had 500 hundred acres of untouched land to do with what they liked.

Schnack put up a workshop with a temporary apartment inside and got to work farming corn and soybeans while building his family’s dream home. Schnack is one of 2.4 million farmers who live on their land.


Top left, the Schnack’s refrigerator features family photos as well as a photo of their house during the flood of 2011. Top right, the house that Schnack built for his family. Bottom, a picture from the back deck of the Schnack’s house overlooking the land and the pond.

Schnack faced many challenges on his new farm.

About ten years ago, at about the time he was moving onto his new farm, the costs soared with the introduction of genetically modified seeds. Between 2007 and 2012, the cost of seeds went up 66 percent and in 2012 it was one of the top 10 agricultural expenses with $19.5 billion spent in the U.S.

GMO seeds result in higher yields from crops, but according to Schnack, the higher yields don’t completely track with the increase in prices and the value of crops have also gone down.

Then, soon after moving out of the small apartment located in the shop and into the dream home they designed and built for themselves, the flood from the Missouri levee break of 2011 happened. They had to live with friends and in extended stay hotels for the summer, they weren’t able to harvest and they lost everything from the first floor of their house as well as a grain silo and the walls of the shop were ruined.

The water reached 4 feet 9 inches and the discoloration from the water can still be seen on the walls of the abandoned apartment.

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Schnack working in his shop. Behind Schnack part of the abandoned apartment can be seen as well as the number 57, indicating the water level during the flood of 2011.

Another challenge for Schnack is keeping the machinery running.

“My theory on farming is we buy used machinery and repair it instead of buying new so we can keep our overhead down to hopefully squeak out a dollar or two living at the end of the day,” he said. “We do almost more work in the shop than we do in the field here on our farm.”

The most expensive machinery on the farm is the combine.

“This is the heart of our harvesting,” Schnack said of the combine.

Schnack estimates that they have $300,000-400,000 worth of machinery.

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Left, Schnack with his most valuable equipment, the combine. Right, Schnack with his tractor used for spraying. “With no-till it’s really important to spray early and spray often,” he said.

Farming has also gotten better in the last 10 years.

The practice of no-till farming has increased which has helped farms be more productive.

In conventional tillage, the earth is turned up to a foot deep with a plow. It was believed that the loosened soil would allow oxygen and water to reach the roots, allowing them to spread easily. In reality, this was causing more compaction.

There are now 96.5 million no-till acres in the U.S. That’s more than the entire land area of Nebraska and Missouri combined.

Audio of Schnack talking about his tilling practices.

Renewable energy is also now an important part of farming. 57,299 farms have renewable energy producing systems in the U.S., which is up 144% since 2007. California, Texas and Illinois have the most renewable energy producing farms. Nebraska has 500 to one thousand and Iowa has two to three thousand renewable energy producing farms.

Schnack uses both biodiesel and ethanol.

Top 5 on-farm renewable energy producing systems

final renew chart

Schnack uses biodiesel and ethanol on his farm.

A very good development for Schnack is the increase in corn and soybean popularity. They are both a part of the top five commodities in agriculture. Corn sales were valued at $67.3 billion and soybean sales were valued at $38.7 billion in the U.S. in 2012.

In 2012, 163.5 million acres of corn and soybeans were harvested and for the first time accounted for more than 50 percent of all cropland harvested.

Top 5 commodities by value of sales

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Schnack farms corn and soybeans.

On the far end of Schnack’s land sits an abandoned irrigation system brought over from the old farm in Gretna, Neb. It sits unused alongside equipment that is in disrepair on their new land, which is in a flood zone.

6% of the farmland in the U.S. is irrigated

final irrigated graph

Irrigated land is supplied with water at regular intervals in places with inadequate rainfall such as California. Rain-fed farming is much more common.

Audio of Schnack talking about his irrigation practices.

Schnack is one of 3.2 million hard-working farmers in the U.S. celebrating the relief of new technology and better practices and dealing with the trials of unpredictable weather and rising costs.

“It makes it harder and harder to make a living,” he said.

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