Seven generations and still adding on

GOODHUE, Minnesota — Max Schafer was all smiles July 29. His son, Louis John Schafer, was born the day before to him and his spouse, Hollie Fehrman, marking the eighth generation of Schafers on this farm.

The farm was established in 1886 and now comprises 850 acres that sustain a 2,200-sow hog operation and a cow-calf herd of 350 Gelbvieh and Balancer breeds. Balancer is a registered cross of Gelbvieh and Angus.

Three of the now eight generations of Schafers work on the farm. They include fifth-generation Lowell and Pat Schafer, sixth generation Brandon and Monica Schafer, and Brian and Heather Schafer, and seventh generation Max Schafer, Maddie Hokanson, and Kenny, Ethan, Anika and Alexa Schafer.

Lowell says the various labels applied to large farming operations, such as factory farm, sustainable farm and the like, can distract from its true type.

“We are a family farm,” he says. “It frustrates the heck out of me, being a family farmer having all those labels attached to us, a lot of times without accurate definitions as such.”

Keeping the farm in the family over 133 years is no mean feat and Lowell says that’s because those reaching retirement focus on the future.

“It’s driven a lot by the retiring generation. Our motto has always been, as in retirement, you live off the farm, you don’t live up the farm. In other words… each retiring generation has been allowed to grow and make room for the next one. That’s kind of our philosophy.”

The farm, which operates on eight different sites, is located in Goodhue County southeast of Minneapolis, about 16 kilometres from the Mississippi River. It is in rolling terrain not suitable for row cropping. Schafer Farms grows corn, alfalfa and cover crops, all used for livestock fooder, and buys all its feed grain from elsewhere.

Schafer Farms has a 2,200-sow hog operation on two separate sites near Goodhue, Minnesota. | Barb Glen photo

The sow herd is housed at two different sites and produces about 60,000 pigs per year. Most of the gilts are sold as breeding stock and barrows are sold into the meat market.

The hog side of the operation has had the misfortune to deal with porcine epidemic diarrhea, a deadly disease for young piglets.

“It was awful but I would say that we were able to really limit it because it happened in our smaller sow farm and we batch farrow down there,” said Monica Schafer. “That really worked in our favour.”

On the cattle side, breeding stock is also the main focus. About 450 females are bred each year and sold to interested buyers. The farm also has a bull sale every February.

The family’s cattle herd consists of registered Gelbvieh and Balancer beef cows. On a hot day in July, the cows were wisely keeping close to shade in their pasture. | Barb Glen photo

Maddie Schafer said replacement heifers and bulls of the Balancer breed are in demand because they balance the maternal instincts of the Gelbvieh breed with the strong carcass characteristics of Angus.

The farm corporation owns eight homes and has about 15 employees in addition to the working family members.

It’s unusual for family farms to have two key livestock streams, in this case both hogs and cattle, but the Schafers find them complementary in terms of manure use on land to grow feed, and use of grass and grazing on land unsuitable for other uses.

A good portion of the land is taken up with buildings and Lowell said there is little desire to acquire more land to expand cropping.

“I don’t mean this negative to the crop industry… but as long as there’s people willing to raise me feed at or near the cost of production, I’m willing to let them.”

The Schafers have developed both a mission statement and a motto for their farm.

The latter: “Proud of our past, focused on the future.”

The mission statement centres on value adding and quality of life.

“Basically our values really fall under faith, family and farming, and in that order, at least in my mind,” says Maddie.

“We want to make sure that it’s not just about making money. Yes, our farm has to be profitable but our farm is about making a living so that we can make a life doing it.”

Asked about the farming effects of the current trade war between the United States and China, Lowell said it has been difficult. The compensation provided by the Donald Trump administration has eased some of the challenge.

“That first infusion … it was really important. It’s reassuring to know that our politicians do realize that they inflicted real pain on us. At least they got that much. Would we rather react to markets than politics? Absolutely.”

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