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Friday, 05 May 2017 12:16

Embracing agriculture at the age of 23

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Emily Johnson still lives on the family farm and has found a career in agriculture Emily Johnson still lives on the family farm and has found a career in agriculture Terry Mayer/staff

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- Emily Johnson couldn’t bear to hear her dad had decided to sell the Farmall 300. The tractor had been bought by her great-grandfather, who started a farm near Orfordville in 1936. It was sold to her grandpa and later her dad, who both had ridden it through those same farm fields.

So she bought it. 

“We may not use it anymore. It may just sit in the shed, but it’s a family tractor and it’s still a sentimental thing,” Johnson said. “Along with the actual farm itself, I want to keep some of that rich tradition alive. I’m a fourth generation on the farm. I like that part of it.”

Johnson, 23, is a crop insurance agent at Union Bank & Trust, splitting her time between its Janesville and Evansville branches.

While many of her generation no longer are going into farming, Johnson sees a bright future in agriculture.

She’s active in day-to-day operations on that family farm where she still lives and where her parents now tend 140 head of dairy steers and raise crops on just under 200 acres.

Johnson’s memories of helping on the farm stretch back to holding woven wire with her two brothers while her parents were building a fence.

“By the time they had gotten down to start tacking it down the line, the wire had fallen on all three of us kids,” she said, laughing. 

Although she wasn’t involved in 4-H or FFA in high school because she was busy working part time at a Janesville grocery, Johnson knew she wanted a career in agriculture.

Her parents encouraged her to go to college, but avoid debt. So she eschewed the three Wisconsin universities that offered ag business degrees -- in Madison, Platteville and River Falls -- as either too expensive or too far from home. Instead, she commuted from home to the University of Wisconsin-Rock County for an associate degree and then to UW-Whitewater for a bachelor of business administration degree in finance and real estate.

She’s been at UB&T since 2014, interning for a year before being hired as an associate. In Evansville, where the bank is currently remodeling during an expansion, her office walls are blank, but a bucolic print of a barn and cows at pasture is tilted against her credenza, waiting to be hung.  

Every day Johnson gets up at 5 a.m. to bottle-feed the calves -- currently numbering 23 -- before heading off to the bank.

After work, she heads home for more farm chores or meetings at the Rock County Farm Bureau, where she’s the executive director. She’s also a member of the Ag Business Council of Rock County and co-chair at Young Farmers and Agriculturalists.

“I love the YFA because it’s a way to get young farmers together,” she said. “It’s very social because when you’re on the farm, the last thing you want to do after you’ve finished unloading hay is go to a meeting. So we do a harvest celebration pub crawl. We do a wine tour and tasting at North Leaf Winery in Milton because that’s just as much agriculture as corn, beans and cows.”

Johnson said the group also plans to network with high school and college students in the area to let them know the diversity of careers in agriculture, from manufacturing to journalism and finance.

She hopes many of them go into farming, but she knows how challenging the field is today.

“I talk to so many farmers and we’re all so optimistic in the sense of we know we want to farm and we’re going to find a way to make it happen, but when inputs are high, prices are low, markets are disappearing, it makes you nervous,” she said.

So do trade issues.

“Look at where the milk industry is right now in Canada,” she said, referring to dozens of Wisconsin dairy farmers who lost their regular milk buyer last month because of a Canadian trade dispute. “Even though I’m not a dairy farmer, the thought that in a blink of an eye, (the government) can change a trade regulation, and 75 farmers don’t have a market for their milk terrifies me.”

While Johnson’s mom works full time on the farm, her dad is an electrical engineer for Warner Electric in South Beloit. Johnson said many farmers her age either have jobs off the farm or are diversifying to find supplemental income.

“I like conventional farming, but if I ever farmed on my own, I think I would be small enough that I’d have to specialize -- be grass fed or organic -- to make it,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have that specialty, and you’re not big and you don’t have that cash flow, it’s hard to get started.”

She’s seen farmers cutting back whenever they can, but generally not on crop insurance.

“People want to make sure they’re protected,” she said. “You have crop insurance not because you want a loss but because, God forbid, if you do have a loss, you’re covered.”

Johnson knows the 2018 farm bill could change things.

“If they decide to cut crop insurance subsidies out of it, crop insurance won’t be affordable to customers anymore and crop insurance won’t exist,” she said.

When she met U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson during a trip to Washington, D.C., he told her he wanted to see private subsidies for crop insurance.

“I said, ‘That’s great, and I agree with you, but until we can find a way to make privately subsidized crop insurance affordable for our farmers, we’ve got to have crop insurance in the farm bill, so please keep it in there.’

“Think about what most farmers invest in a year in their land and what the average person in America spends in their lifetime on a house. That’s huge. And if farmers don’t have anything to protect that, imagine the losses that people would pay. There would be more than bankruptcies, there would be the loss of a whole economic sector, I think. If you look at the farm bill as a whole, crop insurance is a sliver in there.”

Johnson said consumers are getting more interested in nutrition and farming practices but need more answers.

“I wish more people would go to the farmer and ask, ‘Where does my food come from?’ So many people in my generation are driven by healthy choices and they follow social media. I find that they don’t always have accurate information (on how food is grown),” she said.

She’s optimistic for the future.

“I think you have to surround yourself with the right people -- supportive parents, a supportive banker, a good vet -- like your farm’s board of directors per se. You have to surround yourself with people of knowledge who are going to walk you through the hard times and maybe tell you, ‘You should really think about that before you do it.’ I think that’s incredibly important, and if people my age do that, they will be just fine.”

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