MILLVILLE — By 5:30 a.m., Sophie Stelling is out of bed, taking care of chores on her family’s farm before getting ready for school.
Well, unless her dad needs her out of bed before then.
It’s all part of the learning, all part of her project to make a little money. And it’s all part of her future.
In ninth grade, she helped her dad raise some steers in an old barn on the family farm. For her efforts, her dad gave her one of the steers, which she sold, plowing the money back into a new batch of steer calves.
“I raise them to about 500-600 pounds,” Sophie said, a junior at Plainview-Elgin-Millville High School. “Then I sell them for a profit and buy more.”
It’s a financial and agricultural process that is the basis of how farms are run, said her father, Brent Stelling. And it comes with costs and risks.
Right now, Sophie is raising a dozen steers from the time they are newborns to the point when they weigh about a quarter-ton. She pays for the milk replacement — these calves don’t have their mothers with them anymore — buys grain from a local elevator, and tracks all the costs on a website for her business which doubles as an FFA project.
“This is about learning,” said Brent Stelling, “not just making money. It’s important to understand you can make $1,500 or you can make zero dollars.”
It’s a hard lesson, but her dad said Sophie watches her input costs, and she watches the cattle market numbers to find the right time to sell.
These lessons are ones Sophie said she’ll need to understand for that day when she takes over the family dairy and calf operation. Stelling Farms has been in the family since 1919, and Sophie would represent the fifth generation of Stellings to run the farm at some date down the road.
The Stellings milk 300 cows, have another 320 heifer replacements they are raising, and 300 steers they raise for beef. That doesn’t include Sophie’s side project of another dozen steers.
She’s up early every morning taking care to feed the steers in her side business, then feeds them again each afternoon.
In addition, she does chores several days a week, which helps the Stellings rotate time off for their five employees. In addition to feeding calves, her father added, she helps with milking, field work and just about any other job that needs to be done on the farm.
All that experience will get a boost after high school. Sophie said she plans to study dairy science at a four-year university then come back to help keep the farm running.
Brent Stelling said that knowing Sophie wants to return and someday take over the farm makes it easy for him to continue to invest in the business, maintaining its efficiency and keeping it modern in both equipment and practices.
“If nobody’s coming back, you have to draw the line on investing and growing the business,” he said.
As for why Sophie, a bright, hard-working young woman who could do just about anything, is determined to take over the family business, it’s all about lifestyle and a family legacy.
Small-town life and rural living are big reasons she’s looking at out-of-state universities in smaller towns for her college experience, she said.
“I like the country a lot, and being away from the big city,” Sophie said. “I’ve seen other dairies that have needed to sell their cows and close down, and I don’t want that to happen here. This is my home. I grew up here.”
You don’t need to look far to see a crisis coming to agriculture in America.
According to the Census of Agriculture, a twice-a-decade survey of farmers across the country, the number of older farmers is growing every year, and the number of young farmers to replace them is not keeping pace.
From 2002 to 2017 — the last Census of Agriculture numbers released — the average age of a farmer in Minnesota has risen from 52.9 years to 56.5 years. That reflects a nationwide trend in which the average age moved up to 57.5 years in 2017 from 55.3 years in 2002.
From 2007 to 2017, the percentage of Minnesota farmers age 55 or older has jumped from 45.5% to 60.0%.
It is a trend that Juleah Tolosky, executive director of Minnesota Future Farmers of America, fights every day.
“FFA’s purpose is to develop young people into passionate, prepared young people for whatever their careers are,” Tolosky said. “But we do it all through the lens of agriculture, agribusiness and natural resources.”
Essentially an extracurricular activity at most schools on the same level as sports, drama club, robotics or the speech team, FFA, Tolosky said, more than any other activity trains teens for a job they will actually do when they become adults.
“Future is our first name,” Tolosky said. “And what does that future look like? We’re preparing them to be ag leaders.”
Kaitlin Meiergerd loves agriculture, but she has no plans to become a farmer when she grows up.
“I’m thinking about occupational therapy,” Meiergerd said. “But I plan to always advocate for agriculture through FFA and through other places. “
A junior at Hayfield Community Schools, Meiergerd will serve as the Region VIII FFA President next year, meaning she is the student leader for FFA across southeastern Minnesota.
While she has not grown up on a farm like many of her Hayfield classmates, she is connected to agriculture.
She lived on a farm early in her life before her parents moved from West Point, Nebraska, to Austin, where she now lives. In the summers she often returns to Nebraska to work on the family farm – “My grandparents still have the farm,” she said – with her cousins.
But she’s not working on any animal agriculture projects. Instead, she focuses more on environmental and resource issues.
Meiergerd works part time at the Hormel Nature Center, and she’s helping out with a freshwater project to reintroduce mussels to waterways in Southeast Minnesota.
The project, she said, helps clean E. coli bacteria from the water, and release beneficial nutrients. All this, she said, helps farmers as well as the environment.
Not every teen in FFA comes from a farming background, Tolosky said.
That’s certainly true of Jack Crowson, the agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Hayfield.
While he grew up on 10 acres near Concord in Dodge County, Crowson said both of his parents worked in Rochester, although his grandparents farmed as did other members of his extended family.
But as a teen, he joined FFA and, like Meiergerd, helped out on the extended family’s farm in the summer.
“But I wanted to be involved in agriculture, and I wanted to find a girl who wanted to do the same,” he said.
In college he met the woman who’d become his wife. Both are agriculture teachers — his wife teaches and advises FFA at Triton Public Schools. They are also active farmers, renting land north of Mantorville where they raise beef cattle.
Not coming from an agriculture family, not having that family farm that can be taken over, Crowson said it’s hard to start farming from scratch.
“Nowadays, to start a crop farm you have to be born into it,” he said. “The cost of land is just too much. To plant, you need to bring your plan to ag lenders.”
And Crowson said he’s well aware of the changes that are taking place on farms across the country, making it vital to get more kids interested in farming.
“More and more, you’ll have one spouse who works on the farm full-time, and another spouse who works off the farm,” he said.
Among the nearly 140 kids he teaches in his agriculture classes in Hayfield, Crowson said most have some connection to farming, either growing up on a farm, having grandparents or extended family who farm, or having someone who works in an agribusiness such as farm banking or selling seed.
On a February night, more than 20 students attended the school’s monthly FFA meeting to do everything from sign up for duties at upcoming fundraisers to vote on costume themes for FFA Week at the school.
Crowson also went over the results from recent FFA competitions, giving encouragement to his students for their hard work.
Tolosky said that after a down year in FFA participation in the school year ending in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has had an increase in numbers in the 2021 and 2022 school years.
Part of that, she said, is a grant that has removed the financial barriers for participation. She’d like to see the state make permanent a program to pay for kids who need financial aid to join FFA.
“Anything we can do to reduce the financial burden on students to be involved, we should do it,” Tolosky said. “Some kids can’t afford $20, but they won’t tell you that. And if they can’t afford $20 to join, they can’t afford $50 for an overnight conference.”
Meiergerd, for one, thinks the effort to get more students involved is worth it.
While she lives in Austin, she transferred this school year to Hayfield in part so she could be around more students who care about farming. And while her career plans might be outside the realm of agricultural production, Meiergerd said she plans to be a lifelong advocate for agriculture.
And FFA, she said, is helping shape her love of and advocacy for it.
“I’m going to be surrounded by agriculture my whole life,” she said. “I’m just getting back to my roots and where I started.”