When Watertown-Mayer High School agricultural instructor Jim Kocherer was hired in 2010, he quickly became aware of an opportunity for the local FFA chapter to manage a crop plot.
At that time, though, Kocherer probably never would have envisioned that his FFA chapter would soon be managing two plots at once, as it did this year.
The school district had purchased land south of town in 2006, land that was correctly assumed could not be farmed for profit because it was in bonding status. However, once it was determined that the land could be farmed as long as the proceeds went back to the FFA, plans were quickly put in motion for the FFA to manage a crop plot there both as a fundraiser and as an educational experience.
But while Kocherer and the school district ironed out plans to use that land both as a crop plot and for new soccer fields, the FFA alumni affiliate also began pursing a surprise offer from Ed Foley, of Oak Lake Estates, to use 18 acres of his land east of town for a crop plot managed by the FFA.
In the end, the two discussions resulted in two new crop plots for the Watertown-Mayer FFA chapter in 2013. With them came valuable real life experience for Watertown-Mayer’s ag students, as well as an influx of new revenue. With zero input costs for the FFA — all the seeds, nutrients, and equipment were donated by area companies and families — all the revenue went directly back to the FFA. The result was $15,018 from the corn plot on the school land, which was deposited into the FFA Agronomy account, and another $8,000 was raised from the soybean plot on the Foley land, which was deposited in the FFA Alumni account.
Perhaps more important than the revenue, though, were the educational experiences the students gained from the project. The two crop plots were maintained in large part by the management committee, which included FFA officers Cole Thaemert, Michael Burns, Hayden Swanson and John Brummer-Stumpf. The students all had varying levels of previous farming experience, but all said there were valuable lessons to be learned.
“It was a very good educational experience,” said Thaemert, who had the most farming experience of the four members of the management committee. “All the different varieties (of seeds), what the letters meant on the bags. It was a good experience no matter what.”
Many of the experiences weren’t new for Thaemert, but for some of the others, it was a first-time experience. Brummer-Stumpf, for instance, said the closest his family has ever come to farming was raising 600 chickens, and Swanson said his uncle and grandparents own a farm, but it’s a beef cattle farm. Crops like corn and soybeans were completely new to both.
Even Burns, whose family does farm, said he had some knowledge, but hadn’t been overly involved in farming with his family in the past.
Kocherer said that even for the kids who came from farming families, the experience of being in charge of their own plot offered valuable lessons.
“The whole side of things where they’re making a choice, and trying to determine what’s the right choice, brings a whole new level appreciation even for the farm kids,” Kocherer said. “The game for them is: What is this year going to be like, and what choices can we make? They’re catching the bug of what goes into the entire process from start to finish.”
Kocherer tried to leave the students in charge as much as possible. To kick off the project, in December 2012, each of the FFA officers were in charge of researching local seed companies, contacting a representative and seeking seed donations. Each of the students said they were surprised by how eager the companies were to help out, with at least 10 different companies donating seeds.
“There were a lot of people that were donating three of four different types of varieties for either corn, or soybeans, or both,” Thaemert said.
The management committee was also involved in deciding which crops to plant at which side. In the end, it was really an easy decision, since corn had been planted at the Foley plot the year before, and the school property south of town hadn’t been farmed for years.
“The Foley property was corn the year before, and you usually do a corn/soybean rotation,” Thaemert said, adding that corn also usually works best with virgin ground like on the school property.
By planting opposite crops on each plot, the FFA also managed to set up a seamless crop rotation for subsequent years, so the FFA will be able to plant both corn and soybeans each year. Planting some of each also helped to offset bean versus corn commodity prices for the payoffs.
In late fall of 2012, the fields had been chisel plowed by FFA alumni member Jim Burns, and they were plowed again in the spring with the first nutrient cycle by Thaemert and his dad, Carey, also an FFA alumni member. A group of middle school and high school FFA members also picked rocks with the help of a tractor driving by graduating senior Jacob Borka. After another run of plowing completed by Nelson and Charlie Burns, the plots were finally ready for planting in late spring.
Planting was done the week of May 25 and June 1 by Thaemert Farms, with the assistance of FFA seventh grader Wesley Burns, and the four members of the crop plot management committee. Thaemert and Burns both said the late, wet spring in 2013 caused a few challenges, especially when it came to the corn.
“I think that really did affect some of the yield,” Thaemert said. “We were having 105-day corn that they were donating to us. That was hard to get it to dry down to where we wanted it. Having 105-day corn planted on June 1, that’s really late.”
Burns added that having such a variety of types of corn also caused a few challenges, as well as some unpredictability.
“We were given some really short-day corn and some really long-day corn, and beans anywhere in between,” Burns said. “Having the late spring, the long-day corn had a higher moisture in the end. It was hard to predict where the corn was going to be with the wide variety of days and soils and things like that.”
Eventually, the harvest of the Foley plot brought soybeans in the week of Oct. 23, and corn from the school plot the week of Nov. 4. In all, 3,743 bushels of corn were brought in from the school plot at $4.02 per bushel. That was down from the peak of $8 a bushel for corn when the plot concept was first being discussed. Even when planting was taking place, corn was still above $6 a bushel. Soybeans also dropped from about $13 a bushel at the time of planting to $12 a bushel at harvest time.
Kocherer said the chance for students to see fluctuations in commodity prices, and how much it can affect outputs, was one of the most valuable lessons for the students involved.
Burns said the ability to be involved in every aspect of the crop plot from start to finish was one the most beneficial parts of the experience.
“Mr. Kocherer likes to keep things where the kids are in charge,” Burns said. “He’ll step in when he needs to, but he wanted to make it as much of a learning experience as possible.”
Swanson said watching the plots grow from starting to finish was the most interesting part.
“Comparing the different seed companies and seeing which ones grew better taught me a lot about how certain seeds have particular ways of growing,” Swanson said. “That’s what makes it interesting. I learned people look for different kinds of seed companies because they need different qualities in their corn.”
Three of the four members of the management committee will be back next year, with Thaemert being the only one who will graduate in spring. However, Thaemert said he plans to be heavily involved in the process next year during breaks from school in Willmar.
Right now, the management committee is in a bit of a down period during winter, but Burns said it won’t be long before they kick into high gear, contacting seed companies once again. He said it should be easier the second time around, having contacts already in place and having learned from last year’s timeline.
Thaemert said it would be nice to get the seed a little earlier this year, making things a bit easier when it comes time for planting.
“Last year we were a little slow getting the seed,” Thaemert said. “There was still seed showing up when we were already planting. I’d like to get all the seed over to the Burns’ or here at school on pallets so we can inventory it and get signs made a little earlier.”
The FFA and the FFA alumni are hoping to use much of the proceeds from the crop plots to help build a greenhouse at school to use in the agricultural educational department. That will still be dependent on eventual school board approval, but Kocherer said if all goes well, he hopes preparation for the greenhouse could start in 2015.
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]