Farming — is there a better career?
CUTLINE: Farming is in the Franzen family blood as it is now in the hands of the third and fourth generations. Pictured above are (l-r) LeRoy, JoAnn, Nancy, Dean, Ryan, and Isaac Franzen. LeRoy was born and raised on the farm and was the second generation in the Franzen family to farm the 200 acres. (Becky Walz photo)
Farming — is there a better career?
Nestled in the hills near the border of Winneshiek and Fayette counties, the Franzen family farm reached the Century Farm milestone in 2013, and there is no one prouder than 77-year-old LeRoy Franzen.
Originally purchased by Joe Franzen Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth, in 1913, the approximate 200-acre farm has been passed on to two more generations, LeRoy and JoAnn, and most recently to their son and daughter-in-law Dean and Nancy.
Joe and his bride raised 13 children, LeRoy being the youngest, with five full siblings and eight half siblings. When Katherine, Joe’s first wife, had died of cancer, he was left to care for the eight young children and farm alone.
“Dad remarried, my mom Elizabeth later and the rest of us came along,” said the retired farmer in his Festina living room.
Born April 11, 1936, LeRoy always lived on the farm that lies along the Turkey River until three years ago, when he and wife JoAnn moved to Festina into her childhood home.
With the Saw Mill hill adjacent to the farm, LeRoy recalls sledding with his siblings from the top, down to the farm driveway in the winters, sometimes even by lantern at night, or playing hockey on the frozen Turkey River with all the neighborhood kids.
Growing up without electricity, machinery, and the comforts of today’s life, LeRoy recalled his first milking experience at age 5.
“We milked our 21 cows by hand by the light of a lantern,” LeRoy recalled. “We also had horses, hogs, chickens, geese, and ducks on the farm and raised a large garden to feed the family.”
He also remembers how the family sold eggs, earning as much as $40 for groceries to feed the family of 15.
“Forty dollars doesn’t go too far now days,” noted the father of 14.
At the age of 10, LeRoy remembers when electricity was brought to the farm and is amazed at the changes that have evolved since.
“That same year is when my dad bought the first tractor for the farm,” recalled LeRoy. “When my brother and I came home from school one day, Dad told us that he needed us to do some plowing in the field across the road.”
Thinking that they were going to have to hook up the horses, the boys headed to the field, and there stood a new Ford Ferguson on steel wheels.
One luxury that LeRoy enjoyed in his youth as the youngest in the Franzen clan was being driven to school in St. Lucas until he graduated in 1954.
LeRoy married his wife, JoAnn in 1960, a year after purchasing the farm from his father, and the couple quickly started their large family: Deborah, Kathy, Marilyn, Timothy, Patrick, Keith, Jean, Daniel, Dean, Michael, Scott, Beth, Julie, and Greg.
In order to raise 14 children, JoAnn said the family relied on what they could grow themselves for food — cows, pigs, and chickens, as well as a large garden.
In 1982, the couple made the switch to a pipeline to milk the cows.
“I usually milked the cows with the kids, and it was a big-time saver,” said JoAnn as she sat in her living room. “I grew up on a dairy farm, too, and always enjoyed the cows.”
Amazingly the Franzen family farm also survived through the Depression, BANGS a dairy cow epidemic, hog cholera, the 1908 Farm Crisis, and stray voltage which caused an outbreak of mastitis, calf loss, and production loss.
A new generation
Growing up as the ninth child, Dean noted that the boys usually did the fieldwork, but everyone took turns working with the livestock and even helping with house chores.
“We all helped pull the weeds in the garden and harvest the produce,” noted Dean.
In the children’s free time, he recalls playing in the hills of the farm.
“We had a nice spring to play in on the farm,” he continued. “The carefree country life gave room to a lot of imagination for a growing kid. We also had horses to ride, played in the go-cart, and played with great pet dogs.”
Dean mentioned that in his early years, chicken butchering was a large family affair. “Many of our aunts, uncles, and Grandma Lutkenhaus spent a lot of time through the years canning produce and butchering chickens,”
Dean made the decision to return to the farm after attending Hawkeye Tech (now Hawkeye Community College) because he liked the idea of being his own boss and the variety of work that goes along with farming.
“I keep busy every day with a multitude of jobs,” he added.
As family farms have continued to change, the Franzens have learned that it is necessary for one family member to work off the farm for family health insurance benefits and to ensure a consistent income.
In the 1970s, LeRoy and JoAnn found this necessary in their later years, and they both found jobs off the farm.
Nancy has always worked off the farm as well, first in the banking industry and currently at Farm Bureau Financial Services in West Union.
“The farm offers our boys a lot of teaching moments,” said Nancy. “They learn responsibility and compassion for animals, as well as time management skills when balancing homework, school activities, and farm chores. It’s all about taking a realistic approach to getting where you need to be, where you want to be, and how to get the work done so you can be there.”
“The boys understand the true value of an education and how important it can be for a agriculture career,” said Dean, who took over the farm from LeRoy and JoAnn five years ago.
Dean uses his degree in diesel mechanics on the farm daily and Nancy’s insurance degree from Northeast Iowa Community College has allowed her to help keep the farm books in order and applying her knowledge to the important needs of covering their assets with correct insurance.
Today the farm is definitely more technologically driven with pipeline system, modern tractors and more high tech equipment used in the aid of planting and harvest. Computers play an important role in developing feed rations with Dean’s brother Dan, who is the farms feed agronomist through Viafield and keeping accurate history of milk components from each individual cow when testing milk on a monthly basis with Bev Meade from Ag Source Cooperative-CRI, and Franzens have been able to keep up with the changes in farm equipment technology.
Dairy farming is very labor-intensive, and the Franzen family is like most in northeast Iowa finding it difficult to employ good people.
“We are lucky to have my brother Scott and Nancy’s brother, Nathan, on the farm, along with the support of a couple part time employees and a lot of help from other family members ” explained Dean.
The Franzen’s recognize a career in farming is a seven-day-a-week job and it takes a lot of sacrifice from all employees to be involved. “It’s nice to have the extra help so that we can try to work together to get everyone to some of their kids activities and take the occasional family vacation or time off.”
Having a career is agriculture can be a chore just keeping up with the changes and opportunties. “Farming has made some great advances with GPS in tractors and robotic milkers,” explained Dean. “You always have to be learning changes in trends in the event that your farm may take that direction some day.”
The disappearance of family farms has become a regular occurance in the farming community. Witnessing those changes and Nancy’s career at Farm Bureau Financial Services, she is well aware that farm families need to take an early approach to estate planning in order to secure that the next generation has the opportunity to farm.
“Families need to work together early in establishing the necessary steps to help get the young farmer involved,” explained Nancy of the process of passing the farm on. “There are youth today who would like to farm, but it is often hard for them to get started with rising land prices and land demand.”
When asked if there has ever been a thought about leaving the agriculture industry, Dean laughed and said, “Is there a better career? I enjoy the simpler things in life, like watching a calf be born, teaching our boys responsibility, and the flexibility of working with my family side by side. You can’t get that with any other job!”