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Sometimes You Can Go Home

Agriculture students learn to assess the realities of returning to the family farm.

Sometimes when Garrett Riekhof is alone in the fields, he hears voices. One has the distinct drawl of his grandpa, the late Rienhardt Riekhof, who farmed the same acres that Garrett now tills and sows. This plainspoken voice upholds the way things were done for four generations on the Higginsville, Mo., farm. The other voice sounds like Garrett’s, a 2003 University of Missouri graduate with a degree in agricultural economics, interested in maximizing land efficiency through the latest technology.

A young Garrett with his grandfather Reinhardt Riekhof.

Grandpa Riekhof trudged through dirt steering a 12-inch plow pulled by two horses. Garrett sits in a tilling tractor’s climate-controlled cab, fitted with a laptop computer and a GPS, streaking the rolling land with a 40-foot-wide plow. Grandpa shoveled horse manure onto patches of stunted crops. Garrett takes soil samples to test chemical composition, then applies fertilizer treatments to optimize land productivity.

Garrett, who returned to the family farm after graduation, cannot escape his lineage. It is in the garage, where a broken 1958 tractor bought brand new by Grandpa gathers dust. It is in his Cape Cod-style two-story, built to mirror his grandparents’ and perched on the same foundation. But mostly it’s in the land. “I hear Grandpa saying do it like this, and me saying do it like that,” Garrett, 32, says in a mild Midwest twang. “If I screw it up, I let down not only the generations that came before me. I’ve screwed it up for the generations after me.”

These days, starting a farm from scratch is nearly impossible financially for a person of average means. A successful crop farm stretches more than 750 acres, and 2012 market value for good Missouri cropland was $3,847 an acre, which computes to nearly $3 million. Farm equipment easily tops seven figures. Some new farmers rent their fields, machines and equipment, but that also is an expensive undertaking.

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