MANHATTAN, Ill. — John and Sherri Kiefner’s farm in rural Manhattan is not hard to find. It’s typical of farms in Will County, where a rapidly growing population and expansion out from Joliet and the Chicago suburbs has made Will County one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

But the Kiefner farm is identified by the mid-sized red barn structure that sits in back of the house. That is one of John Kiefner’s other projects, once he decided to scale back the corn farming.

“For the first 20 years of my life, I farmed to make money, so now I’m trying to get back to doing it for the fun of it,” he said.

What’s not as obvious is one of his more recent passions that live in wooden, boxlike structures that could be beehives. That’s exactly what they are.

“I am theoretically a third-generation Kiefner beekeeper,” Kiefner says.

In Father’s Footsteps

He inherited two beehives when his father passed in 2009. After some education on beekeeping, Kiefner has nine hives of bees.

He’s also an active and outspoken member of the Illinois Corn Growers Association and Illinois Farm Bureau.

Whether it’s growing corn or keeping bees, Kiefner trusts the science.

“I trust science and researchers in everything I do farming. They tell me what to do to control bugs, what nitrogen rates to use to get a good corn crop. I always go back to the science. I find that a lot of hobby beekeepers work more on emotion,” he said.

Kiefner also has found that some fellow beekeepers are quick to put the blame on his industry, row crop farming and production agriculture, for problems with the honeybee populations.

“There are a lot of people who will jump to conclusions and point fingers as to what’s causing the colony collapse disorder,” he said.

As he’s immersed himself, safely ensconced in hat, veil, gloves and information, in the world of hobby beekeeping, Kiefner has learned that bees can be finicky.

“Nobody owns bees. You work with bees. Anytime they decide they are in a bad location or the hive is in danger, they can leave,” he said.

He’s also learned to look at what most farmers and lawnkeepers consider weeds — and to even look at trees differently.

“Dandelions are important because, in the early spring, it’s the only source of flowers besides flowering trees,” he said. “I never noticed trees in my life. I’m a farmer, but I never paid attention to trees. Around Manhattan, when the blooms are on the trees, the flowering crabapples when they’re pollinating, you can walk under one and it sounds like a buzz saw with the bees.”

The Kiefners also have a flock of hens. Roost 66 is the home of happy hens. It’s a real question of which came first, the hens or the roost.

“I love to work, I’m a fool for work and Sherri talked about getting chickens. I remembered that we’d had a chicken house on our farm, but we never had chickens and I wanted to redesign one,” Kiefner said.

The flock is up to about five dozen hens, all with names that include Henrietta, Sweet Gypsy Rose, Chicken Nugget and Jellybean.

Ag Education

Kiefner said one of the challenges of rural beekeeping in a fast-growing county such as Will County is awareness of agricultural practices in the area. He educates people on the state’s DriftWatch website, and even when his alfalfa crop needed spraying, he was careful to work around his bees’ schedule.

“I made sure I sprayed before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m., so it would have a chance to dry before the bees were out or after they were in the hive,” he said. “Being involved with bees made me more conscious of the stuff with bees, but I’ve always been about saving soil and not spraying when it’s windy.”

The Kiefners also open their farm to guests. Last fall, they hosted an open house, where guests could visit, meet the Roost 66 hens and tour the farm and learn about farming and beekeeping.

“We’ve been very involved in Ag In The Classroom and ag education,” Kiefner said.

Their farm is indicative of the movement of agriculture in Will County. The collar county that borders Cook County on that county’s southern and western sides has seen an explosion of business and industry in recent years.

Will County has seen population growth, as well. The 2010 U.S. Census showed a population of 677,560, making it one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

Farms in the county, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service statistics, average on the smaller side. The 2007 Census of Agriculture numbers showed 482 farms of one to 49 acres, 265 farms of 50 to 499 acres and 130 farms of 500 or more acres in the county. The 2007 Census of Ag showed 220,851 acres in Will County in farms.

Will County has a size of 836.91 square miles. The county seat is Joliet, and other Will County towns include Peotone, Wilmington, Channahon, Crete, Frankfort, Mokena and Monee.

The county is the home of Centerpoint Intermodal Center, located near Joliet, North America’s largest inland port, set on some 6,000 acres.