Mike Meusel checks his inaugural field of soybeans next to the farm where he grew up and now operates. Meusel is among a crop of young farmers in Lee County who have returned to their farming roots and are keeping the agricultural traditions and the rural communities in the county alive and thriving.
Mike Meusel checks his inaugural field of soybeans next to the farm where he grew up and now operates. Meusel is among a crop of young farmers in Lee County who have returned to their farming roots and are keeping the agricultural traditions and the rural communities in the county alive and thriving.
AMBOY, Ill. — As active members in the Lee County Farm Bureau, Mike Meusel, Aaron Wolf and Jeremy Wolf know the statistics. The U.S. farmer population is aging.

That includes the Lee County farmer population. In the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the average age of principal farm operators in Lee County was 56.5.

But the three young farmers are part of a new crop of agriculturalists who are keeping their family farming traditions alive in Lee County while keeping the farms themselves productive with the newest farming methods and technology.

“We will not fail — that is not an option,” said Jeremy Wolf, president of the Lee County Farm Bureau Young Leaders Committee.

Wolf and his brother, Aaron, are the fourth generation to return to the family farm started by their great-grandfather, George Wolf, and now run by their father, Loren, and themselves.

“When we came back to the farm, the farming community and economy was the best it’s ever been. It was at a high. Everyone said it’s going to turn around and that doesn’t concern me. I think it will create more challenges. It was easy, and it’s going to be more difficult,” Aaron Wolf said.

Feast Or Famine

Mike Meusel, who farms near Amboy, keeps in mind the phrase he learned from an older farmer.

“He told me ‘the good times are never good enough and the bad times are never as bad as you thought,’” Meusel said.

The USDA numbers on a flat piece of paper tell a story about Lee County farmers, but it’s not quite the whole story. This is a county that has a large number of young family farmers returning to the land after attending college.

They’re raising crops and livestock and families here, getting active in the local communities and groups such as 4-H and Farm Bureau.

This is the land where the prairie soil was so thick and rich that it clung to the plows that first broke through the prairie sod here. Farmers had to stop every row and scrape the black soil from their plows.

A Vermont-born blacksmith saw how hard they labored in trying to open the soil to plant a crop that he came up with a solution, made from a broken saw blade.

In 1837, John Deere invented the self-scouring steel plow in his blacksmith shop in Grand Detour, just miles from the Meusel and Wolf farms.

“It was always my plan. I think I always knew I would eventually be back on the farm, that I wasn’t going to get far away,” Meusel said, seated in the farm shop just a walk away from the house where he and his father grew up.

Meusel’s grandfather bought the farm just outside of Amboy in 1946 and moved his family there in 1947. The farm was diversified, growing crops and livestock and was among the plethora of dairy farms that once dotted the county landscape.

“Dad farmed and worked a full-time job. They milked cows, and he decided to get rid of the dairy cows. He got a job in town and then farmed what they owned,” Meusel said.

George and Yolanne Meusel still live in the farmhouse where George grew up. Mike and his wife, Jessica, live in a remodeled farmhouse less than a mile down the road.

After a stint at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and working at an off-farm job full time for a few years, Mike took over the reins of the farm in 2004. His father remains in charge of hay sales, and Mike’s sister, Molly, who runs two Dairy Delite ice cream shops, in Amboy and Dixon, does bookkeeping and helps out with the hay operation.

“I would not say Dad’s retired. He’s still involved in it. He’s moving dirt right now on another farm,” Mike said.

Coming Home

For the Wolfs, returning to the family farm also was always part of the plan. Both brothers are Western Illinois University ag program alumni. The Wolf farm grows corn now and Aaron has a feeder cattle operation.

“We all farm together,” Jeremy said of the farm that he, Aaron and their dad operate.

Jeremy said while he was focused on sports in high school, going away to college and majoring in ag business, to complement Aaron’s ag science degree, helped him realize he wanted to return to the farm.

“When I went away to school and was away from it five days a week, I realized that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

His sons know that it’s a point of pride for Loren Wolf to have his sons back on the farm.

“It was his pride and joy to know that all of us would be working together,” Aaron said.

Family is wound up in their farming lives, for Meusel and the Wolfs.

“I’m nervous. It’s exciting. It’s going to be a change. Your life becomes about them instead of just about you,” Meusel said.

He and Jessica are newlyweds, and she teaches school in nearby Dixon. They married on Dec. 21, 2013. In October, their first child is due, and they know the baby is a boy.

Aaron Wolf knows about being a father. He and wife Jillian are parents to daughter Addison, almost 8 months old.

Jeremy is engaged to be married in December to fiancee Mallory Whelchel.

All three say it was important that their future wives understood what they were getting into by marrying a farmer.

“We met at Western and she liked the rain so I thought well, that’s a start,” Aaron said of his and Jillian’s relationship. “We dated for six years before we got married. I wanted to make sure she was ready for this lifestyle.”

Meusel admits that while he and Jessica had been friends before they started dating, the first year of dating was an adjustment.

“She didn’t really know what I did because every time she called me, I answered the phone or if she wanted to do something, I could do it. She didn’t realize that if I did something on a Tuesday away from the farm, I might be working Saturday and Sunday or late the next few days to make up for not working Tuesday,” Meusel said.

They dated for two years.

“I told her every day that we dated, I told her the day we got married — you can still get out of this. I am telling you I am not going to change, this is what I do. She said, no, I love you, and I’m in it for the long haul,” Meusel said.

Jeremy and Mallory, his fiancee, have dated since high school. It’s important for him that Mallory understands what being married to a farmer will mean, for him and for herself.

“As soon as we both got through school, we moved in together. Now she sees that when I’m home, I’m not just home. I’m still thinking about it. That’s a big adjustment, to know it’s not a 9-to-5 job and that when you go home, you’re still thinking about it,” Jeremy said.

A Farmer’s Life

When they do go home at the end of the day, Meusel and the Wolfs have plenty to think about.

Meusel raises corn, soybeans, wheat for straw and alfalfa hay. He has a 25-head cow-calf herd and sells the calves for feeders. He’s also active on the Lee County Farm Bureau board.

He said one of the advantages for Lee County farmers, particularly livestock producers, is a diverse geography that still includes pasture.

“Our county is fairly diverse. You get to that southwest corner and there’s a little more livestock and pasture and you get up to the northwest corner and you have some pasture, too. You get out this way and you tend to lose pasture,” Meusel said.

The Wolfs raise corn, and Aaron has a feeder cattle operation that he wants to expand. But the brothers and their father also have a number of other businesses.

“These are a lot of things that Dad kind of started when we were growing up and we enhanced,” Jeremy said.

They do custom tractor restoration and painting — their own equipment is painted red and black — and custom spraying. They also do soil testing and grid mapping with the IFARM program through United Soils.

All three understand and appreciate the fact that what they get to do every day in the farmland of Lee County is something that many young people can’t.

“Unless you are in a family or work for a family that owns and farms quite a bit of ground, trying to find ground is challenging. It’s as competitive here as it is anywhere,” Meusel said.

“It’s getting harder and harder to get into agriculture. You can’t just start farming; it’s very hard to do that. We’ve been blessed with a good place to work,” Jeremy said.