CABERY, Ill. — The history of Smolkovich farms has a direct connection with the coal boom about 16 miles north that continued into the early 20th century.
The third-generation family farm is now operated by four Smolkovich brothers — John, Joe, Alan and Marko, sons of John and Diane Smolkovich of Cabery.
“Our grandfather was a Croatian immigrant, arriving in the United States in 1908 at 18 years old. He worked construction in East Chicago and then moved to the South Wilmington area with other Croatian immigrants he knew and was hired as a cook at the coal mines,” John said.
Numerous coal mines operated in Grundy County beginning in the late 1800s and by the early 1900s the county was ranked ninth in the state for its production.
The family patriarch was eventually able to save enough money to purchase 80 acres of farmland in the South Wilmington area.
“The mine company, Peabody, bought the land from him, so he moved just west of Cabery and bought 320 acres,” John said, noting his grandparents eventually had 10 children.
“I remember the tractors he had. One was a John Deere G. He had a Minneapolis-Moline UB, a 60 and a 720 at one time,” Alan said.
The Smolkovich farm now consists of 700 acres of corn and soybeans in Ford and Iroquois counties, and they raise 20-head of Angus.
They’ve been transitioning to more conservation practices.
“We participate in CRP. We have five acres of Pheasants Forever. We’re trying to get more and more away from tillage to keep the moisture in the ground,” Joe said.
“We’re trying to covert to less tillage, less diesel fuel. This was a big year because we didn’t work up any of the ground for soybeans and so far it’s looking pretty good.
“We turbo-tilled it in the fall. We had bought a used piece of equipment in Missouri last fall and you can do a lot of acres with it in a day. We all work full-time, so the quicker the better for us.”
They also implement a fertility plan that utilizes soil testing to make sure they only apply what’s needed.
“We pretty much do it all in the spring. We apply anhydrous preplant because 80% of our ground is contour. So, we preplant everything,” Alan said. “We’ll put 200 pounds on and apply DAP and potash based on soil needs.
“We keep up on our fertility. We don’t skimp out. All of our farm is mapped so we just put on what the soil needs using variable rate. That saves us money in long run.
“We do soil tests every five to six years. If you let the soil go, then it just takes so much more money to build it back up and then you’ll have two bad years because it’s going to take a couple of years for that stuff to react.”
They also utilize manure from their cattle as fertilizer.
A unique feature in the Smolkovich farming operation is their corn picker as part of the cattle feeding efforts.
“We pick about 30 acres and that fills a crib half full of ear corn (about 2,500 bushels of ear corn) and we grind it up and use it as feed for the cattle. They’re on full feed. We grind feed once a week plus we’ve got a full round bale we put out for them, too,” Alan said.
“It’s been tested and found to be one of the best ways to feed out cattle because it has protein in it, so you don’t really have to add that much supplement to it. We grind it up into a powder. We’ve had really good luck with it,” Joe added.
“We have customers for all of our beef. We rarely have to take them to a locker to get them sold out. We’ve built a real good clientele and they’re real happy with us.”
They cut and bale their waterways for feed.
“We have waterways designated and we get at least one cutting and that will last the cattle throughout the whole year. We save on that, too, because we don’t have to buy hay,” Joe said.
Planting season went off without a hitch.
“It went really well. It took about three days to plant corn and three days of soybeans. We got everything done early within a couple of week. We were done by May 1,” Alan said.
“We had a good opportunity to put some anhydrous on and then we got some cold weather after that in the spring and got some moisture on that. So, I think the anhydrous sat in real good and I think it’s really working in now. We’ve planted longer than that some years, sometimes all the way up to June,” Joe added.
All of the Smolkovich brothers have full-time jobs off the farm and do their farm work evenings and on weekends.
John has worked for Dibble Trucking in Gardner for 28 years. Marko is a heavy-equipment operator with Local 150 and works at Vulcan Materials Company in Mantegna.
Alan works at Ozinga Ready Mix in Manteno. Joe returned to the family farm after serving about 10 years in the military and now works with the state highway department based in Ashkum.
The Smolkovich brothers are cutting waterways this week for bales.
“We’ll also do some spraying on our lanes and around our building sites to get the weeds down. We’ll clean up the spring equipment and start getting our fall equipment ready and try to get ahead of it for a change,” Joe smiled.
They team up with a friend as part of their haying operation.
“We help another friend of ours with their haying operation. He has the round baler and we’ve got the rake, so we use each other’s equipment. We all try to do it at one time. His pasture is next to ours,” Joe explained.
“We utilize each others help and return it in favors because we’ve got extra round bales and he has a good size cattle operation. So, he’ll take all of our extra bales in payment for using his round baler.”