CHURDAN - David Miller, 31, is not unlike most young farmers who grew up with soil under their fingernails.
He's been helping on the farm, six miles southwest of this Greene County community, since he was little. His father, Leroy Miller, 69, raised cattle back in the day, but sold his herd in the mid-1980s. But young David developed an affinity for livestock in general.
After graduating from Iowa State University in 2003, David returned to the farm, although it hardly seemed like he had left.
-Messenger photo by Larry Kershner
David Miller, 31, of Churdan, discusses the challenges of a young farmer today, saying he appreciates the farming legacy handed down to him from his father and grandfather. “Without them,” he said, “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
"I never missed a spring or fall," Miller said, "even when I was in college.
"Besides school, I was working 30 hours a week in the (ISU) meat lab and driving back here" to help with planting and harvest.
Miller's grandfather, Harold Miller, 94, living in Jefferson, migrated from western Nebraska in 1935, when he was 16, working in Guthrie County as a hired man and eventually started farming there. He later settled in Greene County to start his own farm.
Miller's father, Leroy Miller, brought his family to the current farm site three decades ago. To get his foot in the door as an independent farmer, David Miller said he is appreciative of the hard work that his father and grandfather did to allow him to rent their land, and grow the inputs he needs for his cattle and his wean-to-finish hog operation.
"Without them I wouldn't be farming," Miller said, who lives in Churdan with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Holly. The family is expecting the birth of a boy this year.
He said it's daunting to think how hard Harold Miller worked to travel here, labored as a hired hand and eventually started his farm and now those efforts help to feed the expanded family and succeeding generations.
Besides his cattle and hogs, Miller also runs his own roofing crew in the summer. "It gets pretty busy in the summertime," he said. "But we do quality work and I don't try and take on more work than I can handle.
"We leave the work site cleaner than how we found it."
That attests to his farming work ethic and the importance of doing honest work.
He's also conservation-minded.
"We have about 450 acres of pastures," he said. "In all honesty, some of that is flat enough that it could be tilled. But it's also close to water, so that ground has no business being tilled."
This winter has been a boon for a farm operation that is trying to control rising input costs. Miller put his bred heifers and cows on corn stalks to clean up the field and to give them the extra energy they need as they move toward calving in a few months.
The lack of snow cover and above-average temperatures has lessened the stress on his animals, he said. He will be bringing them up by his father's farmhouse for better monitoring of calving activity.
21st century farming looking nothing like the farm operation of one or two generations ago, Miller noted.
He does the bulk of his ag financing through Farm Credit Services. Although he attests that the organization "is really good to work with, because they want you to help you and see you succeed," still, he has to prove how he plans to cash flow his operation for the next year when it comes to borrowing cash for the next growing season.
Gone are the days where contracts and financing were based on a handshake.
Miller said he has to have his records straight, his budget mapped out, his cash flow documented, input costs recorded "so that the lenders know your situation. They are taking the same risks you are."
But despite the leg-up he gets with his family's farming heritage, Miller said he still has to watch the cash flow closely. Growth is good, and is his aim, he said, but he takes it in baby steps preceded with much research. A mistake in these days of high costs can be a long learning experience.
"You have to maximize what you have," Miller said, "and don't get caught up keeping up with the neighbors."
He said his aim is to continue to look at available technologies for precision agriculture. "I want to keep up with technology," he said, "but only that what I can use, not because it's glitzy."
When he built his hog facility, Miller said, he looked at other operations and studied exactly what he needed and designed it accordingly. "I subcontracted it myself.
"If I have to, I can load pigs out by myself, after they've been sorted."
The facility's security systems monitors and records a myriad of data of what is happening daily inside the building. If something goes wrong, the system alerts with a phone call.
"I try to keep plenty of things around," he said. "If I have to go to town to get one, I get two." He has three different electric motors in the building's office. He has a replacement in reserve for all of the three different electric motors that operate the building to keep his pigs safe, healthy and comfortable.
"If there is a downside to these buildings," he said, "it's that they're completely dependent on electricity." He said he is currently watching the wind generation industry and considering when it might be economically feasible for his operation to erect a personal wind turbine to power the farm.
He brings in 12-pound pigs and custom-feeds them to market weight. "It's what has kept me here income-wise," Miller said.
Miller said he has three goals for the future - upgrade his machinery, add more land and get more involved with his Churdan community once the farming business settles into the size where he's comfortable with it.
As for the machinery, he said, that may be purchasing his father's machinery. Land prices will have to come down substantially for his tastes. "I won't pay $10,000 per acre."
As for serving the community, he wants to give something back to it and knows there are opportunities, perhaps as a volunteer fire fighter, he said.
He said he thinks it's important than non-farm families understand what they do.
"I can't take Sundays off," he said. "I have to chore that (hog) building every day. You have to be persistent."
Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext. 453 or firstname.lastname@example.org