Listening to the Farm’s Next Generation

(A look back at the demonstration farm of Kilgore College in Texas, which is eliminating the program and others.) The kids at the college's demonstration farm work hard — and learn. They are rural America's future and we need to listen to them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week the board of trustees of the Kilgore College in Texas voted to close the school’s 448-acre demonstration farm in a cost-saving move that also included the elimination of the college’s early childhood education center and other programs. A statement from the college said the cuts were “efficiency measures” in response to declining tax and tuition revenues. The board discussion did not include information on how much savings the program changes will create.

In 2010 Kelley Snowden, whose husband helps manage the Kilgore College demonstration farm, wrote this reflection on how the facility was helping the next generation of farmers. 

Unbeknownst to many of its faculty, staff and students, Kilgore College (KC) has a farm. The Kilgore College Demonstration Farm, a 448 acre complex, is located two miles outside of Overton, Texas, about nine miles from the main college campus in Kilgore.

If anybody would look, they’d find the future of rural America among the young people who are working on the farm.

Kids can learn about working a real farm on the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm, where I live
Kids can learn about working a real farm on the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm, where I live. Photo by Kelley Snowden

Established in 1963, the farm is host to purebred Angus cattle, Boer goats, Dorper sheep, Blue Butt and Hampshire hogs, and a couple of well stocked tanks. It boasts a diverse cropping program including hay, millet, wheat, oats and a variety of experimental forages. These efforts are not to turn a profit but to give students enrolled in the Agricultural Farm and Ranch Management program real (and top quality) experiences in agriculture.

While the farm is the setting for both classes and laboratories, it is also home to the KC Show Team which shows KC-farm-raised Angus heifers and bulls at livestock exhibitions across the state. It is also the center of operations for the KC Ag Club. This group gives students the opportunity to help out their local community through volunteer work and also compete at the state level against other clubs through the Texas Junior College Agriculture Association (TJCAA). The KC Ag Club has been named “Chapter of the Year” 13 out of 15 years.

The farm is also home to Farm Manager and Ag instructor, Bob Young, the Assistant Manager, Scott Snowden, and a select group of student workers who assist in the day-to-day operations of the farm. Scott is my husband.

It takes a pretty special kind of young person to be a student worker on the farm. Long hours, little pay and the task of balancing work with academics make it a hard road. However, there are advantages. First, student workers live on the farm. This gets them out of the dorms, and while accommodations aren’t exactly four-star, the students have an opportunity to live independently albeit under the eagle eyes of Mr. Young and Mr. Snowden.

Second, housing is cheap. Each student must work at least 10 hours a week to pay for housing. What they earn beyond that is cash in their pockets. Third, they get to play with toys — big toys, including pick-up trucks, trailers, balers and tractors. Finally, they get to work with the livestock, which not only gives them practical experience but no doubt gives them fodder for many a wild story they can tell their grandchildren.

Currently we have two student workers from completely different backgrounds. I sat down with them to talk about what it’s like to live and work on the farm, what their plans are for the future and what they think of American agriculture. Getting these boys together was a little dicey because we had to work around their class and work schedules (not to mention Show Team and Ag Club activities), but I cornered them and asked them to talk about themselves, I settled in for a long good time. Both young men laugh easily. They always have a tale at hand, and their enthusiasm for all things agricultural seems to know no bounds.

Jerome D. Jones grew up in Lancaster, Texas (Dallas County), population 36,000, located in the “Metroplex” of Dallas/Fort Worth. Micah Tinkle hails from Woodville, Texas (Tyler County), population 2,415. Jerome is a “city boy,” whereas Micah grew up in a small town in a rural area. In addition to carrying full class loads and working on the farm, both hold offices in the KC Show Team and Ag Club. Micah was elected Show Team Captain this year, and Jerome was elected Vice President of the Ag Club.

Micah Tinkle grew up in Woodville, a town of 2,415 in east Texas. His grandfather owned a farm.
Micah Tinkle grew up in Woodville, a town of 2,415 in east Texas. His grandfather owned a farm.

Jerome and Micah came to KC largely as a result of their high school experiences. Both boys love livestock showing and did a lot of it in high school. Jerome showed pigs and sheep and Micah showed goats, sheep and cattle. Today Jerome still enjoys the adrenaline rush of showing — in his words, “the thrill of the moment.” Micah says he “likes the competition and having judges rate the quality” of his animals.

According to Micah and Jerome, their high school teachers played a large role in encouraging them to pursue agriculture, but they were also encouraged by family members, specifically their grandfathers. Jerome’s grandfather owned a feed store and let him and his brother “come help out with the animals,” teaching them that “animals help make money.” Micah’s grandfather had a farm and taught him everything he knows about farming and ranching, plus some. Jerome chose to study agriculture because he “always liked animals because most of their behaviors can always be explained, unlike people.” Micah can’t see himself “doing anything else beside something in agriculture, because agriculture is the backbone of everything.” But in the end both young men admit to “liking animals better than people,” which no doubt made choosing to work in agriculture and live on the college farm even more appealing.

Now it’s one thing to want to study agriculture, it’s a whole other thing to live and work on a farm. When the boys told their friends and family about working on the farm, they got entirely different responses. Micah, having grown up in a rural area, didn’t have any trouble convincing his family and friends that it was a good thing. “My friends and parents said “Go for it,’ because they know agriculture is my life, and because it was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he said.

Jerome, however, had a little more of an uphill battle. “My mother was okay about it, but kind of didn’t like it,” he told me. “My friends thought it was very, very funny, and Grandma hated it because in Dallas there really aren’t any farms. It is suburban, and everyone thinks of the bad stuff that happens on farms. “

Bad stuff happens on farms?

“You know, my Grandma is worried about safety,” he answered. “The phone service is poor so I can’t call her everyday and she hates that.”

With this comment, both boys started to laugh and talked about how farms and small towns are always the setting for scary movies, and both agreed that the farm “looks like something from a scary movie” so maybe Jerome’s Grandma had a point.

This set off a round of giggles during which Jerome added in all seriousness, “If you are Black and from the city, you’re not supposed to want to be farmer.”

In addition to his grandmother’s being none to happy with his decision, Jerome’s girlfriend is also upset with him. “She doesn’t like it,” he said. “I’ve always got something to do on the farm which takes away from calling her.” However, in spite of the women’s complaints, Jerome enjoys farm life: “I like the farm because I like to fish. When I get mad I like to fish.”

Both boys admit that working on a farm has its challenges. For Jerome the hardest thing is “balancing time. It’s hard work, so you have to learn to balance your time and not party a lot.” Micah on the other hand believes the hardest thing is “working with Mr. Snowden because he likes everything done right the first time.” But farm living does have its advantages. As a city boy Jerome has “learned new things I never thought I would, like using a tractor or moving hay.”

The student/farmers here say they generally find animals to be better company than people.
The student/farmers here say they generally find animals to be better company than people.

All kinds of lessons are learned out here. The most important one, Jerome told me, he now knows: “Your job is never done. There is always something more you can do towards the betterment of the farm.” Micah took a slightly different tack, admitting to some frustration: “There are a lot of ways to do a project, but Mr. Young only has one way of doing it, so I have learned to do it his way to not get yelled at.” Both are important lessons, the first in taking initiative and being dedicated, the second, in getting along with your boss.

I wanted to know what enduring things these young men have learned. What will they take with them the rest of their lives? The room went quiet a minute, but eventually Jerome, looking down at his hands and sighing, took the lead: “Hard work doesn’t always pay off, and you should always try your best to be a dependable person.”

Hard work doesn’t always pay off?

“On a farm you invest in animals, you take care of them, look after them and get used to seeing them,” he said. “Then they get old, and sometimes they get sick and die. It hurts a bit.”

We strayed from the conversation here to reminisce about Sonny, the herd bull, who passed away from natural causes due to old age last month. Jerome was fond of the old bull and talked quietly about how much he enjoyed going out to the pasture to feed him. Sonny, a former show bull, was as gentle as the proverbial lamb, letting anyone rub and pat him despite being one big fellow, weighing in at well over 2,000 pounds in his prime. Jerome counted that bull among his friends, speaking of him with respect and tenderness, missing his presence.

Now with all us fighting the tears welling up in our eyes, I asked Jerome what it means to be a “dependable person.”

“It means being responsible, being responsive,” he answered. “You need help? I’ll do it, I’ll be there, even after hours, just call me.” That’s one thing these young men learn and learn fast here: that farming is not eight-to-five and they have to be ready to be called on after hours if someone or some animal needs help. Some might resist, turning off their phones or ignoring calls altogether – they don’t last long out here. But these young men are always ready to lend a hand. They are as Jerome put it, “responsible and responsive.”

As much as it breaks my heart, Jerome and Micah are in their final year at KC and will soon be moving on. When I asked them about their plans both admit to some indecision, but they are thinking about the future.

Just because you work the demonstration farm doesn’t mean you’re out of touch. Jerome checks his messages.
Just because you work the demonstration farm doesn’t mean you’re out of touch. Jerome checks his messages.

Jerome hasn’t completely decided what he wants to do yet, but has “narrowed it down to working for the USDA as a meat grader or working in wildlife management. I want to own a game ranch or reserve.”  While his dream may be to own a game ranch, work in wildlife management is hard to come by, so studying the meat sciences has moved to the top of his list.

Jerome got interested in this after visiting a slaughterhouse on a field trip, confessing that “outside of the blood, I liked it.” As a meat inspector he is interested in “working in a dog food factory because I really want to know what goes into dog food,” but he would also like to be involved in writing policy at the state and federal levels because “certification programs need help. They need people in agriculture doing that.” Jerome has pretty much settled on where he’s going after KC to complete his education. If he goes the meat inspector route he’s headed for Tarleton State in Stephenville. If he opts for wildlife management he wants to go to San Angelo State University.

Micah hasn’t yet found his “passion.” He’s pretty sure he wants to minor in animal science and is leaning towards some form of engineering as a major. He’s also interested in studying animal nutrition (maybe helping to formulate the dog food Jerome is interested in), possibly working for Purina. While he’s still working on his plans, he knows he wants to attend Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, and maybe do graduate work at Texas A&M.

Once these boys finish their educations, they would like to stay as close to home as possible. Jerome would love to be back in Lancaster but would like to have a farm in Red Oak or Corsicana. Micah would like to have a place in Huntsville, or maybe even Woodville, but both these guys have wild oats to sow and wouldn’t mind going far-a-field to do it. Jerome has his eyes on Hawaii and Brazil “because of the pretty women,” and Micah would like to visit American Samoa because that’s where his best friend lives.

Since both Jerome and Micah plan on continuing their studies in ag, I wanted to know what they feel is the biggest obstacle to working in agriculture and what they would change if they could.

This got them both pretty hot under the collar. The biggest obstacle, they said, was the perception of agriculture by our larger society. The biggest thing that needs to be changed, they said, was the poor pay.

These guys became particularly emphatic talking about the country’s outlook on agriculture. Micah: “People just don’t understand the roots of agriculture; agriculture is the backbone of everything, your clothes, your food, shoes, even paper! Everyone thinks all cattle are black and white Holsteins, or they are Jerseys. They think all cattle are cows. They can’t tell the difference between heifers, cows and bulls.”

Jerome heartily agreed: “They just don’t really know what it [agriculture] is and think it’s only farm animals and it is actually so much more. Everyone just thinks about hillbillies. Everything bad you’ve ever heard about people always starts on a farm, you know, people marrying their cousins and such. There’s a whole lot that goes into ag they just don’t understand and maybe don’t want to.”

Jerome believes that a big part of this problem is the removal of agriculture classes from school curriculums. “Ag got kicked out because of sports,” Jerome said. “That’s just not right. Ag should be put back in because the trades you learn, like welding, can help you. Ag keeps people out of trouble, keeps them tired, and a tired kid is a good kid.”

Hayrings — a lesson in what happens when things aren’t done right the first time. Photo by Kelley Snowden
Hayrings — a lesson in what happens when things aren’t done right the first time. Photo by Kelley Snowden

Both agree that those working in agriculture should be paid more. Micah is very frustrated with the overall situation as “the government only allows so much crop production. Farmers don’t, they can’t, make a profit. They don’t even make back their costs.”

Jerome added: “Dairy farmers need to be paid more; they need to get a return on their money to cover all their costs including the cost of growing hay and keeping up pastures.” The root of the problem, as they see it, is that the people making all these decisions have no connection to agriculture. As Jerome put it, “If you don’t know anything about agriculture, you shouldn’t be making decisions like setting prices.”

It took me a little while to get them calmed down so we could close out our talk, but they finally got it off boil and put it on simmer. For our last bit I wanted to know if they would recommend that other students apply to work on the farm.

“Heck yeah!” said Micah, “It’s an opportunity that most people from the city don’t have the opportunity to do, and it gives people from the rural areas more experience with stuff they love. My favorite day was working in 115 degree heat picking up square bales!”

OK, at this point both Jerome and I looked at Micah like he had surely gone crazy. Working in 115 degree heat was his favorite day? This boy loves him some agriculture — I’ll give him that much. Jerome, while enthusiastic, was a little more circumspect. “It depends on the family situation and income,” Jerome said. “If your family can help support you, yes, but if not, working on the farm won’t be a good job because you really can’t make enough hours. [Student workers are not allowed to work full time, and the total hours vary with the number of workers.] Summers and holidays are great to make hours and make some money, but sometimes it’s hard to make enough to even buy groceries.”

Jerome and Micah are learning that farm living is hard, and they are learning it the hard way. However, despite the challenges, these young men have made a commitment to the farm and to agriculture. Maybe with their help the public face of agriculture will be brightened a bit and in the future it will be better respected and understood. In the meantime these young men have hay to put out before the weather turns and calves to tag, hoping they can make it to the next paycheck.

I think these young men need a raise.

Dr. Kelley Snowden resides in Overton, Texas, where she lives with her husband on the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm. She is an adjunct professor in geography at Stephen F. Austin State University and also teaches at the University of Texas at Tyler.

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