“As long as I can remember…I was 5 years old and feeding calves milk and giving the cows their bucket of corn in the barn, and now, I’m involved in the bigger management decisions that affect the sustainability of the farm,” said 17-year-old farmer Andrew Gathje. He recounted how his childhood was spent alongside his father, Andy, in the family’s dairy and beef cattle barns on their Pleasant Grove farm, just east of Stewartville.
Fourth-generation farmer, Andrew, and his younger brothers, Bennett and Henry, will someday inherit the farm, which was founded in 1941. They’ve been accustomed to wide-open spaces, so the prospect of living in town doesn’t have much shine for them.
Andrew commented, “I guess this is what I was born into and grew up around. It’s what I’m used to, and I visit people in town, and I don’t see that as a desirable setting for me.”
The thought of living off a farm doesn’t even register with Bennett. “Definitely not. I wouldn’t know what to do,” he stated.
Henry might have a job in the medical field someday, but he, like his brothers, still feels the houses in town are too close together and too far away from livestock pens and pastures.
Andrew appreciates the black and white Holsteins outside his window for their antics and for what they can do to improve agriculture and the lives of people who live in town.
“When I look at them (the Holsteins), I see a bunch of little kids. They’re crazy, energetic, have their own little personalities. Some days, they’re full of energy and some days, they’re crabby. They don’t always listen. That’s why I refer to them as ‘little kids.’”
The Gathje boys have attended Chatfield Public Schools because their mother, Nora, is a biology teacher there and also because their farm is on the line between the Stewartville and Chatfield school districts, giving them a choice where they wanted to go to school.
Andrew is a 2016 graduate and a longtime FFA member, and Bennett, who will be a junior at Chatfield High School (CHS) this coming fall, is also a devoted member of FFA. Both have invested in diversified livestock as their supervised agricultural experience (SAE), or FFA entrepreneurship opportunity, in which they choose to invest in livestock and other capital. This allows them to be an apprentice to someone in an agriculture-related field, but also teaches them how to handle the economic and logistical aspects of owning a business.
Bennett and Andrew each have their own livestock, and Andrew has purchased his own machinery.
“Just yesterday, I signed the papers on my second and third pieces of farm machinery,” he said. “I bought my first tractor in December.”
Bennett keeps as busy on the farm as his older brother, caring for the cattle and helping with the haying. “If we do it, I’m pretty much involved in it,” he said. “I milk, feed calves, silage, feed steers, scrape barns, move hay, do a lot of tractor driving. I like square bales.”
Bennett’s favorite parts of farming involve giving the cows a good scratch behind the ears or getting behind the wheel of anything that has wheels. “I find it fun. I like to do it. I like to be outside…and I like tractors. I get to drive a lot of stuff, and I like driving.”
Henry, going into eighth grade next fall, isn’t as interested in farming as his brothers, but he’s given his time on the farm his best. He lends a hand with everyday chores and has taken some of the calves to the Fillmore County Fair as part of his 4-H projects.
“I do whatever needs to be done. I probably spend a good three to four hours a day doing farm stuff in the summer – scraping barns, feeding corn, feeding the pens of younger cows, feeding calves, whatever needs to be done. I’m probably not going into farming. I don’t mind it, but it’s not something I plan on doing for the rest of my life,” he admitted.
He said he’ll most likely venture into the medical field. Still, he’s proud of being part of the process that brings milk from the farm to the grocery store.
“We develop a good work ethic, which I don’t really mind, because if you work hard, it carries over to school, and if you work hard at school, you’re giving 100 percent,” Henry said.
Nora pointed out that her sons have literally learned early in life that hard work and weather are what dictate what they’ll be doing each and every day.
“It’s more than a job,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle…it encompasses what they do. There are not many teenagers whose lives revolve around the weather…they stay up until 1:30 in the morning, haying if they have to get it done before it rains.”
Andrew isn’t even old enough to vote yet, but unlike his high school graduate contemporaries, he’s thinking now about what will come in the future when he has a larger stake in the farm’s sustainability and profitability. He’s glad the farm is waiting for him no matter what he chooses to study.
“It’s nice to know, but I think there will be a lot of challenges, like inflation and everything…sky-high property taxes, adjusting to the times to stay afloat,” he said.
Andrew will become a dairy science major at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in August and while being in a city to learn how to do things better in the country, he’s confident that the time in River Falls will be well spent.
“I’ll reinforce what I know about economics and farming, the nutrition aspect of cattle, treating diseases and preventing diseases,” he said. “I’ll be there for four years and, right now, I’m set to graduate in 2020. It will definitely be different, but I’ll still be working with cattle, so I think that will make it survivable. They have a lab farm so I can work on the farm while I’m there – a small free-stall with 60 to 65 cattle, and off the free-stall and parlor, they have a set of classrooms for dairy.”
Though he and his brothers are known at 4-H and the county fair for their affection for poultry, Andrew has come to see the value in raising dairy and beef cattle.
“Dairy is an everyday thing. Beef cattle are more a seasonal thing. I probably devote four to five hours a day just to the dairy cattle,” he said. “I like cows…I guess at a little bit younger age, I realized farming cattle was more sustainable than farming chickens, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to like cattle.”
He’d like the consumer who stops in at the local convenience store for a gallon of two-percent and a cheese stick to recognize one fact about agriculture and agriculture production – how much is invested, from the maintenance of land and property taxes to the cost of college tuition to advance the educations of young and upcoming farmers like him.
“One primary drive of being a farmer, for me, is the satisfaction of producing a wholesome, nutritious product for someone to enjoy,” Andrew said. “A lot of people think that we’re putting calves in cement enclosures and not taking care of them, but the truth is if you don’t take care of your animals, you don’t make any money. It doesn’t do any good.”
He continued, “Don’t take the hard work of the farmer for granted. They always have the choice of not growing food for others. If they don’t, there’s no food to eat. So don’t take their work for granted.”
Andrew added, “I’m willing to work hard if other people out there are willing to work hard for me. You work hard in banking or at the grocery store, and I work hard at my farm. It’s a cycle of people helping other people.”
The fact that the Gathjes – Andy, Nora and the boys — are farmers by lifestyle has influenced Andrew’s and Bennett’s decisions to pursue careers on the farm, but participation in CHS’s FFA under the advisory of Stacy Fritz and the various opportunities FFA affords has also given Andrew reason to maintain his dedication to farming.
Nora, who manages the household as her husband and sons drive off to the fields on tractors and ATVs or haul buckets of feed to the cows just across the driveway, hopes that Andrew, Bennett and Henry may someday be able to call what is now their home a Minnesota Century Farm.
Her eldest commented, “Another reason I’ve decided to join the agriculture field for a job is the different service projects I’ve done through FFA. I’ve come to realize what I’m really capable of – and as a farmer, I’m capable of doing quite a bit. It’s a lot of hours, but it doesn’t bother me. Through FFA, I’ve come to realize that a lot of farmers have retired, but there are not a lot of young folks to take charge. The world needs a lot of young people to take on that big challenge. A lot of old folks and folks in town say it takes a special person to take on that challenge, and I feel like I’m one of those special people.”