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Published May 05, 2014, 09:23 AM

City kid turns to farming

Twenty-seven-year-old Sobieck is a rarity in modern agriculture. He’s a city kid who had no ties to agriculture and no plans to become a farmer — until he met and fell in love with Holly Finken, a North Dakota farm girl.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

DOUGLAS, N.D. — Chris Sobieck remembers the reaction when he first began showing up at grain elevators and other agricultural businesses in the Douglas area.

“Nobody had seen me before. They all looked at me like, ‘Who the heck are you?’” he recalls.

The answer makes 27-year-old Sobieck a rarity in modern agriculture. He’s a city kid with no ties to agriculture and no plans to become a farmer — until he met and fell in love with Holly Finken, a North Dakota farm girl.

Today, Sobieck farms with Holly’s father, Bob Finken, near Douglas, a town of 60 people about 35 miles south of Minot.

“It’s not common, that’s for sure,” Holly says of the arrangement.

People outside agriculture might not realize just how unusual it is. Not the part about farming with his father-in-law; there’s nothing out of the ordinary about that. What makes the situation rare is that almost all young farmers, including ones operating with their father-in-law, grew up on a farm or have other strong connections to agriculture. To come in cold, as Sobieck did, doesn’t happen often.

“I look around (at other young farmers) and they’ve got really different backgrounds than me,” he says.

Sobieck’s story is noteworthy in two other ways.

First, he’s part of a small, but long-awaited rise in the number of young farmers across the region. The once-every-five-years 2012 Census of Agriculture, issued earlier this spring by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that North Dakota had 2,432 farmers aged 25 to 32 in 2012, up from 2,065 five years ago.

Young farmers such as Sobieck provide a much-needed infusion of young blood in area agriculture, experts say. The average age of North Dakota farmers is 57, according to the 2012 census. Bob Finken is 55.

What’s happening with Sobieck and the Finkens also stands out because they’ve emphasized good communications. Experts say that’s essential to successful farm transition.

“We’re always able to talk. That’s so important,” Bob Finken says.

City to farm

Sobieck grew up in Forest Lake, Minn., near the Twin Cities. His father is a sales manager for a nonag company.

Chris Sobieck wanted to be an engineer and considered studying the subject at three schools, one of them North Dakota State University in Fargo. He chose NDSU, in part because it was the farthest from home and, like many soon-to-be college students, wanted a little distance from where he grew up.

During his second year and Holly’s first year at NDSU, they lived in the same dorm and met at a dorm meeting. The original plan, from Sobieck’s perspective, was to set up Holly with one of his roommates. Instead, Sobieck and Holly hit it off.

Sobieck came back with Holly to visit her family farm within six months of the time they began dating. Later, he worked part time at the farm.

He graduated from NDSU in the fall of 2010 with a construction engineering degree. He took no ag courses.

He and Holly, who graduated from NDSU in the spring of 2011, married in the spring of 2012.

“Holly and I had a long discussion about what I wanted to do, if I wanted to go with farming,” he says. “I said I’d rather do this and be 100 percent happy and 100 percent committed and make less money than what I’d make starting out as an engineer.”

Initially, Sobieck worked for wages on the family farm. This year, for the first time, he and Bob Finken are in a partnership that covers the family farm and seed operation.

Family members had a good idea of each other’s goals when he joined the farming operation, Sobieck says.

Sobieck always was welcome on the farm, Bob Finken and his wife DeAnne say.

“You always need extra help on a farm. One thing led to another,” Bob says.

“This is just how things worked out, and we’re all happy about it,” DeAnne says.

She and her husband grew up on farms just four miles apart. But the two were in different school districts, belonged to different churches and 4-H clubs and lived in “separate worlds,” Bob says. They didn’t begin dating until college.

Adaptation

Sobieck says his time in college was well spent, even though it didn’t include agricultural training.

“I always say going to college and getting a degree was the best thing I ever did, as far as broadening my horizons. When I went through college, I felt like a totally different person,” he says.

Now, as a farmer, “with the equipment issues, I pretty much have it down. As far as the farming — things like when we should be in the field, planting depths — I basically rely on Bob,” Sobieck says.

To help with the financial aspects of farming, Bob Finken and Sobieck are involved in the NDSU adult farm business management education program.

Sobieck, even though a city kid, loved to hunt and fish growing up. That made Douglas, a lightly populated area with great access to both hunting and fishing, even more attractive, he says.

His affection for hunting brought one complication, though.

“Chris would look at a piece of land and see the hunting potential, where I would see the farming potential,” Bob Finken says.

Sobieck nods in agreement.

“When I first came out here, when we went over a cropping plan, the first thing I’d think of was, would this be a good deer location or will it draw geese in. Now it’s more, will it benefit the farm? But that (hunting implications) are still in the back of my mind,” he says.

Sobieck also says farming is appealing because, despite its many demands, it’s not a 9-to-5 job.

“There’s a sense of freedom I really like,” he says.

People involved in agriculture often say their view of ag is much different from the general public’s. Sobieck says that’s true, and that dealing with those differing perceptions has required him to adapt.

“I’ve had relatives whose mindset is, I’m out here milking cows or something. They just don’t understand what we’re really doing here,” he says.

Seed business

The Finken farm raises a wide range of crops, including spring wheat, winter wheat, durum, barley, oats, peas, flax, canola, corn and soybeans. Some of what they raise is sold as a commodity crop, at grain elevators. Most is sold as seed.

The seed operation sells wholesale to seed plants and directly to farmers. Two years ago, it began selling bagged corn and soybeans for NuTech Seed.

At one time, the Finkens raised livestock in addition to raising grain. But Bob didn’t enjoy livestock — “I was run ragged,” he says — and decided to get into the seed business instead. Ten years ago, he bought a portable seed cleaner.

The seed business requires a great deal of labor, one reason Sobieck’s help is so welcome.

“You have to handle every bushel at least one extra time when you’re in the seed business,” Finken says. “It’s extra time cleaning the equipment, extra time cleaning the grain bin. It’s just clean, clean, clean.”

The family

Bob and DeAnne have three children in addition to Holly.

Tracy is married, has two children and lives on a farm near Juanita, N.D.

Katie is in graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She’s aiming for a career in human resources.

Dylan, 17, is a junior at Max (N.D.) High School. His mother drives a school bus for the district.

Dylan says he also wants to farm someday.

“I enjoy running the equipment. I enjoy seeing the progress, seeing what you plant in the spring until (it’s harvested in) the fall,” he says.

Bob says he’s emphasized to Dylan that “just because Chris has joined the farm doesn’t mean there’s no room for him. I won’t push Dylan to farm, but I want him to know there’s a place for him, too.”

It’s been said that men treat friendship as a football and that it doesn’t seem to crack. Watch Bob, Dylan and Sobieck interact and you see plenty of male camaraderie. Sobieck, in particular, seems to enjoy tossing good-natured verbal jabs at his father-in-law and brother-in-law, who smile and sometimes respond with similar comments of their own.

Holly, who works for a crop insurance company in Minot, N.D., is expecting her first child, a son, in August. He will be the fifth generation of the Finken family in Douglas.

“Poppin’ out farm laborers,” Sobieck says with a smile, a comment that reflects his sense of humor.

Sobieck and Holly live in a modular house moved on to the Finken farmstead, where Bob, DeAnne and Dylan live in another house.

“We thought long and hard if we wanted to be on the farm” or nearby. “But we just thought it would make most sense to be here,” Chris Sobieck says.

Bob, for his part, says, “We were cognizant there would be advantages and disadvantages of that (having both houses on the same farmstead). But the disadvantages are less than we thought they would be.”

Tough 2013

Finken started farming in 1978, at the tail end of mid-1970s prosperity. The brief stretch of good times led some farmers to overexpand and take on crushing debt.

“I wasn’t in long enough (during the good times) to get in over my head,” he says.

Now, farm profitability, which had enjoyed a strong multi-year run, has dropped sharply.

Finken says he’s talked with Sobieck about how economically cyclical agriculture is.

That becomes more important now that Sobieck, who formerly worked for wages, is a partner in the business, Finken says.

Sobieck already has seen that farming can be challenging. The spring of 2013 was so wet that the Finken farm took prevented planting insurance on 60 percent of its cropland last year.

“We had a big rain on May 25 (last year.) It was touch-and-go (with planting) before that. And then the big rain came, and we were done, just done,” Finken says.

“So, we have less stuff (seed) to sell this year. But it is what it is. You can’t change the weather,” he says.

“Thank goodness for crop insurance,” Finken says, noting that coverage levels are substantially lower this year, reflecting the decline in crop prices.

Sobieck says his father, as a joke, once advised him to “find a wife whose dad has a bunch of land. Now it’s come full circle.”

Finken isn’t joking when he says how happy he is with Sobieck, the city kid turned farmer.

“There are times I can’t help but pinch myself: How did I get so lucky finding someone so good? Not just for a farm partner, but more importantly, someone to be my son-in-law and marry my daughter,” Finken says.

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