By Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union
Don Mendel was 9 when his dad first let him drive the grey Ford Ferguson tractor across the field. He wasn’t unsupervised. His dad, Joe, was beside him pulling a two-bottom plow with a team of five work horses.
“Dad liked horses and kept them around longer than lots of the neighbors,” explains the 83-year-old Doland farmer. “He put me on that Ford tractor and would let me drive as fast as he was going with those horses. We would plow together and thought we were turning over a lot of ground.”
Retired since 2000, Don can still be found driving machinery across the fields that his twin sons, Merrit and Miles, 45, now manage with the help of his grandsons and four employees.
“Farming is in our blood,” Don says.
His brother, Dave agrees.
Don’s farming partner since 1972 and now, also retired, Dave, like Don, spends most days on the farm helping his nephews out. “I always enjoyed working on the farm,” says Dave, 67.
Although he was pursuing a teaching degree, when he returned from serving in Vietnam, he decided he’d rather farm. “I saw more of a future in agriculture. Even back then, South Dakota was very near the bottom of the teacher pay scale,” says Dave, who together with his wife, Judy raised their three, now-grown children, Jason (deceased), Audrey and Seth; and now-grown grandson, Jason, on the farm.
When the brothers formed the partnership they each retained ownership of their own land but shared equipment and labor.
Over time, the brothers expanded the farm’s Spink County footprint. It also evolved from its diversified roots. When Don and Dave began farming fulltime they were responsible for a dairy herd, a beef herd, pigs, chickens and small grains.
Today, the family primarily raises corn and soybeans and runs a 600-head commercial cow/calf herd and backgrounding operation.
“We recognize synergies between the enterprises that benefit each other,” Dave explains. “Plus, we are in an area of the country where there is enough land that lends itself best to grazing or hay production. If you don’t have livestock, it’s hard to fully utilize the land.”
To maximize grazing opportunities and efficiencies, the herd is divided in to two calving seasons – February thru May and August thru November.
Miles’ wife, Grace, oversees the calving seasons. “I love animals and should have been a vet,” says Grace.
Grace and Miles have two children, Hannah, 21 and Michael, 18.
Grace explains that there are many benefits to two calving seasons – including the fact that it results in two breeding seasons, spreading the cost-per-bull out over more cows.
The family raises their own replacement heifers and backgrounds their own calves. “Growing up we always helped dad feed cattle and we continue this practice. We have the feed here. We can feed our own calves cheaper than anyone else,” Merrit says. “It just makes sense.”
With two separate weaning dates, Merrit adds that they did not need to expand their backgrounding facility to meet their increased herd size. “We only have a certain amount of space,” Merrit says. “This also gives us two opportunities to market our calves.”
Planting a shelter belt was one of the first things Joe did in 1940 when he purchased the land where Dave and his wife, Judy’s home sits today. “We’re hardened conservationists,” Don says.
In the early 80s Don and Dave began implementing no-till practices across all their fields. The moisture and topsoil retention allowed them to move from producing primarily wheat and small grains to corn and soybeans.
“We have seen the Wheat Belt move out and the Corn Belt move in because of no-till,” Judy says.
“Traditionally, 50 years ago, Spink County was the largest spring wheat producing county in the state. As a result of no-till and weed control, we grow almost no spring wheat at all,” Don adds.
The benefits no-till introduced to their land motivated Dave to become actively involved in the Spink County Conservation Board 30 years ago. “I saw what I thought was an opportunity to promote no-till,” Dave explains. “By no means were we the first farm to implement no-till. There are a good number of Spink County farmers who are pretty progressive.”
For several years the Conservation Board purchased drills area farmers could lease. Today, most Spink County farmers have embraced the practice and there is no longer a need for the Conservation District to provide this service.
“Often you could get near irrigation results from dryland with no-till,” Don says.
Building on a strong foundation
Merrit and Miles grew up farming with their dad, uncle and Grandpa Joe. Only 1-years-old when their biological father was killed in an accident, the brothers became Mendels when Don adopted them after he married their mom, Janice. In 1992, Janice passed away after a long battle with cancer. A year later, Don married Lavonne, who also lost her spouse to cancer.
Like their role models, the twins say they knew from a young age that farming was the career for them. “It’s the lifestyle that I’m used to. It’s the challenges we have. I always get to learn something new and do something different,” explains Miles, who spent the first two years after college teaching at James Valley Christian School.
The brothers explain the transition from employees to farm managers as an organic one. “Miles and I have evolved into our different management roles over time,” Merrit explains.
Today Merrit oversees the daily livestock operations while Miles is focused on the crops.
“We started with a strong foundation developed by our grandpa, dad and Dave and over the years the operation has evolved,” Merrit says.
Dave says a smooth transition was always his and Don’s intention.
“We observed contemporaries who had fathers reluctant to release control and they struggled with that. Our dad probably would almost release decisions sooner rather than later. So, we allowed the boys to make those choices,” Dave says.
Dave says that the family farm’s success is due to the family, the team of great employees they have worked with over the years as well as their neighbors.
“Don and I recognize we could not and cannot do it alone. Our children and spouses have been involved – whether they are active in the farming operation today or not,” says Dave, noting that family members, like his son, Seth and grandson Jason, who grew up on the farm but are building careers off the farm, are always willing to chip in when they come home to visit.
He adds that the family’s faith has played key role in maintaining positive relationships.
“When a partnership has as many generations of people involved (as ours), with the differing personalities, it is only through God’s grace that we have been able to work and succeed together,” Dave explains.
As they look to the future and welcome the fourth-generation of Mendels to the farm, Merrit says they will continue to look to their faith, as well as the legacy Don and Dave began to guide their decisions.
“Faith is everything to our family,” says Merrit, who together with his wife, Jill, has four children; Blake, 17, Seth, 14, Hope, 10 and Shem, 4. “It is the foundation upon which decisions are made on this farm.”
Their nephew, Leon Brondsema, 21, began working on the farm fulltime after he graduated from Lake Area Technical Institute with a degree in production agriculture.
“I quit baseball when I was in junior high because I wanted to spend more time on the farm,” explains Leon, who grew up in Huron. “I enjoy just about everything about farming. Mostly that no day is the same. It’s also nice knowing that I have a future here. (Working on the family farm) is not a normal job, it’s a family deal – so it’s going to be here for the long term.”
Spring 2018, Miles’ son, Michael plans to join the operation after he graduates from Lake Area Technical Institute. Miles and Grace also have a daughter, Hannah, 21.
“Farming wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t have the young generation coming on. Not sure if we would go through the hassle of it,” Merrit says.