Growing Minnesota Roots
For the Guentzel family, farming isn’t just a way of life; it’s a legacy they are proud to carry forward. While few of us can claim that we operate in the same industry as our great-great-grandparents, the Guentzels can. Their family has been farming in Blue Earth County for well over 150 years.
As with any legacy, there comes a time when the older generation steps aside, and the younger generation takes ownership, adding their own ideas and improvements to the foundational knowledge they inherited. While the need for agriculture remains the same, farming today is a far cry from its turn-of-the-century ancestor. Connect Business Magazine sat down with Angela Guentzel to get a feel for what a modern farm looks like, the challenges it faces, and the impact it can have on the community.
The Modern Minnesota Farm
Siblings Jon and Angela Guentzel are no strangers to hard work. Like clockwork, spring planting and fall harvest come and go with their respective hurdles and opportunities. Tilling the rich, black soil that produces some of the most abundant crops on earth has its fair share of obstacles, but area farmers overcome them to bring you and I the abundance of food we enjoy today.
Farmland is a precious commodity, especially in Southern Minnesota. Often passed down through the generations, it’s some of the most valuable property one can own. But what do you do with farmland if you’re not a farmer? The Guentzels, like many farmers, rent some of their farmland from those who otherwise wouldn’t farm it themselves, providing income for the landlord, cash flow for the Guentzels, and food for the rest of us– it’s a win-win situation.
“We are seeing a younger demographic as landlords as land is being passed down through the generations,” Angela said. “If you want to be farming next year, you have to have a good relationship with your landlord, the land, and the people you’re working with. …Our landowners trust us to manage such a valuable asset for them, and we don’t take that responsibility lightly.”
As with most farms in our region, the Guentzels rely on two major crops to keep the farm running: corn and soybeans. The majority of their corn goes to ethanol which ultimately ends up in fuel for our cars. During ethanol production, however, the protein encapsulated in corn is separated out. This byproduct makes its way into animal feed, killing two birds with one stone and nourishing the livestock we rely on for our burgers and bacon.
While corn-based ethanol is a surefire bet for farmers now, the electric vehicle market could cause some disruption. “EVs are very popular right now, so it’s what you’re hearing about, but not everything is in place to make them ubiquitous.” What is commonplace are biofuels, a critical fuel for millions of cars. There’s a massive market for Guentzels’ corn.
On the other hand, soybeans are more versatile and end up in various products, from animal feed to printer ink to numerous oils. In addition to their two main crops, the Guentzels have added crops of sunflowers, pumpkins, Christmas trees and oats.
“This is our first year trying oats, so we’ll see how it goes,” Angela remarks. Oats were a common crop in the Upper Midwest earlier in the century, but were largely relegated to the sidelines in favor of the corn-soybean combination. Now, these crops may be seeing a resurgence at farms across Southern Minnesota. Regardless of what’s being grown, keeping the family farm competitive is the goal.
A Farmly Affair
Jon, Angela and their siblings grew up on the family farm and were expected to share in the tasks that come with farm life. Decades later, their jobs are a bit different from when they were kids.
After graduating, Angela spent a stint away from Mankato in Denver and the Twin Cities. Since her return, she’s been an integral player in the complex operations at the farm. Angela works full-time in the fields during planting and harvest. In the offseason, she handles everything from HR to payroll to community relations. But her passion for agriculture isn’t limited to her work on the family’s stead. She and her husband, Andy Cramblit, rep seeds for other farmers while also operating Mankato Valley Soil Solutions: a biologics company that uses a proprietary blend of microorganisms to create a “microbial plant biostimulant” that improves soil and enhances yield.
Jon is a pilot. He helped farmers capture data points that would improve their planting and land management strategies for many years. His interest in technology and efficiency has been a boon to the Guentzel Family Farm and continues to be instrumental in its success.
“Jon’s been dedicated to the farm since he was old enough to run a tractor,” Angela said.
Today, Jon is the lead farmer and runs day-to-day operations at the farm, often working long hours preparing for the two major seasons. It’s a family affair. Jon’s wife Sarah (last name?) is affectionately called the gopher. She runs everything from parts, people, and provisions out to Jon, Angela, and the rest of the team during harvest. It’s a small but critical role that allows the farm to function properly. Jon and Sarah’s son Gabriel loves to pitch in when he can, despite being in kindergarten.
But Jon and Angela wouldn’t be where they are today without their parents, Mary and Terry Guentzel. High school sweethearts, they built a life together on the farm dedicating many hours to make it a success. Mary, a St. Clair native, is a nurse, and it wasn’t uncommon for the family to rely on her income some years to supplement the family farm. Still, they persevered, working the fields, raising their children and keeping the farm afloat and growing. The farm’s prosperity was built on the foundation of their life’s work.
Today, Mary and Terry are still actively involved in making sure the farm runs as optimally as possible, even as they eye retirement. They’ve begun succession planning with Jon to pass the farm on to the next generation. They will be happy to see the farm settle into the hands of yet another Guentzel, ensuring that those deep generational roots will continue to yield bountiful harvests for the farm and the community.
Technology, Challenges, and the Future of Farming
Farming is an age-old practice that ushered in the rise of empires and pushed humanity to where we are today. Yet, maybe more than most industries, agriculture is seeing massive change from technological advancement. With this revolution come boundless opportunities and endless challenges.
“Farmers today farm in inches, not acres,” Angela said. Her comment is indicative of how fast technology can change an industry. GPS-guided combines, precision applications and other cutting-edge technologies are now standard practice for farmers nationwide. “This tech allows us to be more efficient and effective with seed placement, fertilizer, pesticide – you name it.”
For the Guentzels, these changes arrived not a moment too soon. Prices have skyrocketed due to supply chain disruptions in the COVID years, the war in Ukraine and inflation. Farmers and consumers alike are grappling with higher prices. Being able to control exactly where, what, and how you apply the various products that make a family farm thrive is critical in this new normal. “We don’t see input costs going down anytime soon,” Angela said.
The volatile market isn’t all they have to contend with. Sometimes it’s their equipment giving them headaches. Last harvest, a failed electronic module on their high-tech Case combine brought the entire farm to a halt. Local Case technicians couldn’t resolve the problem without the activation code, so the Guentzels were at the mercy of Case HQ to fix the problem. “We had to stop everything and wait for an activation code via email from Case corporate,” Angela said. It has been a common gripe from farmers across the United States, who want the right to repair their own machinery instead of being beholden to monolithic equipment manufacturers.
The stress of pricey commodities and potentially fickle equipment is amplified by the labor market, which hasn’t been exactly friendly. It’s well documented that the Greater Mankato Area is in a severe labor crunch. Finding qualified, reliable workers is an uphill battle in any industry, and farming is no different. “We’re hiring everything from truck drivers to applicators to combine operators.” And getting the right people in the right roles is no small task. Some farm roles require qualifications and licensing. Individuals with those credentials are often in short supply compared to the general labor market.
Still, Angela is optimistic. Her biologics company, Mankato Valley Soil Solutions, is one way to get results without costly fertilizer. Biologics is a rising star in the agriculture world, pushing farmers to work in tandem with the natural world by utilizing and promoting the microbial biome of the soil. This calculated scientific approach can complement existing methods at a fraction of the price of more fertilizer.
The Mankato Valley Soil Solutions website aligns with the Guentzels’ passion for agriculture and farming philosophy: “We know farming is not only a business but more so a way of life. We have learned from experience that each operation is different. From a small family farm to a large-scale multifamily operation, we are here to help!”
While Biologics may sound like voodoo to some, the proof is in the yield. The seemingly unconventional elixir has proven results, even if some ingredients seem odd. “Do you want to see my giant jug of thyme oil?” Angela joked when asked about the sometimes-scrupulous reputation surrounding the essential oil market. Nevertheless, it’s clear that innovation is welcome at the Guentzel farm and is a contributing factor to their longevity in the business.
Rooted in Community
Anyone that’s had the pleasure of visiting the Guentzels’ farm knows that community is second-to-none in importance. Angela, Jon and other key volunteers have been instrumental in promoting and organizing “Breakfast on the Farm.” This free, open-to-the-public breakfast lets residents to learn more about modern agriculture, hosted by the Blue Earth and LeSuer County Farm Bureaus. Every year a different local farm hosts the event allowing community members to diversify their agricultural education and get a feel for what goes into food production. The breakfast has activities for kids and provides an opportunity to meet the farmers, ask questions, see equipment and get a taste of day-to-day farm life.
In recent years, misinformation, polarization, and intense commentary have made their way into the farming industry, just as they have into politics. Hot-button issues like the environment, climate change, and water quality have people fired up on both sides. Federal and state regulations have fed into what could be considered anti-farming sentiments. These breakfasts are a way to get the public face-to-face with farmers and hear some information straight from the horse’s mouth. “It’s a way to unite people, their food, and their farmers and ask any questions they might have,” Angela said.
Despite these strong opinions, Angela has hope. “I’ve seen it get a lot better. I’m optimistic,” she responded when asked about communication between farmers and the public. “It’s fair that people want to know where their food is coming from.” She sympathizes with those who are leery of industrializing agriculture; however, she believes that some reports are misleading and, at worst, flat-out wrong. “Farmers are inherently independent people, and it came to a point where their story was being told for them.” That’s part of the reason she is so ardent about being involved in the community and acting as a bridge between food production and the consumer.
However, the Guentzels community involvement doesn’t end with a hearty breakfast and open house once a year. They support local efforts to connect community members to ag in whatever way they can. The farm often has visitors from local schools, pre-k to high school, encouraging children to understand where food comes from and what it takes to be a farmer.
Similarly, they’re involved with the Future Farmers of America program, lending out plots of land to grow pumpkins which are then sold to fund scholarships for the members of FFA. All this is an effort to plant the seed of agriculture in younger generations. It’s a noble cause, given that the average age of farmers has been steadily increasing for decades, topping out at 57.5 in 2017 when the last census was complete.
Jon and Angela are also intimately involved with the Kiwanis Holiday Lights. Jon sits on the board, and both are mainstays during teardown in January. “We’d help set up, but that’s right during Harvest. At least that’s the excuse we use when the rest of the volunteers are hard at work,” Angela said.
It’s clear that the things that brought Guentzel Family Farms to this point will continue to sustain them into the future. They have the right ideas, the right resources, and the right values to keep them prosperous for the foreseeable future.
“We just want to keep growing (no pun intended) and adapting to changing markets, changing technology and changing resources,” Angela said. “The bottom line is that our family has been farming in the area for well over 150 years. We want to make sure that legacy continues.”
Minnesotans hope these family roots will continue to grow for generations to come.
Guentzel Family Farms Partnership
32128 490th St, Kasota, MN 56050
Mankato Valley Soil Solutions
32172 490th St, Kasota, MN 56050