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Thursday

August 2014

21

Trading the office for crops, beef, tractors

Fall harvest makes for busy time for farmers

The fall wind whips leaves and soybean husks across the field as I walk to the idling combine. Rob Schuett greets me and directs me up the stairs and onto the rumbling machine. While his day started much earlier than mine - his day usually starts around 6 a.m. - Rob has invited me to spend the afternoon harvesting soybeans in the combine for my latest On the Job story.

Settled in the cab of the combine, Rob pushes a few buttons, pulls a lever, and things start to move.

He explains that the two rows of triangular teeth at the bottom of the machine scissor back and forth, cutting the soybean plants. The reel pulls the plants into the header, which removes the stems from the beans. The beans are then held in the grain tank or "hopper" before being emptied into Rob's semi.

You might not notice from the road, but sitting about 8 feet in the air, the effect of the summer's drought is clear: bare patches intersperse the field. Rob tells me the soybean crop is about half that of a normal year. Still, the combine is hard at work cutting, then separating the soybeans from the stems.

The Schuetts plant and harvest 400 acres of soybeans and 800 acres of corn each year on a mix of land that they own and rent. They also grow and supply hay to area stables.

During the harvesting season, Rob can be in his combine for up to 14 hours a day, often working in the fields until 9 or 10 p.m. Fortunately, the combine is equipped with air conditioning and heat, which can help make the long hours more pleasant. He also has a radio and tape player to keep him company. And he carries his cell phone with him so he can check the weather and take calls (although it's a bit loud to chat.)

Once the long hours in the fields are over, the day still isn't done. Then it's on to checking email and managing the books.

Diversity

Each year, the Schuetts plant and design an 8-acre corn maze and grow thousands of pumpkins in their pumpkin patch in anticipation of fall - the part of their farm that Rob dubs "agritainment."

"We try to be very diverse in what we do," Rob says.

The Schuett family also raises steer, most of which they sell privately. "People are wanting to know where their meat and food comes from," he tells me while turning the combine. "I tell people they can even pick out their own steer if they want to." He laughs; most people opt not to see their cow beforehand.

Rob tells me that many people tell him stories about their father or great-grandfather who were farmers. "People want to get back to (those farm roots)," he says.

Cyclical nature of farming

Rob explains a typical year for a farmer like himself: Planting begins in April and May. By the end of May or early June, hay is ready to be bailed about once every 30 days. Throughout the summer the rest of the crops are tended to before the harvest begins around Oct. 1 through the middle of November. December brings in a slew of Christmas precut trees to sell.

Growing a family on the farm

Farming began as something of a hobby for the Schuett family in 1958 when Rob's dad, Bob, bought 80 acres on Holiday Drive in Mukwonago. "He bought the farm as a recreational place," Rob says. "He started farming right away." I ask about his dad's motivation for starting the farm. "It was just a way to bring up the family," he tells me.

After working for a company for a year after high school, Rob realized that the farm lifestyle was something that he wanted to provide his own family. In 1978, Rob started his own 40-acre farm with five cows and 200 pigs.

The family now has 70 beef steers, no pigs and farms about 1,200 acres. Schuett Farms is run by Rob, his wife, Linda, son Scott, one hired hand and several high school kids throughout the harvest .

"You enjoy it when you work for yourself and outside," said Rob, as we pause between fields to let a flock of wild turkeys pass. "It becomes more than a business."

Rob said it would be expensive for anyone to start up a farm from scratch, and those interesting in joining an established farm, "have to be willing to put in the hours and put up with the weather." Around this time of year he has his eye on frost and freezing conditions.

I ask about the future of farming as we return to the semi with one last load.

"It has to continue because we have to continue to feed the world," he says in his matter-of-fact way.

Farming will continue for Rob, anyway. "I intend to farm my whole life," he tells me through the dust.

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