Covering the Land of Lincoln

First Generation Illinois Farmers Show Partners Make It Work

THE BEGINNING

Neither Rachel nor Jared come from farming. Rachel’s dad was a banker. Her farming grandfathers retired early in her life. Jared has always wanted to farm since farming the carpet in his boyhood home of Peoria. His parents did not farm. He remembers his grandparents as retired farmers still living on their farms.

Jared began working on farms around the Peoria area while attending Dunlap High School, Dunlap, Illinois. It was common to find him at his grandparents’ and his great-aunt’s farm, working and peppering the tenant farmer there with questions. As an 18-year-old, Jared got his commercial driver’s license to drive semis. It was a good move. For two summers in college, he drove for Westlake Harvesting, out of Crookston, Minnesota. “Al Westlake taught me that a good boss jumps into the trenches and not to hire people to do the work you don’t want to do. Lead by example.”

He and Rachel met at Monmouth College in their junior year and were married in June 2007, three weeks after graduation. Jared played on the college tennis team and earned a sports management degree. Rachel graduated with a double major in business administration and history, with a minor in accounting.

Rachel was working at Caterpillar, in Peoria, Illinois, and Jared at Cross Creek Farms, in Brimfield, Illinois, where he drove trucks and learned agronomy under the tutelage of farm manager Rod Stahl.

“I had expectations,” Rachel says of their early married days. “But if you had asked then whether we would be farming, I would have said no. He played tennis in college, so I thought I was marrying a city boy.

“I saw very quickly Jared’s passion for farming, and so when we made the decision to come back and try to farm on our own, it made sense to me,” Rachel continues. “I had no doubt God’s plan for Jared was farming, and I did not want to stand in the way of that. There were feelings and insecurities I had to work through, but looking back it has only made our marriage, and who we are , stronger.”

A FARM LAUNCHED

It was a gesture of generosity that launched the Kunkles’ operation.

Rachel’s uncle, Milo Sprout, was handling 80 acres for his aunt. He offered to rent it to Jared in 2008. It gave the Kunkles a beachhead into farming.

“Rachel’s uncle gave us a shot,” Jared says. “And he supported us. He still supports us to this day, jumping onto a piece of equipment when I need an extra person.” Jared and Rachel have talked about her uncle’s act of generosity — a profound gesture that they prize. They look to a day when they might do the same for someone else.

The sports management graduate moved deeper into farming. Jared went to work with a local farmer, trading labor for seat time in his equipment, to farm those 80 acres. By 2011, the Kukles were renting local ground from an investor and from Rachel’s grandparents.

There was a five-year stint of custom harvesting. “It does not lead to a very good home life,” Jared admits. Daughter, Ada, was born in the middle of that. “For those five years, I was nonexistent in the family during harvest.”

Rachel found herself stretched between Ada and work at Caterpillar, an hour away. She worked as a cost accountant in manufacturing. “So, I dropped a bomb on Jared,” she says. “We were trying to farm, and I was driving a little over two hours round trip to my full-time job with a baby at home.” She and Jared talked about how she might step back from her job.

“He talked with our lender and went to bat for me. We knew we needed off-farm income, but how much and keep peace in the family?”

They found the answer. Rachel left Caterpillar. Today, she keeps the farm books and splits duties with their insurance company partner, Julie, to write new business. She also prepares monthly reports for the Kukles’ largest farm-management client. Ada is now 11, and the Kukles’ son, Jayden, is 9.

WORK MADE IT WORK

Jared is sometimes asked how Kunkle Farms got his feet on the ground. “It’s doing a lot of things that I didn’t want to do,” Jared says. “I drove a semi. I did carpentry work, worked for an electrical contractor, snow plowing in the winter, even taking farm research surveys, you know, for that $100 meeting. Whatever it took for us to take that next step.”

Rachel noticed. “I was very appreciative of the fact he was willing to work so hard, his willingness to work things out even if it was a way not everyone did. I’m sure not every day it came across. But I think we both really understood where we were in that stage. If we were going to make a go, this is what we needed to do.”

It is an effort together. “Rachel is my partner. We have found that communicating with each other has helped us in our marriage as well as our business,” Jared says. “We see each other as equals, and I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else, because she always has my back.”

Watch the video about Jared and Rachel Kunkle at https://www.dtnpf.com/…

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Editor’s note:

This is the fourth of five profiles of our 13th class of America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers sponsored by DTN/ Progressive Farmer. They are among the best of their generation who have chosen agriculture as a profession and lifestyle. The annual award recognizes five farmers and ranchers who best represent the pioneering promises of American agriculture: Farmers and ranchers who are innovative, imaginative and who work to improve their communities.

See all the 2023 America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers Winners, as well as information on how to apply for 2024, at https://spotlights.dtnpf.com/…

If you missed other stories in the series, go to:

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers – 1, “Texan Farmer Along Rio Grande River Does Business With Mexico” at https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers – 2, “Fifth Generation Nebraska Farmer Fond of Finding New Efficiencies” https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers – 3, “Young Arkansas Farmer Treasures His Land Tied to His Great-Great-Grandmother,” https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Dan Miller can be reached at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter @DMillerPF

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