From left, Billy, Willa Grace and Kalena Bruce on their farm in Cedar County, Missouri.
|“Farming is in our blood. It’s what we’ve always known,” Kalena Bruce. #MOFamilyFarms|
|Life on the gravel road has other lessons, besides learning where food comes from -- hard work & sustainability.|
The patch of earth in Cedar County, Missouri, that Billy and Kalena Bruce call theirs looks like the quintessential southwest Missouri farm: rolling hills, red barn, silver silo and the ever-present gravel road to get there. Cattle dot the hillsides and come running when they see the feed truck pull up.
The Bruces both grew up on a farm. Both are fifth-generation farmers.
“Farming is in our blood. It’s what we’ve always known,” Kalena says. “Continuing that lifestyle for us and for our children is very important to both of us.”
Carrying on the family business was the plan. They went to college, got degrees, came home, got married and began to raise cattle on rented ground near their families while waiting, and hoping, for land to become available.
Two years ago, they got lucky. They bought a farm a mile down the gravel road from their home and Kalena’s family’s farm. It was perfect even though it had been neglected due to an aging farmer's challenges to keep up with a farm.
“It’s hard to come by for most people, and definitely in Cedar County,” Kalena says. “We’ve been able to take this farm… and try to turn it back into the farm that we know it can be.” They’ve implemented rotational grazing between pastures and installed water lines across the farm to manage the herd and improve the land simultaneously.
Billy agrees. “When it came time to buy a farm, we were fortunate enough to do so,” he says. “This farm is very much ours, but not without the support of both sides of our family.”
ON THE FARM
Farming for the Bruces is a family affair. Billy and Kalena — and they hope someday their 2-year-old daughter Willa Grace — raise cattle, specializing in cows and calves. This year they are venturing into raising steers for market. They have diversified through an agritourism opportunity with an on-farm berry patch and corn maze with Kalena’s twin sister, Chelsea and her husband, Josh Abercrombie, and their parents, Peggy and Lynden Kenney. The family planted 27,000 strawberry plants — all by hand — this year.
“I eat breakfast there every morning,” Billy says. “I just jump the fence when they’re in season and grab a hat full.”
In addition to strawberries the family grows blackberries, raspberries and blueberries on the three-acre patch, and while the family enjoys it, it’s also a great way to interact with consumers, Kalena says. They come out, pick their own or have them picked, see the views, talk about where their food comes from and how it’s grown. "We are a rural community, but we are also a lake community so we get a great deal of traffic from Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield,” she adds.
It is more rewarding when people who have never been on a farm come and make the connection, Billy says. “That’s where it’s at. That’s why [Kalena, Chelsea and Peggy] do it. They don’t do it for the hard work or for the money. You’ve got people coming out who don’t even have rocks in their yard. They can’t believe it’s on a gravel road.”
Life on the gravel road has other lessons, besides learning where food comes from; they are lessons of hard work and sustainability.
“At the time of completion, being able to look up and see what you’ve done, the improvement you’ve made,” Billy says, “it’s right here in front of you. … Being a steward of the land and improving it, anything that we do together as a family, we’re always looking for Willa, what she can do with it. We don’t ever go into something thinking, we’ll change this for us.”
Sustaining the land is top of mind for the Bruces, and they help consumers distinguish between the true definition and the popular marketing hype associated with sustainability.
“My mind doesn’t always go to conservation and land management practices because Billy and I are 5th-generation farmers,” Kalena says. “Our families have Century Farms. My family has a farm that’s been in our name since 1847. We ‘get’ how important it is to take care of our land, be good stewards of it so that we can pass it to the next generation. It’s part of good business. It’s part of our lifestyle. So sustainability, to me, just means continuing our way of life, which goes hand-in-hand with developing and keeping our rural communities going.
“Willa will be able to know the satisfaction of putting in a hard day’s work on the farm,” Kalena continues. “She will have the opportunity to experience real agriculture. Be able to experience life and death. Kids don’t always get that opportunity early in life.”
“It sets the ground work for a lot of different directions that you can go and the effort that you’ll put into something moving forward,” Billy says. “You could have a lazy kid on the farm just as you could have a hard worker… right now she doesn’t know what lazy is so we’ll keep it that way.”
The main thing growing up on the farm instilled in the Bruces, Billy says, is a strong work ethic. “We don’t quit at 5 necessarily; sometimes, it begins at 5.” From a realistic standpoint, both work off the farm. It’s not possible to obtain what they have without “day jobs,” he says, but they see those jobs as an extension of what they do on the farm.
OFF THE FARM
The Bruces are part of the 52 percent of U.S. farmers that have off-farm jobs.
With a degree in accounting, Kalena is a certified public accountant (CPA) full time with Chelsea at their firm in Bolivar. “I get the privilege of having a firm and working every day with my sister. So, we get to work off the farm and on the farm together,” Kalena says.
Being a CPA ties in to everything that she does as a farmer and rancher: good record keeping, watching that bottom line and making sure inputs aren’t more than outputs especially in a downward market. She also has an opportunity to help other farmers and ranchers make smart business decisions.
Most days, Billy doesn’t consider what he does off the farm a “job.” He’s an auctioneer. He sells cattle weekly at a local market and works with his dad and brother on the weekends doing estate, public, farm and equipment liquidation sales. His auctioneer gig runs about 50 weeks, taking up most weekends.
“The first thing I ever sold was a Barbie collection,” Billy says. It was at a public sale in Humansville in 2006. “It was an estate sale and the late Bill Le’An — my dad’s partner at the time — said the first thing you sell you’ll always remember. So here’s the microphone, Billy, you’re going to sell a Barbie doll collection. I won’t forget it; scarred me for life.” He says with a laugh. He admits he’s never bought his daughter, Willa, a Barbie doll and probably never will.
BEYOND THE GRAVEL ROAD
In addition to the farm and jobs, Billy and Kalena are active in the Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers Program at the county, state and national levels. They have served on the Missouri Farm Bureau YF&R Committee and are currently serving the last year of a two-year term on the American Farm Bureau YF&R committee, where Kalena is the national chair.
“The door opened for us starting at the county level. Our involvement at the county level was small but very rewarding,” Billy says. That first step opened doors at the state and national level for the Bruces.
“We chose to put our name in the hat for nomination for the American Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee for that opportunity, personal growth, bringing something really neat back to our little hometown of 1,800 people,” Kalena says. It means a great deal to the Bruces that area farmers have expressed pride in their contribution and involvement.
It’s also been an opportunity for them to connect with and learn from young farmers across the country to discover what makes them the same and unique. They’ve learned about tobacco grown in the Carolinas, romaine lettuce growers in Yuma, Ariz., and farming practices in other corners of the nation. Without YF&R, there would have been little exposure to the agriculture they have witnessed.
Despite the differences, young farmers in the United States face the same issues, Kalena says. “We’re trying to figure out new ways to make land payments, or for some YF&R members get the down money to purchase a farm. We’re all raising families, spending disposable income on things like diapers, formula — not necessarily things that the rest of the farming community has to spend their money on. It comes back to having that support group, making those connections and knowing that they’re out there for us, too.”
As a second-year member, Kalena was selected by her peers as the 2017 AFBF YF&R chair in January. “We serve on a committee of very talented leaders and agriculture advocates,” she says. “So for them to think that I have what it takes to lead us in the fight for 2017 is very humbling.”
With such a short time on the committee and an even shorter time as chair, Kalena hopes the work they’re doing sets in motion more long-term goals. She mentions working with FFA American Degree winners and ramping up the nationwide Farm Bureau Harvest for All food bank project, but she ultimately hopes to make better communicators and better leaders for agriculture.
“The most valuable thing I have learned has been to just be more personable … to tell my story in such a way that somebody from South Carolina understands what a cow/calf operation or a u-pick berry farm looks like in Missouri,” Kalena says.
“We’re such a small percentage of the public and for us to provide a positive voice for what we do is a huge focus,” Billy says. “Young farmers need to know it is okay to speak up for what you believe in because that is what it will take to keep agriculture moving forward.”