June 2, 2011 at 8:21 a.m.
All of farming is basically a cycle, one that's managed and manipulated -- but still a cycle-- and Bobby sees how his family farm fits in. The allure of farming can't be explained in the long hours, stress or the thankless back breaking work. Without sounding too much like a Disney song lyric, the reason people farm is to experience a rhythm and connectedness to the cycle of life.
Chisago County Farm Family of the Year parents Lisa and Steve Sontag made sure all their four kids were there for the interview: Jill , home from college at LaCrosse, Wisconsin; and Sara, 17, Bobby, 16 and Mark, 15. The Sontag kids have been active in 4H and FFA and participate in the state fair and county fairs as competitors and even in judging. If you've seen a presentation outside the dairy building, at the State Fair, you might have seen one of them doing their thing.
Sara and Bobby compete in high level FFA events as well.
They also hold jobs. Jill works at Osceola Gun Club and Wildwood Campground. Sara has been employed at Eichten's and also provides relief hours where brother Bobby also works, at Panola Dairy (Ron and Sue Johnson's place.)
The family is active where they worship at Chisago Lake Lutheran Church and the kids are in sports.
Each knows their role in the Sontag operation; which becomes clear when a blaring car horn can be heard at a neighbor's place; drawing the kids attention. They disappear through the treeline and return running, yelling that the cows found a hole in the electric fenceline and are loose. No farmer likes to hear valuable livestock are out.
Bobby and one of the girls hop on an ATV and take-off cross country. Steve uses a pickup truck. In minutes all the family members return and the animals are accounted for.
It's intensive work caring for anywhere from 40 to 45 calves, keeping them warm, clean and fed, and yes, contained. The Sontags are also tracking animal bloodlines to continue to provide replacement stock having preferred genetic traits. Lisa explained that more and more dairy farmers who are running fulltime milking operations rely on herd replacement through farms like the Sontag's.
There are also feed crops on the Sontag farmstead and they sometimes sell hay or alfalfa. Lisa said they'll rotate with soybeans when there's a market. Barn cats and a free-wheeling flock of nosy poultry pretty much round out the animal inventory.
Steve works off the farm, as so many farmers do now-a-days. He is a union journeyman carpenter currenty working on a commercial construction site in Wisconsin at this time. Working with wood is something Steve says he's done all his life. Their farmhouse sports a beautiful deck and the outward appearance of belonging to someone good with tools.
Lisa and Steve grew up in the Scandia area on farms.
Both always wanted to own a farm and 15 years ago, "We were just lucky to find this place," said Lisa.
Seated in the afternoon sun at the picnic table Steve and Lisa recall, "We looked around for years for a useable farm, and we'd find one with a fixed-up house but then the barn wasn't right...we've put alot of work into this place but it's been worth it."
Steve comments on the housing development happening nearby. Farmers count on getting income for their retirement in some form out of their land, so he doesn't begrudge those who sold to developers. His hope, though, is that the dairy industry stays strong, and that people will continue to need quality heifers and there'll be room for at least one of his kids in agriculture somewhere.
The University of Minnesota has sponsored the Farm Family of the Year program for decades as a way to promote understanding of agriculture and as a way to honor farmers for community involvement and for maintaining high standards in the farm industry.
Previous Chisago County Farm Families of the Year have been crop producers, hog farmers and niche farmers growing specialized crops.
~ The Dept. of Agriculture reports that Minnesota gets about an $11 billion dollar economic impact from livestock production and the area generates at least 100,000 jobs.
~ Chisago County is not in the top 10 of Minnesota counties for any of the agricultural livestock sectors anymore. The areas are dairy, beef, hogs, poultry and sheep.
~ Stearns County is tops in dairy.
~ Chisago County was ranked at 63 of 87 counties in cash receipts for livestock for 2007-2008.
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