By Del Ficke, Owner and Operator of Ficke Cattle Company
This letter was originally published in The Future of Family Farms: Practical Farmers’ Legacy Letter Project
To my future generations:
In 1860, Johann Ficke made the trip from Germany to settle in the United States. Just nine years later, after first arriving in Wisconsin, he found a beautiful spot a mile west of Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, to homestead and begin the labors that have become our family’s legacy. In 1888, Johann purchased the farm I grew up on for my great-grandfather, H.F., and his wife, Annette, when they got married. H.F. and Annette had four sons and two daughters – Frank, Fred, Hank, Mary, Helen and my grandpa Adolph. Adolph and Lana had three children – Clifford, who tragically died at the age of three, my father, Kenneth, and a daughter, Ellen.
To this day, we are farmers and cattlemen – that is the core of our family’s agricultural history. However, at the center of the story is family – we all live very close to one another. My sisters, Janet, Rhonda, and Jolene live within a section of my wife, Brenda, our daughter, Emily, and me. My mother, Beverly, lives just across the lawn from our house. I am also so proud to say that my son, Austin, and his wife, Alyssa, and baby daughter, Attley, are living in a cottage that we built for them directly west of our house as well. Needless to say, my heart bursts with the blessing of the seventh generation of Fickes living here today.
However, while genealogies are important, I write this letter to those who will come far after I am gone in order that you better understand the realities of carrying on a true family farming operation. The key is the family. This personal family story truly begins with my father, who was always putting himself aside so we would have a better life. His secret was simple – a life-long commitment to clearly communicating to all of us how we were the most essential part of keeping the farm going. We were his legacy, not the land and the livestock, but rather the family he loved so much.
In the early ‘80s, Dad and Mom told my sisters and me to come around the table. They had a plan, and we were part of it. The plan was fair and equitable in that it was based on each of our levels of involvement in the farming operation. There were no issues because we were all there to ask questions, and we respected what they were saying because it was coming from our their mouths, not a piece of paper after they were gone. Their hearts and minds were in front of us, sharing their dreams and desires. As siblings, there is no going back on that because we all love each other, respect one another and trust their plans.
Dad and Mom deeded the land to all of us kids and retained a life use of it (a life estate). They agreed to pay all expenses and get all the income from the land. My father has since passed away, so right now my mom rents all the land to me and she pays taxes and also gets the cash rent income. In essence, I am paying for land that is already deeded to me. But that’s okay because the land has always been protected and because as a family we have verbally talked this through and clearly understand the intended purposes of this type of arrangement.
Growing up, my father sent me all over the country to learn about cattle and agriculture. When I was 20 years old at Thanksgiving my dad announced to everyone, “Del will be in charge of the farming operation starting tomorrow morning.” He hadn’t told me that prior to that public announcement. But I understand why now. My dad wanted his son to understand how every part of the operation worked at a young age. He would often bring up stories of our neighbors with sons who were 50 to 80 years old and had no clue when the father passed away how to run the farm.
My father’s decision to hand over the reins came with a lot of stress at times. However, the key factor was that he was alive to provide the guidance and allowed me to make the decisions. He ultimately watched me make a lot of mistakes and also achieve some successes. He did not co-sign any notes. It was my business to run, profits and losses.
I built our farming operation to 7,000 acres of farmland and pastures for Ficke Cattle Company. I did this through relationship building and learning to adopt new practices to create more efficiencies. In 1987, I started no-tilling. For one growing season my dad would not talk to me about the crops because he was so dismayed about planting into the weeds and stalks. It turned out that first year of no-tilling was a very dry year. On Dad’s tilled acres the yields suffered. However, on my end, the no-till acres had doubled in production over his tilled acres. Needless to say, Dad was a no-till fan after that.
In 1999, things dramatically changed again and needed to. I believe that when my back blew out that year, God was sending me a message about the future and what really matters about family farming. The farm boy was forced to re-think his life. I went to college because I couldn’t physically farm that many acres and stay alive. During college, I was still managing all 7,000 acres. Then I decided to offer the farming opportunity to my nephews Matt and Ryan. In turn, I took a position managing a medical clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, while still maintaining my cow herd.
Agriculture was always in my heart though, and I have been blessed to see agriculture from so many points of view. Because of my experiences both on and off the farm, I have been inspired to embark on a new journey. Today, I am back home running this 500-acre farm. My goal is to restore and improve the soils back to the way God intended. A couple years ago we started implementing cover crops on our operation. We are also taking row-crop acres and putting them into season-long cover crop grazing scenarios and ensuring our native pastures are performing at their maximum potential.
We have trademarked our composite breed of cattle – Graze Master Genetics™ that are suited for 100 percent forage-based programs. I am also doing consulting across the country on cattle and transitioning farms and ranches in a more holistic manner. My passion is taking what I have learned and helping others learn from my mistakes and successes along the way.
Most importantly, I feel like we are doing the right things again. We are enjoying the smell of sweet clover and alfalfa. We have a Russian immigrant and his son providing bees and producing honey that in turn gives us healthier crops and pastures. There are a host of rewarding transformations taking place.
The farm is full of more birds than ever. I carry around a bird book so I can identify them. I also carry a range book and a cover crop book so I can identify the new plants coming up through the soil. We are also not irrigated so water conservation issues are real and top-of-mind every day.
Improving the environment on this farm is a top goal. We have decreased the use of chemicals and synthetic fertilizers by 95 percent on our pastures. It’s always about building up the soil and retaining the water. We also want to continue to make our farm a place where all our neighbors, both rural and urban, are welcome and can learn.
My Grandpa Adolph’s and my father’s voices are constant companions with me. Both of them were big on community and neighbors. Grandpa Adolph said, “The day the horses left and the tractor came was the day we replaced community with competition.” He would constantly talk with me about the way we were doing things on the farm, and he didn’t think things were going the right way. He was anti-too much government and anti-the overreach of corporations into farming and livestock. Grandpa Adolph certainly helped me be more discerning about what is being “sold” to the typical farmer – everything from equipment to chemicals. There’s a lot of propaganda about what we really “need” and a lot more wisdom needed to actually make good decisions.
Like the generations before me, the family is the most important part of the farm. It is their talents and gifts that are the most precious resources. The land must be worked for and is not guaranteed but the creativity of the next generation can keep the farm and Ficke Cattle Company going with new ideas and dreams.
Thirty years from now I want to be remembered for doing things the way God intended. Work has to mean something through the generations. There must be integrity – with your community, family and the environment.
So be a Ficke! Do it your way, think on your own and be independent.
Del Ficke is the owner and operator of Ficke Cattle Company in Pleasant Dale, Nebraska.