Iowa’s Century Farms anchor more than just soil – help keep communities viable
Schildroths’ Grundy Co. Century Farm profiled
With 268 Century Farms now dotting the Grundy County landscape – three more added just this year – it may be easy to dismiss the designation, especially for those with no familial connections to a farm anymore. But from the point of view of Melvin Schildroth – whose rural Reinbeck farm celebrated 100 years of continuous family ownership this year – a Century Farm is more than just a farm.
A Century Farm is an anchor that often keeps rural, small-town Iowa alive – at least for now.
This past August, Schildroth, his wife Janet, their daughter Jodi Schildroth Michael and son Scott Schildroth, along with their families, were honored by the Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in Des Moines at the Iowa State Fair Livestock Pavilion with a Century Farm designation for continuously owning farm land for 100 years or more.
“My grandad [George Schildroth] actually bought the farm in 1918,” Schildroth said in early September, a few weeks after the Des Moines ceremony, while seated around his and Janet’s kitchen table in Reinbeck, before continuing with a chuckle, “but he sold it, then bought it again in 1922.”
Basically, Schildroth said, his grain and cattle farm – located just a few miles northwest of Reinbeck – has been in the family’s hands for more than 100 years and throughout that time “there’s always been a male Schildroth farming it.”
Today, Schildroth himself no longer operates the farm full-time. He and Janet — both Reinbeck High School Class of 1962 graduates — moved off the farm to the town of Reinbeck in 2007. Their children and a granddaughter run the operation now but Schildroth – like many an Iowa farmer – does not consider himself retired. Farmers don’t “retire,” he said.
“I’ve never been to a retirement for a farmer,” Schildroth said with a laugh while tucking into a piece of Janet’s homemade coffee cake.
“At his funeral luncheon, he will retire,” Janet added playfully – but truthfully.
It is hardly a cliche to state that farming is in Schildroth’s blood. When asked where he thinks he might have ended up in life if he hadn’t taken up his father’s and grandfather’s profession, Schildroth pauses for a moment before looking to Janet.
“He wouldn’t be a carpenter!” Janet responds with a laugh.
“There really wasn’t any thought about anything else,” Schildroth adds. “It’s born into you, I think.”
Farming is thus in many ways a privilege for those lucky enough to enter this world on a working farm – a world in which it is getting harder and harder to make a living as a farmer without ‘getting bigger’ and practically impossible to take up farming without a family connection.
But being at the helm of a family farm today has become not only a privilege but also a responsibility as more and more small towns and rural hubs – like Reinbeck – must fight to stay alive, to attract young families, to keep the local public school doors open, to staff the rural EMS, and so on.
For in addition to the acres sowed for 100 years or more, a Century Farm has also helped to sow the local community.
“Someday, it’s going to fall apart,” Schildroth said in answer to a question about the future of family farming. “It concerns me that consolidation is going on and there seems to be a few people buying all the farmland. That bothers me – that it’s getting concentrated into fewer hands.”
While Schildorth said he understands the need today to “get bigger” he also sees the conundrum in that statement.
“It’s very hard on these little communities. There’s no families anymore. I could name how many farms around us that had four, five, six kids – there’s nobody there anymore. The buses drive around, and nobody gets on them [for miles].”
It’s also getting harder, Schildroth said, to find people – outside the family – to work on a farm.
“It’s hard to find labor, yes,” Schildroth said. “We’re running into that.”
Thankfully for the Schildroths – in addition to Jodi and Scott and their significant others – the Schildroth Century Farm also has a third generation working the fields, their granddaughter Jill Collins who lives just up the road from her grandparents on the outskirts of Reinbeck.
“The technology allowed her to step right [into farming] pretty quickly,” Schildroth said of his granddaughter.
But while the tech may have made it easy for Jill to take up the planter, so to speak, she still needed the wisdom of a longtime farmer like Schildroth to learn the land.
“He taught Jill how to drive the around terraces,” Janet said. “She could run the technology — but he taught her farming.”
“I kid Jill – someday she’ll sit in the office and watch the tractors work the field,” Schildroth adds. “The technology just blows you away. I don’t believe some of the stuff they’re doing. Our parents certainly wouldn’t. It can be frustrating but it allows me to be able to still do some things.”
These days, as a retired but not-really-retired farmer, Schildroth finally gets to do the things he really wants to do.
“There’s no typical day. I just do odd jobs. I mow waterways in the summer. I do the stuff they don’t have time to do. I do whatever little dirt work jobs need done in a field.”
Work that someone will get to eventually because someone is there, living there, on the family farmstead like Jodi, or just up the road in town like Jill.
And despite the fact that Schildroth said more than once during the interview that he “didn’t have anything to do” with the creation of what is now his family’s Century Farm – “thank my grandfather,” he said – without people like Schildroth continuing to keep small family farms alive, the landscape in Iowa might change even further from when his grandfather first bought land.
School consolidations might stretch into eight or 10 letter-school names instead of just the four and five-letter names that pepper the state now.
“You’ve got to care about the farm,” Schildroth said before heading to his truck to visit the farm. “That’s what built this community — it’s a farm community.”
For more information about Century and Heritage (150 years) Farms in Iowa including a database for each county, refer to the Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship website: https://iowaagriculture.gov/century-and-heritage-farm-program