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Alumni Kunkle, Spurgeon to participate in farming panel

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Two alumni who recently began very different types of agricultural operations will be the featured guests when Monmouth College’s Global Food Security Triad hosts a panel discussion on “How to Start a Farm in Western Illinois.”

Jared Kunkle ’07 and Dusty Sanor Spurgeon ’10 will join moderator Eric Engstrom, a member of the Global Food Security Triad faculty, at 2 p.m. April 22 at the College’s Educational Garden, located in the 1000 block of East Broadway.

Kunkle did not come from a traditional farming background, growing up in a subdivision, but he has been farming full-time on his own since 2011. Farming has been a passion of his since childhood, when he would visit his grandparents’ operation as often as he could. To gain further knowledge and experience, he worked for several farmers during and after college. Today, Kunkle serves as president of the Warren-Henderson Farm Bureau and is actively involved in multiple organizations in the community.

“There are many different ways to farm, and to have a farm,” said Kunkle. “There are pros and cons like any business, and different styles of farming that fit that particular person. There are opportunities out there.”

Despite encountering naysayers who challenged his suburban upbringing, Kunkle has found a niche on an “average-size farm” south of Monmouth, thanks to the home front and to his variety of learning experiences.

“First, I have a supportive spouse,” said Kunkle, who is married to 2007 Monmouth graduate Rachel Jenks. “Also, it took me working different jobs at different sizes and styles of farms. From each job I’ve had, I’ve taken something away.”

As for challenges, Kunkle said, “Land, number one. We have very good soils, but that comes with a higher price tag. ... Farm income is low right now, and commodity prices are low, but sooner or later, that will be heading in the right direction. We’re in the middle of that cycle right now, but hopefully we’re closer to the end.”

Asked to take a glimpse into the future of farming, Kunkle replied, “I think you’ll see less physical labor and more mental labor. Lots of data gets circulated. It’s definitely different just in the eight years that I’ve been doing it full time. You’ll see more occupations based on technology than on the labor side. I also think you’ll see more autonomous equipment. Farmers will have more units, but they’ll be smaller.”

Partly because of the challenges he’s overcome, Kunkle is supportive of all types of farms.

“I think there’s room for everything,” he said. “It’s good there are different sizes, and people doing things locally like Dusty. The only thing I’m not for is marketing based on fear, not facts.”

Spurgeon is the co-owner and full-time manager of Spurgeon Veggies, a dual-farm operation with locations in East Galesburg, Ill., and Rio, Ill. She began farming shortly after graduating from Monmouth, where she learned the ins and outs of farming and business management. Spurgeon now manages a 100-member CSA and a large stand at the Galesburg Farmers’ Market. She and her husband, 2009 Monmouth graduate John Spurgeon, recently built a house at the larger Rio farm, where they plan to have an open-daily farmstand.

Spurgeon finds herself tackling both types of labor that Kunkle referenced. She is heavily involved in the physical aspect of farming, including doing some of it, such as planting onions, painstakingly by hand. She also needs to strategize in terms of marketing Spurgeon Veggies, for which she relies heavily on social media.

Strategy is also required in terms of the size of her operation, which is currently three acres in East Galesburg and five in Rio.

“Growing slowly has worked for us,” she said. “We could potentially farm a few more acres, but I really like the local aspect of our business. We know our farmers market customers intimately, as well as the members of our CSA. I don’t want to lose that familiarity. It’s trying to find that balance. We’re trying to mechanize a little more, but it takes a lot of upfront investment to do that.”

While larger operations in the region focus solely on corn and/or soybeans, Spurgeon plants “a hundred different things.”

“We’ve very diversified, and that diversification is our insurance,” she said.

That diversification includes asparagus, broccoli, carrots, daikon, eggplant, fennel and garlic (alphabetically, only a handful of letters aren’t represented). The list also includes one of the operation’s most popular products, potatoes.

“You normally see only a couple types of potatoes, but we plant nine or 10 different kinds,” said Spurgeon. “They’re really popular, and so are our heirloom tomatoes, which are pretty unique.”

Also unique, said Spurgeon, is the type of weather she’s encountered in her young career.

“Climate change freaks me out, it really does,” replied Spurgeon on a chilly, windy mid-April day that began with snow flurries. “I’ve been farming now for eight years, and every year is so wildly different than the rest. It makes it hard to figure out the farming part and hard to figure out the business part.”