KANDIYOHI — “Just a regular old farm,” is how Gene Gatewood describes his family-owned dairy, livestock and little-bit-of-everything farm south of Kandiyohi.
“We stay busy,” said Gatewood, with an easy aw-shucks-kind-of-grin.
It’s clearly an understatement for the third-generation farmer, who milks nearly 70 cows in a tie-stall barn and raises beef, sheep and chickens for on-the-farm sales of meat and eggs in a side venture called “Grandpa’s Granary.”
There’s also a couple of goats, a donkey, a mini-horse and a pair of peacocks thrown into the mix, purely for fun.
“Just plain and simple, it’s the enjoyment of having the animals is the biggest thing out of it,” said Gatewod of the menagerie. “Do we need some of them? No. But they’re fun.”
The family brings the farm to town by selling their beef, lamb and chickens at the seasonal Farmers Market in Willmar, and they host a variety of unique activities that bring people to the farm.
Every Memorial Day weekend, youth from Svea Lutheran Church help the Gatewoods sweep out loose hay from the massive haymow for a community square dance that attracts nearly 150 people. With a professional “caller” giving instructions for the Virginia Reel and line dances, the stomping of the dancers up above in the haymow doesn’t bother the content dairy cows in the stalls below, said Gatewood.
“Getting the barn cleaned out for a dance is a lot of work. “But it’s fun,” said Gatewood.
Because of COVID-19, they couldn’t hold the barn dance in 2020 so, instead, they tried something new and cooked up 50 pounds of their homegrown brisket and offered a one-day-on-the-farm-drive-through meal with a sandwich, chips and bottle of water.
It was another way to have contact with people during the quarantine and another way to give people a farm-to-table experience.
Hosting events on the farm helps create a sense of “community,” said Jordan Gatewood, who works full-time on the farm with his dad. “It’s something we really enjoy doing,” he said. “We’re always thinking. Always coming up with something else.”
Given the farm’s modest size of 300 acres (200 tillable and 100 in pasture land), the variety of animals they raise and their diversified sources of farm income, Gene Gatewood is correct in calling their family operation a “regular old farm.”
It’s a style of family farm that was plentiful 50 to 60 years ago.
“Farms like this are few and far between now,” he said. “But there’s still small farms around.”
With one full-time employee and another young man who helps occasionally with milking cows, the family does most of the work themselves.
“We try to keep it so we can manage it on our own, versus relying on hired help,” said Gene. “My hope is that there gets to be more small farms versus bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Because it’s difficult to compete with large farms when it comes to purchasing land and expanding with additional acreage, Gatewood said his family has opted to find ways to expand in different ways.
“That’s why we started selling the meat,” he said.
Besides raising their own heifer replacements for the dairy side of the business, they raise about 20 steers for meat.
Using local processors, they butcher about one or two steers a month to ensure they have a steady supply of hamburger and different cuts of beef their customers like.
Roasts are popular in the winter and steaks are big sellers in the summer.
There was a stretch when they couldn’t meet the demand for cow cheeks and tongue.
They have a flock of about 20 Dorset sheep, and butcher three or four every year into different cuts of mutton, which attracts a gradually increasing customer base in the region.
Every summer they raise about 200 broiler chickens that are professionally processed and sold primarily as whole fryers.
A chicken coop with about 70 chickens that lay every shade of brown, green and blue eggs provides the farm with a steady supply of fresh eggs that are sold, but during times of surplus they are often given away as a bonus when a customer buys several pounds of meat.
Because of the “panic buying” early in the pandemic, the Gatewoods sold so much meat off the farm they didn’t go to any Farmers Markets.
“People like to come here,” said Gene Gatewood. “Half the fun of selling meat is talking to people. That’s the neatest part.”
After people eat the locally raised meat for the first time, they’re hooked.
“They come back and say, ‘Man, that was the best stuff we’ve ever had,’” said Jordan. “That’s the rewarding part. You can’t get that with these bigger farms.”
Freezers in a building that has a “Grandpa’s Granary” sign hanging over the door, are currently stocked with a variety of cuts. While there’s usually someone to fill orders for drop-in customers, calling ahead or placing orders online is preferred.
Milking cows twice a day – at 6:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. – takes up the bulk of the work day.
Keeping a touch of the old-fashioned farm style, the Gatewoods have several corn cribs filled with dried ear corn that’s incorporated into the ground feed mix.
It’s more work to harvest, store and grind ear corn, but Gene Gatewood said the extra effort is better for the health of his animals.
As a third-generation farmer, Gene Gatewood hopes the farm will pass onto the fourth generation.
“It’s just a blast to work with the kids, work with Shelly,” said Gene of working with his wife and family.
“I’ve worked with my grandpa, I’ve worked with my dad, I’ve worked with Jordan and I think that’s really important. I like that part of it,” he said.
Jordan, and his wife, Kristi, live on the other side of the pasture and are hoping to become the fourth generation to operate the farm.
“I don’t see why not,” said Kristi, when asked if she thinks there’s a future for them on the small farm.
“It’s worked so far,” said Jordan, who has a degree in dairy management from Ridgewater College in Willmar. “I love the farm life and I don’t see us doing anything else.”
The young couple, who got married in 2019, say the combination of working hard on the farm, doing things to create a sense of community that brings consumers closer to the roots of agriculture and the satisfaction of producing the food that they – and others – need makes it worthwhile.
“This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is for us,” said Jordan.