homepage logo

Fifth-generation farmer discusses the blessings, pitfalls of the ag way of life

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner - | Aug 31, 2020
1 / 3

This 1980's photo from the Weber County Dairy Days features, from left to right, Craig Gardner, Karl Oelke and Anna Papageorge.

2 / 3

A farm in Warren Utah.

3 / 3

A corn field in Warren Utah.



PLAIN CITY — As subdivisions continue to gobble up real estate in once-rural fertile farmlands, the pressure on local growers and ranchers has been steadily building.

And with increasing numbers of small, local farms disappearing, many lifelong agricultural families are slowly losing their way of life. This can be especially difficult for an area’s generational farms — those small ag businesses that, since the early days of statehood, have been passed down from fathers and mothers to daughters and sons.

One such heir of the family farm is Karl Oelke, of Plain City. Oelke is a fifth-generation farmer whose family once ran the Rawson Dairy Farm in Plain City. He says his way of life started “way, way back with my great-great-grandfather.”

Although Rawson Dairy Farm is no longer in existence, Oelke still lives on the land and grows corn silage and hay, with some pasture for a few beef cows.

Like many farmers and ranchers, Oelke has had to find work off the farm. He’s currently employed by Gibson’s Green Acres in West Weber, a 1,500-cows-strong dairy that also grows produce and promotes agritourism — bringing visitors to the farm to experience the rural way of life. Green Acres also has a trucking company for transporting milk.

“We’ve diversified in many areas,” Oelke said.

And for many farmers and ranchers, such diversification has been key to survival, according to Oelke.

“That’s where lies some of the problems as ag producers,” he explained. “One of our problems is we’re so tied to the past. Partly, our demise is because we’re tied to the ground and what our forefathers did — and we feel obligated to keep doing it that way to a fault.”

Oelke is quick to point out that he doesn’t want to sound like one of those “woe-is-me” farmers. He loves agriculture, feels blessed to be doing what he does and says he wouldn’t change a thing.

But the truth is, family farms are gradually dying out. Indeed, Oelke has seen the change in his own lifetime.

“I remember going to the state fair as a youth, taking my 4-H cow down there,” Oelke said. “And visitors would come up to me all the time and say, ‘I remember milking cows,’ or ‘Oh, my grandpa had a farm.’ And I’d just roll my eyes.”

But these days, the 53-year-old Oelke doesn’t come across folks sharing those kinds of memories anymore. He thinks Americans have lost touch with where their “food and fiber” come from.

“As I got older and went to other state fairs, you just don’t hear people saying they used to milk cows, or that their grandpa had a farm,” he said.

Like most generational farmers, Oelke believes he was born to do what he does.

“I always had a real, burning desire to be a dairyman,” he said. “I grew up on my grandfather’s dairy farm, and I started milking cows at 9.”

Still, Oelke suspects his family’s generational farm will end with him. He has two daughters — and they both live in ranching communities and are heavily involved in the agriculture business through their husbands — but one lives in Wyoming and the other near Flaming Gorge. It isn’t likely the Plain City farm gets handed down again.

Besides, like many generational farms in the area, Oelke’s place is just a fraction of what it once was — just 35 acres, versus closer to 200 acres at one point. But as the inheritances of aunts and uncles were split off, the farm got smaller and smaller.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” Oelke explains.

With the never-ending thirst for subdivisions in places like Plain City, farmers continue to lose ground as housing moves in. And as they lose that ground, it’s harder to stay in business, according to Oelke.

“As the popularity of living in Plain City encroaches, how do you justify owning something when, basically, at the end of the day you make just enough money to pay the property tax and irrigation?” Oelke asks. “There’s an old saying, ‘Land rich and money poor.’ That’s me.”

But even when all the land for the old Rawson Dairy Farm is sold and subdivided out, Oelke insists he’ll continue to be a farmer.

“I’ll guarantee you, as far as agriculture goes, I won’t let it stop here,” he said. “When this land goes away, I will invest in agriculture somewhere else.”

Most farmers cite the idea of producing healthy food for their fellow Americans as a reason they love farming. Oelke shares that idea. But as far as what Oelke will miss the most when his generational farm finally disappears? He’ll miss making memories.

“As a youth, I hauled hay and worked ground on a lot of places where houses are now,” he said.

And it’s the work ethic he learned through those experiences that this particular farmer is most proud of.

“Knowing how to work, how to get up on time, how to do things without having someone telling me to do it, like, ‘OK Karl, get up. It’s 4 o’clock, time to milk the cows.’

“I learned how to work hard.”

Oelke says that when he can no longer farm the land, he’ll miss working with his hands, and working with animals. But he’ll always remember most what he received, not what he lost.

“I know there were a lot of great men and women in my life that made me who I am,” he said. “And they are who they are because of agriculture.”

When the small family farms finally disappear from places like western Weber County, Oelke says farmers won’t be the only ones who’ve lost something important.

“I just think people are going to miss out on knowing where their food comes from,” he said. “So as an ag producer, I need to do a better job of telling my story now.”Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.


Join thousands already receiving our daily newsletter.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)