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Whitewater family enjoys challenges of farming

FAMILY OPERATION: The Hoffmann family farms 1,100 acres near Whitewater. From left are Deb and Mark, their son, Kelby, and their daughter, Lexus.
Mark Hoffmann is a new member of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Board.

By Harley Buchholz

 "I think it will be a good crop year for a fifth year," Mark Hoffmann said with confidence. The Whitewater area farmer, a new member of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Board, was talking this spring in his new machine shop as he and his son, Kelby, readied machinery for the planting season. "It's a weather issue from this point on," he acknowledged.

Always the optimist
Of course, he hedges his expectations with crop insurance and forward contracts, but nevertheless exhibits that strong optimism most farmers hold as the sowing and growing season starts. His 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans last year produced his "best ever" yields, and they followed 2015's "best ever" crops.

Hoffmann is cheerful and open, but realistic even with his rosy outlook. He looks beyond yields at markets and the politics of things.

"I hope trade issues will be OK," he said. "It's a little scary, but not a nightmare yet."

Each year he plants 800 acres of corn and 300 of soybeans. He owns 370 acres and rents 730 acres. He rotates two years of each on most land, but finds "some works best with three years of corn." He's just started farming with his son after Kelby graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison's Farm and Industry Short Course. There's also a part-time helper "in a pinch ... otherwise it's just family."

GETTING READY: Kelby Hoffmann makes a few adjustments to the corn planter prior to planting.

Hoffmann’s wife, Deb, works in human resources at the Fort Atkinson Hospital, and their daughter, Lexus, a recent ag business graduate from South Dakota State University, helps but is looking for work off the farm. She attended college on an equestrian scholarship and tends horses with her mom.

Their farms have a range of soil types "from the best dirt in the county to sand," Hoffmann said. That can be a challenge, which he meets with a range of tillage practices including no-till on lighter soil, minimum-till on heavier ground. "It just depends on the farm," he said. "Some [tillage] works better one way than the other. We don't have any land with real drastic problems."

He shoots for yields of up to 190 bushels of corn per acre and 60-plus of soybeans.  Last year's "best ever" crops yielded 68 bushels per acre of soybeans and just shy of 190 for corn. He farms without irrigation on his sandy soils but has tiled some fields with heavier soils. "We try to keep the ditches buffered," he said. "We tile where we can."

Working with a crop analyst, Hoffmann applies potash, urea and ammonium sulfite in spring, followed by a nitrogen sidedress. "I like the sidedress with nitrogen," he remarked. "It seems I can put a little less on." He added that he fertilizes for 170- to 190-bushel corn yields, "depending on the ground."

With 140,000 bushels of storage capacity, he can space marketing his corn crop. Most of the production goes to ethanol plants at Milton and Jefferson, the rest to local elevators.

"Our winter project is hauling corn," Hoffmann said. "It doesn't quite rush the harvest so hard" and gives him a better opportunity to react to price moves. Soybeans, on the other hand, go direct from the field to market. "We try to do everything as best we can," he commented.

He started farming at the age of 15, renting 100 acres as an FFA project and also farming with his father, who had moved the family to Whitewater from northern Illinois when he tired of working as a bricklayer. Hoffmann, who also custom-harvests 300 acres, bought his first land in 1970, took over his dad's operation in 1996 and immediately began expanding. With his son joining the farm, he'd like to expand more; up to another 900 acres, but acknowledges that land is hard to find. He says, a bit ruefully, that often by the time he hears of available land someone else has snapped it up.

Hoffmann also is chairman of his rural township at the north edge of Whitewater. He served a number of years as a town supervisor before being elected chairman and now has 18 years in town government. "I've always been intrigued with the politics of things," he said.

Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac.

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