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Serving: IL

Young farmers get ahead of COVID-19

Austin Keating Thomas, Kristin and Maddison Perkins on their farm in Effingham, Ill.
LUNCHTIME: Thomas and Kristin Perkins and their 1-year-old daughter, Maddison, often convene over lunch between Kristin’s 12-hour nursing shifts and Thomas’ shifts at The Equity in Effingham, Ill.
Thomas and Kristin Perkins of Effingham, Ill., rushed 2020 planting to avoid possible quarantine, in between their essential services work.

While sometimes a challenge, having two essential full-time jobs amid the coronavirus shutdown has been a blessing for the Perkins farm family in Effingham, Ill.

Thomas Perkins is the manager of The Equity hardware and feed store, while his wife, Kristin, serves as a nurse at St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.


“Our life hasn’t really changed that much. There haven’t been that many cases of COVID-19 down here, so that’s not disrupted our lives. Plus, we’re both considered essential,” Thomas says. “We opened the store back up to the public on May 1, and business has been good. But like I say, our county hasn’t really been as affected as some have.”

Thomas says he rushed through planting his 400 or so acres of corn and soybeans in April and May with the historically wet 2019 in the back of his mind. More pressing was COVID-19.

“We didn’t know what to expect back in March. I farm with my father, and if somebody gets sick, what do you do?” Thomas asks. “So that’s why we pushed early on. It’s been a better start than last year, but it’s been really wet, too.”

Thomas Perkins at The Equity hardware and feed store he manages
EQUITABLE: The Equity hardware and feed store that Thomas Perkins manages supplies the cooperative’s 20 other locations. During the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown, they only did curbside pickup but opened the inside to the public in May.

Kristen says “patients under interest” who are displaying COVID-19 symptoms go to her hospital for tests.

“We keep them until we test them, and so far, we’ve been lucky. We haven’t had any positive cases in the hospital so far,” she says, noting that a positive test result would mean the couple would have to quarantine from family — and quarantining from Thomas’ father, Kevin, would make farm work more difficult.

“You don’t want to bring anything home, but that’s the risk you run,” Thomas says. He and his wife have a 1-year-old daughter, Maddison.

Top COVID-19 concern

Marketing is the No. 1 concern for Thomas, as he’s weighing the cost of production against lower commodity prices. They have 75 Holstein feeder steers that fortunately are not ready for market yet. They also raise wheat, hay, soybeans and corn.

“I’m hearing unfortunate stories about smaller producers like us just getting started. They don’t have contracts, and so they’re not getting to market. With cattle, it’s not as big a deal as it is with hog production,” Thomas says. “But that’s the risk we run.”

More impactful for his operation is where he sees corn and soybeans heading. He finished planting all his soybean acreage by late April, along with most of his corn. He says planting soybeans early — as he has for the last couple of his four years farming — resulted in the soybeans “looking better than the corn” after a 33-degree-F freeze and rainy conditions in May.

“The old adage was that corn is hardier than soybeans, but we have seen significant yield increases by planting soybeans as early as possible,” Thomas says. “We didn’t get to plant much of anything until June 15 last year, so anything we could get out and do, we were going to try this year. And we’re mostly happy with how the soybeans came up.”

Thomas says he’s fortunate to not have to pay for extra help, since his father, Kristin and two off-farm brothers lend a hand.

“That’s one way we can trim the costs. I’m trying to do all I can to shave off any expense,” Thomas says, noting it’s hard to compete with other producers to rent more land and grow in the face of falling prices. “They’re paying way over market value. So maybe there’s a silver lining in that this will bring some opportunities, too — not that I want to sound greedy or anything. But there’s always opportunity in crisis.”

Thomas and Kristin are members of the Cultivating Master Farmers program, a two-year schedule of gatherings between young farmers and Master Farmer award recipients sponsored by Farm Credit Illinois, Compeer Financial, Illinois Farm Bureau, Growmark, Bayer and Prairie Farmer.

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