One day, one week, one month at a time.
It’s a simple philosophy of faith and grit, but an important one if you’re going to farm in north-central Kansas for nearly 60 years. Kansas Master Farmer and Master Farm Homemaker Keith and Marsha Doane, Downs, Kan., say they may not have had some grand idea for building a farm when they got married — but with a lot of faith, these two “farm kids” made it work.
“There never was a master plan for this farm,” Keith says. “We just got married. She was a farm girl from Alton, and I just grew up here. We just took it one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time — and year after year, we just kept building on it. And hopefully, we made the right decisions.”
From mules to GPS
Keith’s family has been farming in Osborne County since his great-grandfather homesteaded in the Lucas area just after his service in the Civil War. Marsha’s family just celebrated its 150th anniversary of their homestead in Osborne County. Together, their families’ farming history spans the Dust Bowl and lost farms, World War I and World War II, the Russian grain embargo, the 1980s farm crisis, and just about every curve ball Mother Nature could throw their way.
Keith credits the family’s strong faith in God for getting them through hard times and good. He says putting their faith and their family first above all things is key to making the right decisions for the farm, and the land and livestock that have been entrusted to their care.
Each generation not only passed on its love for farming and the land, but also an emphasis on mentorship to the next.
When Keith was just 7 years old, his grandfather gifted him a heifer calf, and he saved the females out of that one cow and expanded his herd. As a teenage FFA member, he rented a piece of ground from his grandfather and started farming in 1961. He says he learned a great deal by working for and alongside his family and his neighbors when he was starting out.
For example, Keith remembers a neighbor had a team of horses and a team of mules. One summer, he drove those teams on a hay rake and a two-row cultivator.
“The trick is to have a good team that knows what they’re doing,” he says with a chuckle.
In 1972, with some rented ground from Keith’s grandfather and a neighbor, and a John Deere Model A, Keith and Marsha married and started growing their farm and their family. On into the 1970s, Keith, along with his brothers and their father, bought machinery together so they could each expand their farming operations without significant capital outlay.
The couple says that cooperative investment in older equipment and their ability to maintain it was essential to surviving the 1980s farm crisis. That eye for keeping machinery costs low, and putting time into maintaining their equipment, continues even today.
If only that young farm boy driving those mules could see what Keith gets to drive today. The Doanes have technology on their combines and in their tractor cabs that helps them precisely apply crop inputs or collect yield data in real time.
All to help the family be the best stewards of the land as possible for the generations that follow.
Caring for the land and each other
The family grows wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans, and alfalfa, in a three- or four-year crop rotation. They also have a herd of spring-calving Angus cows.
Their four sons, Michael, Rodney, Brett and Craig, grew up farming alongside their parents and were mentored into farming like generations before them. When Michael was 14, in the late 1980s, Marsha’s father turned over a piece of irrigated crop ground for him to manage. Eventually, each brother managed up to 480 acres of cropland while they were in high school, and on into college.
This work ethic helped the family weather Keith’s cancer diagnosis in 1990 and the two years it took for the disease to go into remission.
Working together, the brothers each found their own niches on the farm and in agriculture. Craig and Rodney returned to Downs and now farm full time in their own sole proprietorships and in the family’s general partnership with their dad and Michael. Brett works off the farm as a carpenter.
“Rodney is the agronomy major, agronomist, and he puts our fertilizer and chemical plans together, and the seeding varieties and how we want to do that,” Craig says. “I was an ag econ major with a minor in agronomy. But I’ve always enjoyed the cow operation with Dad. We have our own, but we work together.” Michael’s path took him into the agribusiness world. He uses his knowledge of markets and organizations to help the family’s farming entities make management decisions.
Today, the operation is 100% no-till and the family is experimenting with cover crop blends. Craig and Keith say that by using the tools of GMO crops, no-till, cover crops and the technology available, they can work to suppress weeds, add residue to conserve moisture and use root structures to improve soil health.
The Doane Family Farms cooperative farming model relies heavily on information from the Kansas Farm Management Association and the Kansas State University Research and Extension Service. The family has regular planning meetings, and Keith credits communication for the success of the multigenerational farm.
And this communication continues to be key, as Rodney’s children have begun their own apprenticeship by renting a quarter-section of cropland to start their farming journey, like their father and uncles before them.
Shuttling kids and crops
Marsha says that together she and Keith made a commitment that their young family, their faith and their farm would come first early in their marriage.
“When I was out doing the hard work until 10 p.m., she was doing the hard work of raising a family, and going to the ball games and cooking the food — and she did a good job of it,” he says.
“I don’t know how I did what I did, when I look back on it,” Marsha says with a smile. Raising four sons in the 1980s meant there was always a clothesline full of laundry, sports practices and games to drive to, a garden to tend and canning to be done.
Keith and Marsha grew up loving sports, and they made sure their sons were active in sports too. Keith says when the boys were growing up, he made it a point to take time on his lunch breaks to come home and play catch with them, no matter how long the farming day might be.
“There was a time I would go to the field in the morning, take off around noon and hit line drives and pitch to my boys, rather than coming in at 6 in the evening,” he says. This way, he could go back out to the field and work until long into the evening and still have family time.
Keith and Marsha Doane may not have started out with big plans. But through their faith in God and their commitment to each other, they certainly made a big difference in their family, their farm and their community.
Day by day. Week by week. And year by year.
Master Farmer extras
Advice from family: Keith and Marsha say that making sure that they had family dinner once a week with their extended families helped them establish a camaraderie that extended into the family farm operation. This communication skill continues today, with their family calls and meetings about the farming entities.
Family history: Keith and Marsha have hosted three AFS foreign exchange students over the years. They credit these young people with bringing a positive cultural component to the farm and broadening the family’s outlook on world issues.
Be sure to read about each of the members of the new class of Kansas Master Farmers and Farm Homemakers here:
Ellis and Rita Yoder: Yoders grounded in respect for land, community
Yoder photo album: Yoder family emphasizes family legacy, farm improvements
John and Sharon Hendricks: Providing opportunities for next generation to grow
Hendricks photo album: Kansas Master Farmer couple finds joy in the land