For Darell Sarff, every instance of his life’s work goes back to the land.
He’s coaxed specialty crops from the sandy soils of Mason County, Ill., installing irrigation to help the land reach its fullest potential.
He hunts the Illinois River flyway and, more importantly, helps others hunt it — just as his ancestors did when they settled the valley generations ago, their names dotting the plat books of their day.
And he matches people to land in a farm real estate business he’s run on the side since 2000.
For Sarff, a 2018 Master Farmer from Chandlerville, the land has always been the thing.
He and wife Rosanne — marriage and farm partners since 1970 — say their farm is not unique in the area, but is unique in the Midwest. At one time, they operated 3,500 acres across 30 miles, growing green beans, peas, cucumbers, sweet corn, popcorn, pumpkins and more for processors. Today, they have downsized to 900 acres, all within 5 miles, concentrating on popcorn, soybeans and corn.
What’s life like for a vegetable farmer? Think long days and short windows of time.
“When we were raising peas for DelMonte, we could have an early crop of peas and then come back with two crops of cucumbers, which meant we could triple-crop,” Darell describes. “Some years we would harvest and plant within a 12-hour period.”
Irrigation technology lets him do more and put on fertilizer at the right moment, all with the touch of a button on his iPad or phone.
“You can use less and still achieve the same or greater yields with less runoff,” Darell says, adding he’s planted pollinator plots on nonirrigated corners.
MAKING TIME: Says 1996 Master Farmer Rollie Moore of Darell Sarff (pictured): “Operating an irrigated farm and producing specialty crops certainly required a stepped-up level of management. The demand often made me wonder how Darell had opportunity for off-farm involvement, but he found the time.”
Today, with neither of their children involved in the farm, the Sarffs have brought their nephews into the operation with flexible rent leases and a lease to purchase equipment. They’ve begun transferring management, retiring partially in 2018.
A twist in their contract: no farming on Sunday. Darell says his father and grandfather never worked on Sunday.
On the side
A longtime hunting enthusiast, Darell has managed three different hunting clubs since the 1970s, bringing duck hunting enthusiasts to the Havana area and managing water, habitat, food plots and more.
He got into real estate after helping a local agent market a tract back in the ’90s. He bought her business when she retired in 2000, and Kennedy Sarff Real Estate was born, with offices in Havana and Mason City. Darell and Rosanne run the business with six independent brokers and two part-time assistants. There, he’s able to leverage contacts and help people find land, and says there’s a lot of satisfaction in helping someone get the house they want or the farm they always wanted to buy.
“It’s really a pleasure to see that,” he says. “I love to try to help people out like that.”
Many of those contacts have roots in Darell’s service on the Illinois Agricultural Association board of directors from 1986 to 1996. That “stepping stone,” as he calls it, led to an appointment on the American Farm Bureau Federation Vegetable Committee, and later, a spot representing Illinois and Indiana farmers on the ProFac Cooperative board of directors, a publicly traded company that owned Comstock Fruit, Birds Eye Frozen Foods, Hunt’s and its own popcorn label. The board launched an initial public offering in 2011, a profitable decision for its farmer-stockholders.
For Darell, those meetings proved profitable in other ways. “I got to know people really well,” he says. “And I got to understand what they do and why and how it works. That’s the value.”
His work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Says Peter Call, fellow ProFac board member from Batavia, N.Y., “In meetings, Darell’s soft-spoken, respectful approach invited input and facilitated conversation. He is a true gentleman.”
That IAA experience also introduced Darell to important political allies like Ray LaHood and Dick Durbin. In 2009, Sen. Durbin appointed him as head of the Illinois FSA committee, and politicians all over the state still call on Darell for agricultural advice.
That’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly, much like the friends and mentors he’s made over the years.
“They’ve been as important to the success of our farm operation as equipment and technology,” Darell says.
What really matters on the Sarff farm
Darell Sarff is quick to point to his wife, Rosanne, when asked what’s made him successful.
“No, you’re just determined,” she counters.
“Well, driven, probably,” he allows.
She’s not having it. “He’s very forward-thinking. He’s always looking out.”
Still, Darell says his best decision was marrying Rosanne, his high school sweetheart. That and building a life together on the farm, because it brought people into their lives they’d have never known, and charted a lifestyle unlike any other.
“Buying this tractor or that tractor, or this farm or that farm — that’s not what it’s all about,” Darell says, telling how when their son was in high school, he raised and sold fresh vegetables off a couple of acres. The experience built a sense of worth as he learned what he had to do to manage, harvest and sell.
“Would you have that opportunity in another area? It built family unity. It paid off. The kids had responsibility,” Darell says. “The style of living you have on the farm, whether mega or small, it’s not like any other.” “Buying this tractor or that tractor, or this farm or that farm. That’s not what it’s all about,” Darell says, telling how when their son was in high school, he raised and sold fresh vegetables off of a couple acres of ground. The experience built a sense of worth as he learned what he had to do to manage, harvest and sell.
“Would you have that opportunity in another area? It built family unity. It paid off. The kids had responsibility,” Darell says. “The style of living you have on the farm, whether mega or small, it’s not like any other.”