There’s no corporation or even a formal partnership, but Jim and Tom Wagner are true partners in every way in their O’Brien County farm operation. They share the work and decisions evenly, and everything the brothers buy or sell is split down the middle. That even partnership led to them being selected together as one of four 2020 Iowa Master Farmers.
Jim, who’s four years older, first started farming with their dad, Bill, in 1982. Tom worked almost 10 years as an agronomist and joined the operation part time 10 years later, and then full time in 1996 when Bill retired. “Dad’s always been out here helping us over the years, but he let us make all the decisions from the time he retired,” Jim says.
One of the bigger decisions was to move from labor-intensive farrowing of 200 sows to custom-feeding pigs, mostly for other owners. “It wasn’t really a tough decision because our facilities needed upgrading, and managing for disease was becoming more of an issue with farrowing,” Tom says. They now finish about 7,000 pigs a year in facilities with a capacity of 2,400 head.
A second decision that changed the way they farmed was the switch to no-till to plant soybeans in corn residue and strip till to plant corn in 2006; they were early adopters in their neighborhood. “You look in our shed and we don’t have a lot of equipment,” Jim says. “I don’t have to drive a big tractor.”
The move has freed up time and capital, Tom adds, with higher profits per acre, soil savings, more life in the soil and improved soil health.
The Wagners were among the first to use a yield monitor on their combine in 1995 and have been grid-sampling soils and using variable-rate planting and fertilizing for a number of years. They also use integrated pest management, scouting regularly on the 560 acres they own and 1,240 acres they rent to grow corn and soybeans.
Making time for kids
Jim does the hog chores in the morning; Tom does them at night. That’s made it possible for Jim, who volunteers with children’s athletic programs and has logged 40 years as a referee, to officiate both basketball and football games in the area. He also coached junior high football for 25 years.
Both Tom and Jim were in multiple sports in high school, and they both prioritize watching their children in sports and other events over farming.
“We shut down for high school football,” Tom says. “That’s what I like most about farming. No other occupation has this level of freedom and control over what you do every day. And to do it with a brother who’s your partner, someone you love, you can’t beat that.”
“We’re so fortunate our end game is the same,” Jim adds. “We bounce things off each other, and working together allows both of us to do the things off the farm that we like to be involved in.”
Tom has taught ag students in various ways; both are Iowa Learning Farm cooperators and are involved in helping with various youth programs locally.
Both serve community
“They do it right. They care for the soil and the environment, and give back to the community,” says ISU Extension agronomist Joel DeJong, who nominated the Wagners for the award.
NO-TILLERS: After a switch to no-till and strip till, the Wagner brothers don’t have a lot of equipment in their sheds anymore.
Tom has served as a commissioner on the O’Brien County Soil and Water Conservation District board since 2007. Jim is president of the South O’Brien school foundation, and Tom just completed eight years on the school board.
Tom has served on the Northwest REC board for the past 14 years and represents them on two other power boards. Jim has served on the Siouxland Energy board for nine years. Both have served on the St. Anthony’s Parish Council, worked with FFA over the years, hosted strip-till and no-till field days, and helped the Northwest Iowa Research Farm with educational activities.
Biggest challenge ahead
Tom and Jim agree their biggest challenge in farming together is still ahead. Jim and his wife, Mimi, have four children — Michael, Scott, Ben and Libby, who are graduates of South Dakota State University — and a fifth child, Claire, an eighth grader. Tom and his wife, Holly, have three children — Garrett and Erin at SDSU in Brookings, and Grant, a freshman at South O’Brien High School.
The brothers say integrating the next generation into the operation will be their biggest challenge.
Betts writes from Johnston, Iowa.