Ohio Farmer

The Fairfield County cattle and crop farmer was named a 2024 Ohio Master Farmer.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer

March 15, 2024

14 Slides

Jim Jepsen’s first corn planter didn’t have seed disk openers; it had shoes. To make it work right, the soil had to be worked fine. “Fresh-turned soil smelled good, and it looked pretty,” he says.

But as he watched that bare ground lie there all winter, he could see what was happening. “It would wash out in big rain events, and when the snow would blow across, the ditches would be full of brown snow,” he says.

Today, Jim wants to see something growing on farm fields year-round. “Or at least something covering it, even if it’s standing cornstalks,” he says. “That’s pretty to me now, way more than a well-tilled field.”

Jim farms near Amanda, Ohio, in southern Fairfield County, raising beef cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and pasture on 1,350 acres. The beef cattle enterprise includes 60 cows and a 200-plus-head capacity feedlot, in which a portion of the finished cattle are sold direct to consumers as freezer beef.

He’s a third-generation farmer, but the first to do it full time after growing his dad’s farm of 83 acres.

Embracing conservation

Seeking guidance and advice on a new direction in managing soils, Jim went to the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District and also visited with the late Dave Brandt, a major advocate for regenerative agriculture with no-till and cover crop practices.

“No-till didn’t work for me the first year; it took about three years to really see the benefit of soil structure with earthworms and organic matter starting to build,” Jim says. “It takes time. … Patience is a huge part of that transition.”

Farming mostly highly erodible land and before incentives were readily available, Jim voluntarily utilized grass waterways to prevent erosion. “Later, the soil and water district helped me intensify my designs and line up contractors,” he says.

He uses cover crops to keep soil in place and has wheat in his crop rotation for straw production and manure application in the summer.

He has also installed three grade stabilization structures (timber drops and a rock chute), six water and sediment control basins, heavy use pads for livestock feeding, 11 systematic tile systems, two livestock pipelines, and two watering facilities.

“Jim has a passion for no-till and erosion prevention,” says Nikki Drake, who is from the Fairfield SWCD and successfully nominated him as an Ohio Master Farmer. “He has 38 engineering plans for various practices with all but four installed. Twenty-two are for rented or shared farms. His cooperator file takes up the majority of a file cabinet drawer.”

Two-thirds of the land Jim’s farming is rented or shared, none of which he sought out himself. “I’ve been blessed in that landowners [14 total] have come to me,” he says. “They don’t make any more land. And, whether I own it or not, we don’t want to see it washed or blown away. We must take care of it the best we can.”

To take the next step, Jim called on Tim Norris of Ag Info Tech to update the planter and combine with technology advancements. “You can’t manage or change what you can’t measure, and I needed to be more efficient with dollars spent on seed and fertilizer,” Jim says.

Carl DeBruin has been instrumental on the agronomy side. Soil testing, scouting — and pesticide, fungicide and fertilizer placement — are his specialties. “We don’t blanket-cover anything these days. We target-apply most all products with the use of drones and variable-rate equipment,” Jim says.

But first, college

Growing up, Jim was in 4-H and FFA, and he says he owes a lot to his vocational ag teachers, who cultivated a passion to want to farm full time. “I didn’t know exactly how, and I didn’t have any money, but it’s all I wanted to do.”

While Jim had the dream to farm, his mother had a plan for him to go to college. “She told me it was fine to be a farmer, but after I received a college degree,” he says.

He went to college through the mid-1980s, when the farm crisis made history books and professors weren’t exactly advocating a return to the farm. “There was no optimism, but I wasn’t deterred,” Jim says.

Jim earned a degree in animal science from Ohio State University. He notes that being on the meat and livestock judging teams, and living in the beef barn, made those five years of college all worthwhile. But the best part of the whole college experience was meeting his future wife, Shelly “Dee” Maurer.

He graduated in 1988 and went back to the farm. “I held up my part of the bargain; I was ready to start farming,” Jim says. The quickest way to get into what he wanted to do was to become a herdsman on three different beef cattle farms.

Although his dad was a veterinarian, he worked in meat inspection for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Once he was ready to retire from ODA, he wanted Jim to come back and help run the farm in 1990, the same year Jim and Dee married.

“My dad was my biggest supporter and ultimately gave me the opportunity and a place to start building my farming career,” Jim says.

There wasn’t enough acreage or livestock, which included cows and sheep at the time, to work full time. So, Jim drove an oil truck by day and farmed at night and weekends for three years.

Building a family farm

Just starting out with limited funds, they were unable to buy land near his parents’ farm. “We are in a bedroom community of Columbus, about 10 miles south of the home farm,” Jim says. “We figured this would be our starter place, but 35 years later, we’re still here. We are spread out over a 10-mile radius with our cattle pastures, feedlot, grain bins, shop and rental ground.”

Diversification became an objective for the farm. They already had 30 cows — and would have liked to double that — but with limited funds, they bought 36 bred Dorset ewes. That soon turned into 120 ewes. The beef herd grew to 50 cows, and Jim picked up 400 acres of crop ground, while still working off the farm.

With family support and a circle of people from OSU Extension, Fairfield SWCD, friends and neighbors, Jim quit his off-farm job and started farming full time in the spring of 1991.

“There comes a time when you have to quit talking about it and just do it,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without the mentors around me, including Stan Smith. Because there were no cellphones or YouTube videos on how to do something, I had to figure it out by asking, reading and finding out what others were doing,” he adds.

He sold the sheep and with Smith’s encouragement, built a feedlot from an old dirt pad that was mud most of the time. He tore it down, started over and sized it to hold 240 head of cattle. On paper, it penned out, but what he didn’t anticipate was poor crop years in 1995-96.

“We didn’t have enough corn to feed and had to buy corn, which was $4 a bushel and expensive back then,” Jim says. “I wondered, what in the world have I done? Maybe those college professors were right.”

Like many farmers, at some point, he relied on borrowed money. It took three or four bankers, but, “Larry Ellinger [now retired] from Kingston National Bank believed in me,” says Jim, while underlining both the risks and the rewards in farming. “Setbacks can be overcome.”

Sharing and planning

Knowledge is powerful, Jim believes. He joined the Fairfield County Cattlemen’s Association as a member to learn, but he soon realized, others need to be educated, too. He became a board member and then president in the late 1990s.

He helped start the steak trailer at the county fair and facilitate Farm-City Days at various farms in the county, including his own. Jepsen Family Farms has hosted foodies, nutritionists, dietitians, bloggers and the general public to show how food is produced.

He's also served nearly 15 years (over a series of different terms) on the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association board. In 2001, he was selected as the Young Cattleman of the Year by the association.

Moving forward, Jim’s not planning on retirement anytime soon. “I have so many things yet to do and learn. But the reality is, transition and succession are a part of it,” he says.

Both their daughters have a love of agriculture. The youngest, Sierra, went the more scholarly route, as Jim says, “More like her mother.” Sierra has an agriculture business degree from OSU with a minor in meat science and a master’s in meat science from the University of Idaho.

“She started Butcher Solutions, her own consulting business, for smaller-sized meat processors to help with labor and marketing, but also does all the public relations and data collection for marketing our beef,” Jim says.

Their oldest daughter, Cheyenne, went the production-oriented route. “She loves cattle and followed more in my footsteps,” says Jim, who notes that she has a degree in beef production from Ohio State ATI.

Following graduation, she worked at Pickaway County Soil and Water Conservation District, while working nights and weekends at the farm. However, four years ago she joined the farm full time. “She’s been married now [to Brandon Erb] for two years. Brandon works off the farm, but they both enjoy being here,” Jim says. “She loves the cows, but she’s also an excellent grain buggy driver, and there’s no semi she can’t drive.”

Farming is what Jim and a lot of farmers live for. “You can be so tired at the end of the day, and you can’t wait to get a shower, some supper and sleep quick because you know what you want to do tomorrow. You can’t wait for tomorrow — it’s a drive I can’t explain.”

Jim Jepsen at a glance

Farm: Jepsen Family Farm, 1,350 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and pasture; 60 head beef cows and 240-head capacity feedlot.

Nominator: Nikki Drake, Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District

Ag and Community Leadership: 4-H and FFA in high school, FFA chapter president, Ohio Cattlemen's Association Board (currently in 3rd term as director since 2016 and served 2 previous terms in the late 1990s), 2022 Ohio Cattlemen's Foundation vice president, Fairfield Co. Cattlemen Association past president, Ohio Farm Bureau member, mentors 4-H youth with junior fair projects, member of Lithopolis United Methodist Church

Awards: Fairfield SWCD 2000 Outstanding Cooperator of the Year Award, Ohio Cattlemen's Association 2001 Young Cattleman Award, and multiple years as Ohio Cattlemen's Association Top Hand Award

Read more about:

Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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