At 82 and still putting in a full day's work on the farm, Edward Engen says farming "is mostly in my blood. I never look on it as hard labor.... I've enjoyed what I did. Oh, there have been times, but the good years make up for it."
He was farming with his parents near Beloit by the time he was 13, milking by hand and driving his dad's team of horses. He started on his own in 1946, shortly after he and his wife, Irene, were married. "I got into farming on my own," he says, "because this fellow, a sort of realtor – he bought and sold places – had never had cattle. He bought a farm with 28 heifers.... He wanted me to come over and milk." Starting on halves, after two years the Engens owned 28 young milking cows. They moved to another farm on halves and by 1960 they were able to buy it.
The dairy herd was built up gradually, reaching 100 head in the late 1980s. Edward found, though, that a smaller herd was more manageable and cut back his numbers after a couple of years. As milk prices fell in 2000-01, and with the Engen's son, Terry, now a part of the operation, they decided to switch to raising Angus beef. "Prices fell and that took the prestige and joy out of milking," Edward explains.
He and Terry run their Rock County farms on a 50-50 basis, cropping up to 300 acres of corn, 275 acres of soybeans, 50 acres of alfalfa and 20 acres of wheat both for cash and livestock feed. They keep 25 to 30 beef cows and feed out another 25 to 30 head each year.
"I help all the time," Edward says, "but I can't do it all. Terry does the cash crops. I take care of the cattle and help out at harvest time.... He does the biggest share of the planning. I took the easier share after we got rid of the dairy cows."
Edward and Irene are old-school farmers, raising their own produce, chickens and hogs to keep the pantry stocked and not buying until there was cash on hand to pay for it. They've never had a credit card and only once visited an agricultural lender. They were able to work with land contracts except for purchasing his parents' farm from the estate. Buying that place, a part of the Engen family since it was homesteaded in 1846, required a trip to the local bank.
"The first two farms I bought I was renting at the time," Edward says. "They actually came to me about buying" and agreed to the land contracts. One of them was a place originally farmed by Edward's great-grandfather but which had been sold outside the family. Two more smaller farms were added 25 and 35 years ago to bring the farm to its current 560 acres. Terry rents and farms additional land on his own.
Through the years, Edward has kept his eyes open for labor-savers and cost-effectiveness. "Probably the biggest change in farming has been the labor-saving and the mechanization," he says. "Dad and I had milked at home by hand," he recalls, but adds that there was a milking machine on the farm where he began farming on his own. Milk cans went into a water tank for cooling until he was on his second farm-on-halves where his landlady installed a can cooler that operated by sending water over an ice bank. By the mid 1950s he had his first bulk tank and in 1963 he installed a milking parlor – a double-5 herringbone because he thought it would be easier than a double-6 for one man to handle. Of the decision to cut back from a 100-cow herd he explains, "It was a lot more work to get that extra 20 cows. We found out we could do better with 80."
"Efficiency is the role of the farm," he says, "and cooperation from family members is important to a family farm operation.... You have to have deep roots to stay in farming nowadays. It also has to be a love of the country, a lot of dedication and faith to be a steward of soil."
Off the farm, Edward has served on his local school board and has been a deacon/trustee at his church for many years. He and Irene are lifelong members of their church and have been members of National Farmers Organization and Landmark Cooperative.
He wonders about his worthiness for a Master Agriculturist award. This from a man who has been actively farming for 69 years, who developed a dairy operation from nothing to a productive 80-cow herd before switching to a profitable beef operation and who built a 560-acre farm with no more credit than a couple of land contracts. Farming, he says, "is hardly without a problem once in a while," but through the problems and the good times too, he and Irene have maintained a philosophy that says, simply, "Work is good and so is life."
Edward Engen, Brodhead
Location: Rock County
Farming Enterprises: Dairy, beef, crops
Size of farm: 560 owned acres
Number of cattle: 30 beef cows and feeder calves
Years farming: 69
Family: Wife, Irene; three daughters, one son, all married; 11 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren.