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Corn grows tall around a farm off old U.S. Route 66 and 750 North Road, north of McLean. With more older farmers than young ones, those farmers who want to retire face important decisions about the future of their land. 

EASTON — Andy Gathman was one of those little boys who knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.

“Farming is all I wanted to do since I was little,” said Gathman, who graduated from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign last year.

The question for him as he became an adult, and commodity prices fell, was how he could move into the family’s crop production farm in Mason County near Easton. His answer is livestock — more precisely, raising cattle and pigs on contract.

The family farm always had a few pigs and cattle, so he knew he liked working with the animals. Gathman started working with pigs and feeding cattle in high school and college to earn money. He fed cattle for Andy Allen and Don Wood in Champaign, and later at Double Bar H Ranch in Nebraska during his college years.

“There, I learned more about the business of feeding cattle on a large scale,” he said.

By the time Gathman was a senior in college, construction had already begun on his new facilities and in July 2016, he started his 800-head feedlot.

Gathman’s older brother, Tony, owns an auction business, and like Gathman owns a little land.

Both sons help their dad, Gary, who leads a row crop operation growing corn, popcorn, green beans and soybeans. They farm a total of about 3,000 acres together.

Gathman’s sister, Kayelyn, works with Dow AgroSciences and Mycogen Seeds in breeding and research. Their mom, Laveta, is also supportive of the growing family farm operation.

After college, Gathman took a job at Monsanto for six months, but couldn’t get his mind off farming full time. The family went to visit their banker to get potential ideas for generating more profit — meeting Gathman’s goal to farm and, at the same time, complement his father’s cropping operation.

The banker’s suggestion: contract pork production.

So, Gathman started doing his research and was soon consulting with Matt Henry of the Maschhoffs, the third largest swine producer in the United States, about raising pigs on contract for the company. The payback time for such a building is 12 years compared to 30 years in setting up loans for a typical row crop farm.

Contracting is an ideal fit for Gathman. It takes the pressure off marketing and he can devote his time to animal husbandry. Caring for the animals is what he enjoys most and does best, he said.

Gathman has heard the stories of the difficult times in the 1980s for pork producers and has seen commodity prices dip in recent years.

“I never had to go through it, but I heard the stories,” he said.

The choice of contract pig production is a popular one with young farmers wanting to get into farming or ease into a family operation, said Jenny Jackson, Illinois Pork Producer Association’s director of communication.

She was recently at a Vermilion County event where two young farm couples with children also started in the pork business in this manner.

“For young people, especially with children, it is a way to get back to the family farm. Gathman, who is single, also found that a contract livestock operation is ideal for starting out.

“Contract growers are respectful of young people — whether its pigs or cattle,” Jackson said.

The seventh generation farmer joins more than 2,000 farms producing 5.1 million total hogs in Illinois annually. More than 21,900 work in the pork industry in Illinois, according to IPPA.

Gathman says his operation blends well with his father’s. Gathman gets the five acres for buildings — with the plan for construction of a second building in two years and his father gets to use the manure as fertilizer.

“We help each other out,” Gathman said.

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