KIRKLAND – Tracy Jones has an old black-and-white photo on his office desk.
The picture shows his great-grandfather Richard, grandfather Archie and father Gordon. Gordon was just a baby at the time.
The picture is important because it shows the previous three generations that farmed the family farm, 6644 Old State Road in Kirkland. Now, after farming for more than 100 years, a member of the Jones family was recognized for his contribution to the farming community: Tracy Jones was nominated a Master Farmer.
Jones is the 22nd farmer from DeKalb County to receive the title of Master Farmer from Prairie Farmer magazine. He is one of four Illinois recipients of the title this year. The Master Farmers were honored at a ceremony in Springfield on March 15.
The title Master Farmer is awarded based on a farmer’s agricultural production skills and community service. Candidates are nominated by Illinois farmers, agribusiness leaders and farm organizations.
Community service is one of Jones’ greatest passions. In November 2016, he was elected to his second term on the DeKalb County Board, representing District 1. He serves as the board’s vice chairman.
Jones believes educating the public about farming also is a community service. Each year, he allows Sycamore eighth-graders to visit his cattle and grain farm as a field trip arranged by the DeKalb County Farm Bureau.
Jones met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss becoming a Master Farmer, his farm, his position on the DeKalb County Board and his goals for the future.
Milton: How did you learn about the Master Farmer award?
Jones: DeKalb County Master Farmers asked me if I was interested in filling out an application. First, you have to be nominated, then you have the application. The application asked about my farming practices, financial information, yield history and my community service.
Milton: How does it feel to be nominated by fellow farmers?
Jones: It’s nice to know that I’m respected by my peers. All of the Master Farmers in the county signed my application. I consider that an honor, that they think that much about me, how I farm and how I represent the farming community. In general, farmers take a lot of pride in what we do, and it means a lot that others recognize it, too.
Milton: Why is it important for you to serve on the county board?
Jones: There’s such a small percentage of people in our county that are farmers. If we as farmers don’t tell our story, nobody will tell it for us. That’s why I feel like it’s my duty to step up and represent the farmers in the county.
Milton: What are some examples of work you do as a board member?
Jones: I am one of 24 board members. I like having an impact and input in local government. We are now operating on the first balanced budget since 2008. The jail expansion is in progress, and that was sorely needed. My experience as a farmer, as a businessman, can help at the county level. I know about certain topics and fields that other people, other board members might not know.
Milton: Are there different types of farmers?
Jones: As generations progress, there’s not as many farming units. Farms need to be larger to sustain a family. The average farm in DeKalb County is 1,100 or 1,200 acres. Many people also rent out farms on the side. There are many different kinds of farmers. There are part-time farmers, full-time farmers, each with all different kinds of farming arrangements. … A lot of people don’t understand the amount of work or detail that goes into farming. It’s why I like to give tours and tell people about life on a farm.
Milton: Tell me more about your family.
Jones: I am very family-orientated. My wife, Beth, and I have three daughters: Kristen, Katherine and Kortney. Beth was my high school sweetheart when we both attended Sycamore High School. Kristen is a pharmacist in Wisconsin, Katherine is finishing up her last semester of grad school in Iowa for occupational therapy and Kortney is a senior at Sycamore High School.
Milton: How many years has your family farmed?
Jones: My great-grandfather Richard came over from Ireland. In the early 1900s, he rented the farm. It was owned by George Ault, the banker in Kirkland. My great-uncle Fred and grandfather Archie farmed after Richard passed away. My dad started farming after high school. When George Ault passed away, he wrote in his will that the Jones family had the first right to buy the farm. My family has owned the farm since 1957, but we have been farming on it since the early 1900s.
Milton: Has your farm grown in size through the years?
Jones: Our family purchased 320 acres in 1957, and now we have 1,370 acres. Farm land is a great investment. The cash return is only about 2.5 or 3 percent, but there is price appreciation. In 1957, land cost a couple of hundred dollars an acre. In 1969, it cost $700 an acre. In 2017, it costs $10,000 an acre. It’s a phenomenal investment. Land is a long-term investment, which is why buying land is so expensive. The immediate return is not so great. It’s also difficult to hold onto the same land for many generations.
Milton: Tell me more about your farm.
Jones: We raise corn, soybeans and wheat, but no cover crops. We grow about 15 different varieties from four different companies. We also have a feed lot and cattle. We purchase yearling steers, 700 to 900 pounds, from Kentucky, where they were grass-fed and kept in a pasture. We buy them semi-loads at a time. We change their rations gradually to a high-energy ration. After 150 to 200 days, we sell them to Tyson Foods. We deliver them to a harvest facility for slaughter. We currently have 750 head in our confinement facility and outdoor lot. We feed around 1,500 head of beef cattle each year.
Milton: What do you like about being a farmer?
Jones: I love what I do. There are different things going on all the time, and I have the responsibility of all of it. I work in the shop, on the tractor, in the office. Every day, I’m making marketing decisions and have a variety of decisions and activities that I have to do. I have two full-time employees, Chris and Mark. There’s always something to be done. I read all the time, about weather, markets, business, politics. I use a lot of expertise. I have an accountant, a banker and agronomy people. I have a nutritionist, a feed lot consultant, to help me make decisions about feeding and rations, which percentage of each ingredient to use. I make the decisions, though, and the people that help are my resources.