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Do-it-yourself approach helps young farmers succeed

Issue Date: October 24, 2012
By Ching Lee
Sara and Jake van Tol, with their daughter Mellanie are working to make farming their full-time career.
Photo/Ching Lee
Jake van Tol performs many of the day-to-day duties on his family’s dairy, which he credits for giving him plenty of hands-on experience.
Photo/Ching Lee
Sara van Tol works as a wedding and event planner, a job that allows her to work from home and raise the couple’s 18-month-old daughter.
Photo/Ching Lee
Jake van Tol farms hay on the side while continuing to work for his family’s dairy in Glenn County.
Photo/Ching Lee

Editor's note: This is the final part of a three-part series describing the paths young farmers and ranchers take as they build their agricultural careers. You can read the previous installments here.

As young farmers trying to get a foothold in agriculture, Jake and Sara van Tol acknowledge it helps to have good connections in the farming community—and the skills to be in high demand.

That has not been a problem for Jake van Tol, who describes himself as an all-purpose serviceman or "multi-use guy." Having grown up in a farming family whose members still perform most of the day-to-day duties on the dairy, van Tol acquired many of his skills working on the farm his entire life.

"There's nothing better than hands-on experience," he said.

He began tinkering with farm equipment at a young age and on his father's advice later took some agricultural classes to further hone skills that would help on the farm, including training in mechanized agriculture, heavy equipment and different machines and systems.

"I took welding classes so that I can fix the stuff that breaks," he said. "That's one of the basic expenses with farming—breakdowns and the labor that comes with having to call a service truck to come fix a piece of equipment, which is expensive."

By doing many of the jobs himself, van Tol said he can save money, and that has been a major advantage for him and his wife as they try to break into the farming business. The couple's goal is to someday have their own farm, dairy or both.

"Our plan is to hopefully sustain ourselves with farming of some sort," Sara van Tol said. "We're hoping to acquire more property, whether renting or buying."

In addition to working on his family's dairy, Jake van Tol also farms about 35 acres of hay on his own. He sells this crop to other livestock owners and sometimes to the family dairy, which milks about 1,100 cows and also farms 540 acres of forage mix.

Sara van Tol did not grow up on a farm, but her grandparents were in the dairy business and her mother still works for Land O'Lakes in Orland. She grew up raising and showing cattle and swine through 4-H and FFA, and later studied animal science at California State University, Chico.

Already a full-time mom of the couple's 18-month-old daughter Mellanie, Sara van Tol also works as a wedding and event planner, a line of work she's been involved in since high school. She said she wants to be farming full-time, but acknowledged her current job helps to "bring in a second income when needed."

"I'm still heavily involved in 4-H as a swine leader for a few of the clubs here in Glenn County," said van Tol, who also chairs the Glenn County Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers committee.

She said being involved in the local YF&R allows her to be connected to agriculture and to teach others about farming and what it has to offer. For example, the group recently held its annual Farm Day, during which fourth-grade students in Glenn County heard from professionals who work in the many areas of agriculture, including farmers, veterinarians, educators and nutritionists.

"It's really rewarding to see those fourth graders learn about the different aspects of agriculture," she said. "That's the one thing that I really enjoy—teaching others and getting to know the children and knowing that they are learning from us."

Jake van Tol said YF&R also provides great networking opportunities and that going to Farm Bureau events has allowed him to talk to older, more experienced farmers who have become valuable resources for him.

"They're eager to help you succeed," he said. "They like to give advice and I like to hear it. You make a lot of connections that will help you out."

Developing and maintaining good relationships with people in the farming community has also helped to expand his opportunities and experience. He is often called to other farms to provide his expertise, including operating and fixing equipment and "whatever they need me to do," he said.

"I can do a lot of different things. That's always a plus," he said.

Still, the couple said the biggest challenge they face as young farmers is finding available land to farm and the high cost of buying or renting any piece of ground. With other farmers also looking for property, the competition can be fierce, they acknowledged. They currently lease the 35 acres that they farm.

"Unless you come from a family that is already involved in farming or dairying, it's difficult to get started just because you need to acquire some land," Sara van Tol said. "That would probably be the No. 1 concern with younger kids right now with getting started with their own business."

"You have to be on the ball," Jake van Tol added. "You have to go out and work for it to get the property. You've got to make sure you do your homework and ask people if you could farm the ground, and as long as they say yes, then you've got to make sure you keep the relationship good."

Being able to obtain financing to buy land or equipment is another hurdle for young farmers, the van Tols said. So far, they've been able to make do borrowing what they need from the family dairy, but they said eventually they would like to buy their own equipment and land.

"We've got to consider loans, consider saving up," Sara van Tol said. "It's going to take some time."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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