By Tom Parker
When Andi Blair first laid eyes on Comanche County in southwestern Kansas, it was nothing like she had expected. She was heading to Protection to take up a four-year teaching job, but instead of dust devils and tumbleweeds listlessly sauntering under a merciless August sky, the land was green and verdant and freckled with late-season wildflowers. It brought to mind the rolling prairies Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about, and just as scarcely settled, too, with a population density of only two people per mile. That surreal sense of emptiness might have been oppressive to others raised in the city, but not to Blair. It was new, it was exciting, it was beautiful beyond words. “This is my little house on the prairie,” she thought.
It was also out of the norm. In both rain and alcohol sales, Comanche County is dry. Annual precipitation averages 26 inches, though 14 inches is not uncommon, as it was in 2011. Fourth-generation farmer-rancher Kurt Dale remembers that year for its parched fields and drifting dust, just as he remembers 1995, the year Andi Blair arrived to teach mathematics at Protection High School.
“I can only imagine that it looked the same way when my great-grandparents, William and Nellie Dale, stopped their covered wagon here in the late 1880s,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that it would have been nice if they would have stopped that wagon where it rained a little more.”
The Dale Family has farmed and ranched in Comanche County, Kansas for over 100 years.
Dale and Blair, married now with three children of their own, shared their story with members of the Kansas Farmers Union during their 2017 convention held Dec. 1-2 in Emporia. Their presentation, “Bridges Across Generations,” outlined the history of their farm and the transitions that were necessary to sustain it between generations. The steps they took were entirely subjective and not meant to be guidelines, they stressed. “We’re more storytellers than prescription givers,” Andi said.
The convention’s theme, “Bridges,” looked at bridges less as structures carrying roads or railroads across rivers or ravines, and more as something that reconciles or creates connections between two things. Bridge as a verb, not a noun, as guest speaker Sarah Green put it. The Dales had dealt firsthand with bridging generations on the family farm when they took over from Kurt’s parents, and now they were taking steps to make the succession possible for their own children, should they wish it.
William and Nellie Dale were the first generation of Dales in Comanche County. They homesteaded on land still owned by the family, and eventually passed it on to Karl Dale, Kurt’s grandfather. Karl was an outdoorsman and loved nothing better than to hunt and fish. He was also inventive, as was often necessary in those days. When he couldn’t find the right kind of trailer to haul hay, he built one from scratch, and improved on the design to meet his specs. It was unlike anything else, which was typical for the family.
That unconventional mindset is something Andi recognizes as a common trait braiding together the generations of the family. “There seems to be a spirit of nonconformity,” she said. When Karl returned to the United States after fighting in World War I, he promptly headed to Canada with a Norwegian to spend a year trapping. During the mid-1930s when the only successful crop was dust, Karl hired a caretaker for the farm, borrowed money for a new car, and took the family on an extended road trip across the West. Kurt’s father, Bill, started kindergarten in Jackson Hole, Wyo. When it was Bill’s turn to take over the farm after serving in the Korean War, Karl converted an old bread truck into a camper, bought a boat and went fishing.
During the 1970s and 1980s, hay was a cash crop but Bill balked at spending money on pesticides, so he imported ladybugs to control aphids. He also raised sunflowers for several years, something that just wasn’t done in the county. It was all about diversification, seeing what worked, what didn’t.
“We’re a little unconventional,” Kurt admitted. “We don’t fit the norm for Comanche Country. We grow feed crops and turn cattle loose in the fields, we do hogs on pasture—there aren’t a lot of hogs in the county, and only ours on pasture—we raise turkeys, and for a while we let them roam.” Even the chickens graze the pasture. Neighbors drive by just to see what they’re going to do next.
Indirectly, that strain of unconformity was how Andi met Kurt. She had been teaching for about six months when an unfamiliar voice on the phone asked for a date. The name sounded familiar—she knew his parents from church, but when she pressed for details all they would give up was that Kurt was the guy who sat behind her at the ballgames.
Kurt had left the farm after graduation, first to K-State University and then to work in Kansas City and Parsons, but after years of sitting at a desk with a phone glued to his ear, he decided to go back home. Two years later he and Andi married.
Out of six children, Kurt was the only one who expressed a desire to carry on the family farm, though the other five siblings have been more than supportive. The transition from Kurt’s parents to Kurt and Andi was based on a written agreement that spelled out who was responsible for what, terms for a crop-share agreement and a past-due rental agreement, and so on. That attention to detail lessened some of the anxiety over transfer of ownership, Andi said.
“It was beneficial to his parents to know how much they would get every quarter, and beneficial for us to know how much we were going to be paying for the farm,” she said. “To get to that point you have to have open and frequent conversations. You can’t just sit down and write it out one time and that’s the law forever. There has to be some flexibility and some compromise.”
They also made sure that Bill could stay involved with the farm. Until his eighties Bill’s responsibility was to drive the trailer to the feed lot, plus he helped move cattle from paddock to paddock.
The same process was repeated when Andi retired from teaching to work full-time at the farm. Now they had to make sure that two families were supported without outside income.
Kurt and Andi Dale have been direct marketing their grass-finished beef, pastured pork and free-range chickens now for more than 10 years. Thanks in part to assistance from Kurt’s siblings, they have markets in Olathe, Topeka and Dallas. “Even though they’re not actively farming, they’re much tied to the success of the farm,” Andi said.
The success of the farm has been the core principle in the transition process. “There has to be a desire from both generations to see the farm continue,” Andi said. Ironing out the details is an evolutionary process that require compromises from all parties.
There also has to be respect for the generation that came before. “You might not fully agree with what happened in past generations, and you might not agree with the practices that were used, but you absolutely have to honor the time and the energy that was poured into that farm so you could be here today doing the same thing,” she said.
In their case, Andi believes that the family’s spirit of nonconformity smoothed the transition over the last several generations. “That willingness to step outside the status quo, to look at things a little differently, and not worry about what others are thinking, opens the door to the next generation to do something different from the way they’ve always been done,” she said. “We’re hoping we can do the same for the next generation.”
Grooming their daughters with age-appropriate chores is one way they’re planning for an eventual transition, Kurt said, as well as matching their strengths and weaknesses to the tasks at hand. Allison, the oldest at 16, loves animals and is considering becoming a veterinarian. She can move the herd from one paddock to another or doctor the animals, and in general run the farm when they’re making deliveries. Natalie, 12, doesn’t want anything to do with hogs but she’s great at setting up at farmers markets and craft fairs. Anna, at 9, is pretty much game for anything.
When Andi Blair first laid eyes on Comanche County in southwestern Kansas, it was nothing like she had expected. “This is my little house on the prairie,” she thought.
Bridging generations on a family farm is the natural order of things, and should be entered into with a spirit of trust and respect, Andi said.
“It hasn’t always been perfect,” she said, “and Kurt’s parents would probably say the same thing, but I think that both of us have been greatly enriched by being part of that transition and being so close.”
Kurt agreed. “My parents have a lot of wisdom,” he said. “They don’t write it down, they just do it, simply, every day and pass it down to me. It’s one of their greatest gifts they gave to me.”
Dale Family Farms can be reached by calling 620-622-4473, 620-622-7004 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The convention was sponsored by Midwest Regional Agency, Farmers Union Insurance and the Frontier Farm Credit. Kansas Farmers Union is the state’s oldest active general farm organization working to protect and enhance the economic interests and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities.