Suburbanites seek tradition on family farmstead
By NICOLE WESKERNA
The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle
WATERMAN, Ill. (AP) -- Though she'd never farmed on her own before, Mandy Harkalis felt she was destined to move from Las Vegas to take over the family farm in Waterman.
When her father died last year, she decided to leave her job in the medical field to continue the family's farming legacy. The move meant she would leave behind a steady paycheck to pursue a career she may or may not succeed in.
"We moved from Las Vegas to Illinois to become professional gamblers," said Harkalis, 35.
Harkalis' father, Art Eichelberger, died in August 2010 from cancer. Her family considered renting the land to other farmers, but Harkalis decided to jump at the opportunity to take over as the family's third-generation farmer.
"It was destiny for me to come back to my roots and take over," she said. "I have absolutely no regrets."
When Harkalis and her partner, Nathan Hinman, decided to move from Las Vegas to Waterman, they gave up stable jobs, a three-car garage and a jet-set lifestyle that took them all over the country. Harkalis gave up her job as a pain management scheduler for anesthesiologists, and Hinman left his job as a maintenance foreman for a waste-hauling company in Nevada. A year ago, they described themselves as "suburbanite people."
The farm has been in the family since 1969 when Harkalis' grandfather bought and rented the property in rural Waterman. After her grandfather died, her father continued to run the farm on his own.
Harkalis and Hinman have spent the past season growing soybeans and corn on 320 acres; it hasn't been easy.
Farmers in DeKalb County had a wet spring while planting and summer storms that brought strong winds.
"Being rookies, it was the end of the world," Hinman said.
The weather, unexpected equipment failures and unpredictable corn and soybean prices are all factors Harkalis and Hinman have little or no control over. But those aren't even the biggest challenges.
When Harkalis' father died, so did the wealth of knowledge that had been passed down to him from his father. Because Mandy Harkalis had a later start to her farming career, she missed out on the tricks other farming families have passed to the next generation.
Instead, Harkalis and Hinman have picked the brains of every farmer they can think of. Some have been helpful, but others simply tell them to figure things out on their own. Problems started early in the season with the planting equipment, which had been in the family since 1980.
The machine was planting about half the seeds it was supposed to be planting, and the instruction manual had been lost a long time ago. Unlike modern farm equipment, the old planter doesn't have a monitor, so pinpointing the problem became a frustrating guessing game.
"There's no one here to tell me physically what to do," Harkalis said. "The trade secret kind of died with dad."
Harkalis hasn't had any income since November, she said, but expenses still mount. Greg Millburg, manager of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, said that comes with the territory.
"Agriculture and farming is very capital-intensive," he said. "It takes a lot to put a crop in. It's a very expensive industry."
But for Harkalis, the benefit outweighs the risk. When she and Hinman look around their property -- now surrounded by stalks of corn and soybean plants -- their sense of pride is apparent. But with harvest season still ahead, Harkalis said she still doesn't feel like she's earned the title of farmer.
"Farming is not an occupation, it's a way of life," she said. "I'll know in my gut the day I'll call myself a farmer."