SDSU grads continue 100-year farming legacy

Lura Roti/SDSRPC: May 2019 marks 100 years the Bainbridge family has farmed near Ethan. Three generations pictured here include: Matt, 38, and his son, Zach, 7 months; Lewis, 69, and Neal, 35, and his youngest daughter, Greta, 2. The Bainbridge’s raise soybeans, corn and small grains, and manage a cow/calf and backgrounding operation.

Thinking back on harvest 2018 helps Matt Bainbridge cope with planting season 2019.

“When there are weeks like this week, when it won’t stop raining, I think back to last fall’s huge crop, and watching the yield monitor in the combine – and filling truck after truck after truck with grain,” explains the Ethan farmer and South Dakota Soybean Research & Promotion Council director. 

It’s one of the few sunny days in May, and typically, the fourth-generation farmer would be in the field planting soybeans. But like so many South Dakota farmers, the water standing on his fields dictates how he spends his time.

“It’s really tough to be patient. I’m impatient by nature. We have tried to get into the field when it’s too wet before and made a huge mess. It’s just not worth it,” Matt said. “If we get out there and make ruts or compact the soil, sealing off the top layer, it will hurt infiltration for the rest of the growing season – and growing seasons to come.”

So, instead, he is sitting in the shop office with his dad, Lewis and brother, Neal, taking a short break to reflect on the growing season and their passion for taking care of land and livestock. It’s a legacy the men have continued since their great-grandparents homesteaded near Ideal, a community west of the Missouri River, more than 100 years ago.

“This farm has been in our family 100 years as of May 20,” Lewis, 69, explains. “It’s an interesting story. In 1919, my grandfather, Zachariah Lewis flipped farms with the farmer who was here because he wanted to be a farmer; out there it was more grass country. And the farmer who lived here, wanted to be a cattle guy.”

Along with the land he traded for a century ago, Zachariah’s name also remains in the family. Matt and his wife, Sari, named their firstborn Zach. He’s 7 months old.

Lewis says the fact both his sons decided to follow in his footsteps and farm is humbling. “And, of course I’m doing a happy dance, too, because Matt and Neal both made their own decisions about doing this after school. No coercion!”

Lewis admits their decision didn’t surprise him. “As they grew up, whatever we were doing on the farm, was what they were doing in the basement with the farm toys.”

Although the machinery is much larger and more expensive these days, Neal and Matt still farm together. In addition to the land they own or lease individually, the men also farm some ground together. They also share labor, machinery costs and run their cattle together. 

A general agriculture graduate of South Dakota State University, Matt, 38, purchased his grandma’s farm the year before he graduated. And Neal, 35, got his start a year after he completed his college football career, completing general agriculture and agronomy degrees at SDSU.

“Family friends, who dad has rented ground from forever, asked if we wanted to buy the farm. They were really good to us. I didn’t have to buy the land at auction,” explains Neal, who met his wife, Tara, about the same time he bought his farm. Together, the couple has three daughters: Charlie, 7; Brynlee, 5; and Greta, 2.

Neal says he is happy for the opportunity to raise them on the farm – an upbringing he says positively impacted him in many ways, including his college football career as a punter for SDSU. 

“Time management aspect of it helped out. We’re always busy doing something on the farm, so I learned to manage my time to get everything done I needed to get done. And, the work ethic. College sports are more of a job than a hobby. It was a huge time commitment and a lot of work,” Neal said.

The Bainbridges raise soybeans, corn and small grains, and manage a cow/calf and backgrounding operation. Practicing no-till farming for more than 30 years, the men follow their small grain rotation with cover crops which their cattle then graze. 

“It is still very important to us to be good stewards of the land,” Lewis explains conservation has been a focus since the days Grandpa Zachariah farmed their land. “Each generation planted trees; literally thousands of trees have been planted through the generations.”

No-till has built up their soil’s organic matter, and the residual root systems not only aid in water infiltration in wet years, but also increase moisture retention in dry years. “No-till gives our fields some firmness that tillage folks don’t have,” Lewis explains. 

The men own some acres of native prairie that have never been farmed, which they graze or cut for hay.  

“Cattle allow us to utilize all our land. We have acres in pasture that we don’t want to use for row crops,” Matt explains. “Having cattle helps this spring because we are never just sitting, looking at our tractor, waiting for it to be dry enough to plant.”

Solar wells and cross fencing allowed them to better manage grazing to increase herd numbers a bit in recent years. Raising both crops and cattle also aids in risk management. 

Also an SDSU graduate, as is his wife, Charlene, Lewis says throughout his entire farming career he has relied not only on what he learned from farming with his dad, Gordon, but also on information gleaned from SDSU professors and experts, like Dwayne Beck, manager of Dakota Lakes Research Farm, and other farmers. 

Networking with other farmers not only provides insight into farming practices, but Lewis says during a year like this one, it’s a good reminder that he and his sons aren’t alone in dealing with low markets and extreme weather conditions.

“Connecting with other farmers gives you perspective. I was just on a conference call with 73 farmers from across the U.S. for United Soybean Board, and only two other farmers had been in the field,” explains Lewis, who recently completed a term as chair of the United Soybean Board. “I always joke that getting involved in commodity organizations is my therapy.”

“It helps to know that you are not the only one going through something,” Neal adds. When he and Matt returned home to farm, a few of their high school friends made the same decision. 

“It’s fun watching these young guys farming today,” Lewis says. “Charlene and I have watched them grow up. We knew them as little boys – and now they have kids of their own.”

Like their dad, both boys choose to make time to give back. Neal is a volunteer firefighter, and since 2011, Matt has served as a director on the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. SDSRPC is the farmer-led organization charged with wisely investing and leveraging checkoff dollars on behalf of South Dakota soybean farmers. 

“It’s important to be involved, especially in an organization like the checkoff, because as a farmer, it’s my job to make sure the investments being made for farmers are relevant to what farmers actually need,” Matt explains.

Investing in the future is an aspect of being a farmer that also helps when the weather won’t cooperate and prices are low, Neal says. “As long as you make it through this year, you always have next year. We always try to do better than the year before.”

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