Cattle Caretakers

Janice and Jake Wolfinger are young faces among Ohio’s farmers. You may have served the beef they help raise but unlike producers that greet you at the farmers market, roadside stands or on-farm markets, you may never meet the Wolfingers. Yet it’s important to these Farm Bureau members that you know who they are, how they think, the role they play in agriculture, and how they embrace family and farming. They take their place among a new generation of farmers in Ohio and across the nation whose opportunities arrive in many different ways.

Both Janice and Jake were raised on beef and grain farms in Ohio: she on a Perry County farm that has been in her family for two centuries, and he on a multigenerational farm in neighboring Fairfield County. Like most country kids, the desire to farm was in their blood. Agricultural opportunities that existed a half century ago dwindled as urbanization reduced the amount of acreage available to family farms that needed to support multiple families. So the couple decided to venture out on their own, heading to central Nebraska to buy a feed yard that cares for 3,500 beef cattle. While Jake ran the feed yard, Janice taught agricultural education at an area high school and they began a family.

Ranchers brought calves, typically Angus cross breeds, from their pastures to the Wolfinger’s yard. For the first 30 days, the health and care of the young animals was closely monitored and they were fed balanced rations of grain and corn formulated by a nutritionist. Strict exercise and care standards were also in place for the animals.

“Being big doesn’t mean that safety and animal welfare concerns are not a priority,” Janice said. “We have more government restrictions to answer to and a lot of safety nets to back us up. We can account for how our animals are raised and we put a lot of time in collecting data.” In 2011, the couple moved back to Ohio with their young daughters, Jacie, 7, and Jaelin, 5. Here they raise cattle with two other families on more than 15,000 acres.

They turned over the daily operation of the Nebraska feed yard to a skilled, professional cowboy who shares the same animal and environmental viewpoints as the Wolfingers. “That includes taking care of and improving the land and the environment we occupy and maintaining clean water sources,” Janice said. Many technologies, including cell phones and social media, allow them to remain in touch on a daily basis.

“It’s important and part of living in our country that people have choices,” she said. “If you want to find your food at a farmers market, you can. But there’s a larger part of the population who work 6 or 7 days a week and long hours. They depend on grocery stores to be open 24 hours a day for them to feed their family and that’s who we provide for.” Janice makes it a point to remind people that just because you don’t see the face of a person who raised your food doesn’t mean that safety and quality standards are not there.

“We are working toward creating a sustainable family operation that will be passed along to our girls,” Janice said. “Yes, it’s risky to assume the girls will be farmers. There are no guarantees. It may be a large assumption but agriculture has a way of pulling people back home, more than any other job. Kids of farmers grow up as part of the farm. If Jake had become a doctor, the girls wouldn’t go to work with him. Here they do. They’re a part of farming from the day they’re born.”

Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.

Follow the Wolfingers’ story on Janice’s blog.