By Thomas Thoren
It is a rare early night getting home for Eric Suits. His daughters run to him and tug at his leg and give him hugs. He is home with enough time to sit down for dinner with his wife and three daughters. Tonight he can even play games with his daughters, ages 8, 5 and 15 months. There is still time before their 8 p.m. bedtimes.
This is an uncommon scene for Suits during the hectic harvesting season. Not only does he work full time as a district sales manager for Stone Seed Group, he also works on his family's 1,100-acre farm in the evenings and on the weekends. Returning to his Penfield home at 9 or 10 p.m. is more often the case for this full-time professional, part-time farmer.
"For us, this has become a multigenerational way of life," Suits says.
For about 40 years, Suits' father worked full time and farmed part time. He is now retired while Suits, 41, and everyone else attached to the family farm operation all work full time elsewhere and farm part time.
This is now the most common lifestyle for principal operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2007 Census of Agriculture found that of 2,204,792 principal farm operators, 54.9 percent listed their primary occupation as something other than farming. This is an increase from 42.5 percent in 2002. The same 2007 census showed 44.8 percent of Champaign County's 1,389 principal farm operators listed a primary occupation other than farming, up from 27.5 percent in 2002. (The Census of Agriculture is conducted every five years.)
Suits is part of this trend toward part-time farmers, but not because he needs the extra income. He does it for the "miracle" of watching a seed grow into hundreds of corn kernels. He now sees why his mother always said, "Farming is a selfish mistress."
"You have to be flexible and agile in the sense that you're not always going to be able to do things exactly when and how you'd like to," he says. "Because nature's involved. But you also have to adhere to the challenges that your professional position has and meet those obligations first and then make (farming) come in where it can."
There are the needs of his family as well. During planting and harvesting seasons, he would work late nights in the field if he did not make a concerted effort to spend enough time with his wife and kids. He forces himself to come home early enough to see his daughters before their bedtimes at least a couple of nights during the week.
"We can notice a difference in the behavioral level of our daughters is somewhat directly proportional to the amount of two-parent time they get versus one-parent time," he says. "They are more calm, they are more at ease when we are both able to be around."
After a few late nights in a row, he will come home early enough to see his children even though that might be detrimental to the farm. He, his brother, his cousin and other family members involved with the farm all work together to balance work on the farm with their family time. Occasionally they decide "that we're gonna shut down operations and go be with the family," Suits says. "That's just something you have to do sometimes."
His family is able to potentially sacrifice the farm's yields because about 80 percent of the land they farm is owned at least in part by a family member. Only a portion of the remaining 20 percent of land is rented on a sharecropping basis, meaning the landowner receives a percentage of the yields and therefore wants maximum production. The rest of that 20 percent is rented on a cash rent basis, meaning the landowner gets a flat rate no matter the yield; only Suits and his family would suffer should they produce less than the land's potential.
This is not to say Suits and the rest of the family's farmers do not work long hours to ensure the best yield possible. He, his brother and his father are the primary operators, with his cousin also helping out and many others assisting in various ways. The 1,100 acres are split among four areas: About 40 percent is east of Rantoul, another 40 percent is south of Thomasboro and the two rented tracts are south of Penfield and northeast of Rantoul.
The family members coordinate their work schedules so somebody is usually able to work in the field during the day, especially when it is crucial during harvesting and tilling because of ideal daytime ground conditions. Trucking and planting seeds can be reserved for the evenings.
They can also work out a schedule to ensure they all have enough time at home, something they take seriously. Suits asks his wife to be a barometer of his time away from home and tell him when he needs to spend some more time with his daughters.
"If I have not been able to get the work done effectively at the farm, I'm thinking about the work when I'm with them, which is not quality time for my family," he says. "So I ask her to have a degree of understanding about that, but I also ask her to let me know when something is important enough that I need to shut down operations on the farm because it is a bigger priority to be with the family, for whatever reason."
This can be even more difficult when commodities are selling for high prices, as is currently the case with corn and soybeans.
"Our commodities are of a little bit higher value now than what they were a few years ago," he says. "So the times that you have to work instead of being able to do something that's related to the farm operation can create some anxious moments because you feel you're missing an opportunity."
Even with his two jobs, Suits and his family are still able to vacation and visit family several times a year. They take trips to Disney World, the Wisconsin Dells and family gatherings around the country; they "always try and make sure that the family comes first, if possible," Suits says.
A typical day for Stone Seed begins at 7 a.m. and ends from 4:45 to 6 p.m. after a day spent driving around East Central Illinois to meet with clients. When he can come home after that depends on the time of year and how much farming needs to be done. He finds the best way to deal with the mental and physical stress of a busy life is as simple as getting enough sleep.
"I go to bed. No matter what it is, I go to bed," he says. "So there are very few nights that I make it through the 10 o'clock news."
Farming takes Suits away from his family, but he believes it is still the best way to raise his kids.
"You have so many different opportunities where you can provide your kids, in time, an ability to be in charge of an activity or a process where they learn some sense of ownership, accountability," he says. "I think it gives them something to have ownership in, something to be proud of and something that I can have some expectation of them helping to care for."
Growing up, Suits' parents would almost always make it to his athletic and FFA events during high school, even if they were 70 miles away. He now feels compelled to do the same for his daughters.
The past harvest season, Suits made it to three of his daughters' dance sessions, what he considers "a subtle victory" for that busy time of the year. As his daughters get older, he hopes his family's younger farmers will be able to work more and allow him to attend more of his daughters' activities.
For now, he and his wife are able to afford for her to stay at home and raise the children. While this may not be financially possible for many more years, they are making it a priority that their daughters always receive enough attention.
"You only get one opportunity to raise your kids, so you better do that right," Suits says.
And as they get older, he says he plans to get them involved with the farm.
"Some families go to Lake Shelbyville or Mattoon Lake or Clinton Lake and go boating," he says. "But what I've said all the way up to this point in life is the one thing that our family does together is be engaged in the farm. It's not as much an occupation as it is a way of life and something that we do together."
Thomas Thoren, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, wrote this story for Professor Walt Harrington's advanced reporting class last fall.