The Berbaums

Paul and Shirley Berbaum farm in western Champaign County.

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Know of a family family we should spotlight? Email Dave Hinton at dhinton@news-gazette.com

When Paul and Shirley Berbaum’s ancestors immigrated from Germany during the 19th century, they couldn’t have imagined biotechnology, cellphones, iPads and global positioning systems on the farm. Now they’re pretty much standard practices and make farming easier and more efficient. The Berbaums are the latest farm family of the week. Paul answers the questions.

How long has your family been farming?

My wife, Shirley, and I grew up on family farms, and our families have farmed in Champaign County for generations. My great-grandfather, Carl Berbaum, and Shirley’s great-great-grandfather, August Pfiester(er), immigrated from Germany and settled in Champaign County as farmers. Shirley’s great-great-grandfather, John R. Rayburn, came to Champaign from Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1853 and purchased 600 acres of prairieland near Mahomet. Shirley and I purchased our first piece of farmland in 1988, which led to farming part time. I was able to farm full time after inheriting land as well as purchasing additional farms.

Where is your farm?

Our farm is in Champaign County, with all of our land being located west of Champaign. Some is on the farm where I was raised, and several pieces include land around the farmstead where Shirley grew up. Numerous fields have been in Shirley’s family for four generations.

What does your farm operation consist of? Is it strictly grain?

I exclusively grow corn and soybeans, including some seed beans. I’ve participated in precision conservation management since its inception in 2017. A specialist works with me to help identify conservation practices I can adopt in a financially feasible way. Last year was my first being involved in a five-year transition program for cover crops. I do not perceive that planting a cover crop will be a money-making endeavor. It will most likely be an expense. However, I feel this is the right way to proceed for conservation of the land and environment.

How many people in the family does the operation support?

Our farm operation supports my wife and myself. I farm some land for my brother and Shirley’s sister. However, expertise of crop specialists, fertilizer consultants and equipment technicians help make a farming operation successful.

Do you have any family in the farm operation also working other jobs?

Early in my farming career, I worked a full-time job and traded my labor for use of my father-in-law John Rayburn’s equipment. After he retired, I purchased his equipment, farmed his land and continued to work a full-time job. I was finally able to exclusively farm after working full time for about 30 years. Shirley worked at the University of Illinois until retirement.

How have you seen farming change over the years?

Technology has had an enormous impact on farming as it has on many aspects of society. Farm equipment today is extremely sophisticated, allowing the farmer to collect and record data pertaining to fertilizer use and yields, which assists in more efficient decisions. Of course, the high-tech equipment also means that a farmer is typically unable to make repairs during a breakdown. However, a cellphone allows me to call my equipment dealership from the cab. Global positioning systems have made it possible to decrease the use of fertilizer and pesticides. GPS allows fertilizer to be applied at a variable rate, being spread where it is needed on the field instead of evenly across all acreage. Prior to GPS, once it became dark, work ceased due to the inability to see the marker on the tillage tool or planter.

Biotechnology has greatly increase productivity. Today’s seeds are much more tolerant to heat and drought stress as well as being more disease- and pest-resistant. Even in the last decade the average corn production in Champaign County has increased from 164 bushels per acre to 222. I farm alone, so I’ve needed to increase on farm grain storage, which allows me to unload grain into bins at harvest and deliver it to market at a later date when farming activities are less demanding.

Technology also makes information more accessible. Grain market information is available 24/7, and I can even receive and sign contract documents on my iPad. In addition, educational seminars, webinars and informational materials can be obtained through the internet. I have found information provided by the farmdoc team at the University of Illinois extremely beneficial.

Farming has changed a lot in my lifetime and will continue to change, so I need to adapt to keep up with technology and conservation issues.

Your farm equipment: Green (John Deere), Red (Case IH) or other?

My combine is John Deere, as is a track tractor I own in partnership with another farm family allowing larger equipment and more technology to increase efficiency. My other tractors are New Holland, which are blue.

What makes farming such a good vocation?

I enjoy the ability to make my own decisions, knowing that I will have to live with the consequences of my decisions, not someone else’s. There is satisfaction in being a good steward of the land and environment. It is rewarding to plant, to watch your crop grow and to see the fruits of your labor be harvested. I appreciate that farming provides a variety of tasks, some flexibility, time to be outside and an opportunity to be close to nature.

If you could change one thing about farming, what would it be?

I would want to make the farm economy less volatile. Since farming is part of the global economy, many factors at home and abroad influence grain prices and the cost of equipment, fertilizer, chemicals and seed. Trade agreements; supply-chain issues; energy prices; truck, train and barge issues; labor disputes; land prices and weather in the U.S. as well as in other parts of the world all influence a farmer’s ability to make a profit. Having more predictability would make farming decisions less complicated.

What’s the best time of year to be on the farm?

Life on the farm is wonderful as there is something new and special on the farm during each season. In the late spring, emerging crops turn the fields green. The refreshing rains during the long lazy days of summer make the crops grow fast. During the cool evenings of the fall, the fields begin to turn golden, and you see the results of your efforts. The farm is a very special place to live.

Our County Editor

Dave Hinton is editor of The News-Gazette's Our County section and former editor of the Rantoul Press. He can be reached at dhinton@news-gazette.com.

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