Penner started his family farm with small loan from his dad

Butterfield farmer Joel Penner stands in front of his Steiger tractor.

Married in 1972, Joel and Bernice Penner lived in Omaha, NE until they saved enough money to make a down payment on 200 acres near Butterfield.

In 1973, Butterfield farmer Joel Penner borrowed $500 and borrowed a planter from his father and planted his first crop. He paid his father back within six months.

Joel said a Watonwan County Farm Extension Agent tried to talk him out of starting a family farm.

“When I tried to buy my first tractor, the bank said ‘no,’ but the Darfur implement dealer said they would finance the tractor, a wagon and a disc,” said Penner.

Joel and Bernice built their first finishing barn for 200 head of hogs in 1977. They added a farrowing and nursery barn in 1982.

Joel and Bernice Penner, with son Mark, left, at the presentation of the Watonwan County Farm Family of the Year. The woman at right is unidentified.

In 1991, Joel added a gestation barn, putting breeding stock on the farm. A 600-head finishing barn was added in 1994.

Today, the Penners farm 340 acres and have 120 sows. They grow corn, soybeans and some small grains.

Joel’s two trucks haul livestock, grain feed hay and agricultural farm supplies.

“Most of the pigs go to Hormel (Foods Corporation). Some go to Sioux Center, Iowa,” Joel said.

Still, Penner said farming hasn’t changed that much over the years in many ways.

Penner sits on one of his favorite tractors, a 1947 John Deere M tractor that he said he enjoys taking to the Butterfield Threshing Bee.

“Since COVID-19 (pandemic), parts are now brought out to us,” Penner said.

The Penner’s oldest son Mark lives nearby and works daily on the farm.

Joel and Bernice were named the Watonwan County Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Joel and Bernice are Land Stewardship Project and Watonwan County Farm Bureau members. Joel has served on the township board, Watonwan County Soil and Water Conservation District board and was Butterfield-Odin School Board Chairman.

Joel talked about how he survived the mid 1980s farm mediation program with Minnesota Department of Agriculture Farm Advocate and Comfrey farmer Dave Hesse. Joel said he also hired a lawyer to at the time.

He described his experience in a nutshell.

“Things were getting tight, but I was current. Creditors told me as long as I paid the interest, I was fine,” Penner said. “Then I was foreclosed upon. I asked them why. I was told by some lenders that they foreclosed on me because they could. Some lenders were nice. Some were jerks.”

Joel said he filed for mediation and it really slowed things down, which was what he needed.

“I went to other creditors with a mediator, got a mediation agreement and a demand note (loan with no fixed term or repayment schedule),” Joel said “About 20 years later, I talked with a loan officer I worked with and he told me the bank was more broke than I was and they wanted assets. They tied my hands up for a long time. They wrote lots of debt off on farmers that were more broke than I was.”

Joel talked about what he feels is important about going through mediation.

“Time is important. You need to be able to sit back and think it through and remove emotions,” Joel said. “I felt I always had support from friends and family which you do need.”

At a Land Stewardship Project (LSP) meeting in New Ulm last December in which small farm advocates addressed the farm crisis, Hesse urged farmers to read the small print when they sign financial documents.

“Most people don’t know what they sign,” Hesse said. He warned farmers of agreeing to cross collateralization, which commonly refers to pledging two or more assets under one loan or using a single asset to secure multiple loans.

“By agreeing to that, if you default on one, you default on one (loan), you default on all of them,” Hesse said.

He urged farmers to talk to their neighbors as a way to ease their own minds and their neighbor’s.

Wabasso pork producer and LSP organizer Paul Sobocinski urged farmers to become active in the organization by coming to meetings, filling out surveys and writing their stories that the LSP can tell to legislators.

Hesse said he’s dealing about 11 farm mediation cases now.

“It’s about impossible to generate a positive cash flow no matter what,” Hesse said “It’s getting more and more difficult now. All the mediations are online now. We can’t meet face to face. The mediation process was extended 60 days by the Minnesota Legislature.”

Hesse said he had to do lots of work just to get them to release electricity, fire and wind insurance.

“It’s not getting any easier since last December,” said Hesse, who also farms. “Now we have a round of issues with livestock. I’ve got different mediations going on daily.”


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