Farming Fathers 2018: A dedicated family man and farmer

Jeff Vander Wal gives his daughter Sadie a hug on Thursday, May 31 at their farm shop south of Brentford. Sadie said her dad likes to embarass her by giving her hugs. Farm Forum photo by Elizabeth Varin

Editor’s Note: Six regional farmers were selected as 2018 Farming Fathers. More stories, photos and videos will be posted as announcements are made. See this story on page 20A in the Farm Forum E-Edition. 

A request from a Brentford man’s daughter told him he was needed at the shop. Leaving the sprayer running in the field 10-miles from home, he naturally complied and jumped in the truck to help. The yard surrounding the shop was full of trucks and cars and there was no sign of trouble.

With a huge grin on her face, his daughter told him, “I entered you into the Farming Fathers contest and you kind of won.”

It was a surprise for the 43-year-old farmer as he was honored by the Farm Forum staff who brought lunch to him. He wasn’t surprised that his daughter’s words would praise him.

“Jeff Vander Wal is the true definition of a farming father,” Sadie Vander Wal, age 17, wrote in the nomination. “As his daughter, I am inspired by his dedication and service to agriculture, which motivates me to play an active role in the industry just as he does.”

Farm Forum asked readers to share why their “Farming Fathers” deserved recognition. Five men earned the distinction from the nearly 60 well-written entries. As a reward, the Farm Forum staff delivers a special on-the-farm meal provided by sponsors to the winners. Stories and photos in the Green Sheet will share why the chosen men deserve the honor.

Sadie shared, “My grandma (Sue Vander Wal) emailed me and suggested I should enter dad’s name in the contest. I sent in an essay as I think he is very deserving.”

Spring is always a stressful time for farmers. In a livestock operation, caring for cows and calves take precedence. Weather dictates when seeds go in the ground. Jeff said it was painful to wait for the frost to go out of the ground this spring. Planting is done and the day of the visit, the last of the fertilizer for wheat was spread. “Things are looking really good,” Jeff said.

Growing up on his family’s farm near Volga, Jeff learned at a young age from his parents and grandparents the importance of hard work and dedication to agriculture. Jeff owns and operates Vander Wal Livestock at Brentford where he raises Shorthorn beef cattle. This year the herd is about 125 cow/calf pairs. With the help of his family, Jeff works with Nate Stuck and his dad Lauren Stuck to plant 5,000 acres of wheat, corn and soybeans.

Jeff’s wife Beth grew up near De Smet. She and Jeff met at South Dakota State University and married in 1997.

In the nomination, Sadie wrote, “Whether it be staying up all night to ensure calves are healthy and alive or waking up early to complete haying before the rain, Jeff serves as a strong example of a farming father who is dedicated to not only the land and livestock, but the improvement of the agriculture industry through the development of youth.”

Sadie wrote, “Through his example, he instills his passion for agriculture in FFA and 4-H members. As the livestock judging coach for Spink County 4-H and Northwestern Area FFA, Jeff volunteers his time to help kids develop and grow in their skills. By balancing work on the farm with his volunteering in community organizations such as a church board, Plains Lions Club, and Spink County 4-H Leaders, Jeff dedicates his time to agriculture and youth in whatever way possible.”

Sadie said her interest in a future career started with what she’s learned on the farm. She owns 20 head of her own cattle and plans to go to South Dakota State University to learn about reproductive health in cattle.

The family works together to plant the crops, care for the cattle and contribute to the community. When asked how her dad keeps track of it all, Sadie said, “My mom organizes him. She keeps him on track and knows what he is doing.”

The Vander Wal’s son Mitchell, 15, said, “I think it’s pretty cool that my dad was chosen. My sister is good at writing; that’s what Sadie does. He deserves the recognition.”

While his dad was in the field, Mitchell clipped calves, getting the animals ready for Northern Plains Livestock Days and Hereford Field days.

“I’ve always watched how he does things and I think my work ethic reflects his example,” Mitchell said. “He’s always trying to think ahead to be efficient. I’ve always thought it was pretty cool to learn to do stuff the right way and knowing how I’m expected to do it. That’s beneficial for me.”

“Whenever it comes to pulling calves or helping cows in trouble, I am surprised how much dad knows,” he said. “He’s taught me what to look for when a cow swells before her calf is born. When the calf’s head is in the wrong direction, he can get the snare in to maneuver the calf in the right position to get the calf out.”

Mitchell said, “Sadie is more interested in research and the journalism part of farming. I’m more hands on. When we’re at a livestock show, I’m the one in the back trying to get the cattle to move while she’s up front, writing down scores and tracking numbers.”

Farming is a big part of Mitchell’s life and he wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He’s hoping to join in the operation with his dad and Nate. Mitchell wants to work with cattle.

Sharing his gift

After college, Jeff was an agronomist, working for several companies before joining Nate in the farming operation. In this setting, he’s able to raise livestock and farm. “Cattle are my passion, farming pays the bills.”

Jeff believes sharing his work ethic with his kids is the best gift he can give them. “I show them once and tell them what I expect.”

Jeff helped to develop the FFA program at Northwestern. He volunteered to teach a class to gauge interest in an ag class and FFA. Jeff took students on tours of Common Sense Mfg., Glacial Lakes Energy, cattle feedlots and other ag businesses. Jeff said that many high school kids don’t realize what opportunities are in their own backyard. He shared, “I taught the ag class to benefit my kids. There were 20 kids in the class so others were interested, too. Two years ago, the school hired an ag teacher. This year there are 50 students involved in FFA, which is two-thirds of the high school.”

Jeff remains eager to help with any of the projects, especially livestock judging.

Beth said, “Jeff and I help with livestock judging for 4-H and FFA. We do it together; he’ll take the seniors and I’ll take the juniors. We’ll host a judging school at our place and help the kids get ready for the 4-H contest in September.”

Being a good dad came naturally to Jeff, according to Beth.

“Jeff always loved babies,” Beth said. “He said he wanted seven and I said ‘that’s not happening.’ Sadie was a daddy’s girl from day one. He was an agronomist in Mellette when she was going through the terrible twos. To calm her down, I’d say I was going to call daddy. All he’d have to say to her on the phone was, ‘Be nice to mommy,’ and she’d settle down.”

Sadie laughed and explained, “I knew where his buttons were then and I still do. Mitchell hasn’t figured it out yet. Dad likes to embarrass me by hugging me in public a lot. A lot!”

Jeff said his dad, Dale Vander Wal, taught him to always listen. It’s especially important to listen to his kids.

Jeff said, “My dad didn’t like to talk a lot, but when he said something, people listened. In today’s world, everyone likes to talk, few like to listen.”

Taking time

Jeff said the kids are only young once and he and Nate work to get to their kid’s activities. Time management and prioritization is necessary.

“Nate and I communicate about stuff going on with kids. He has two daughters in high school so sometimes when there is an activity, we shut the combine off and go. We make do and take care of the work, making sure our kids know they are what is important.”

Kathleen Ruesink, Nate’s oldest daughter, took production ag classes at Lake Area at Watertown and Jeff helped her understand some of the technical information.

“I took online-ag classes at Northwestern, too. If Jeff ever saw a learning opportunity, he’d drag me out of the tractor and show me how deep the seed is in the soil or the impact of spray. He was a wonderful teacher.”

“He is a teacher at heart,” Beth said. “Whether it’s his own kids or others, he wants to help them learn. Like most farmers, he works 24/7 but he shuts down when it comes to the kid’s events. He doesn’t miss a concert and always tries to get to cheer events or track meets. A lot of dads won’t do that. He’s a very good dad. I couldn’t ask for a better husband or dad for my kids.”

Connie Sieh Groop is a freelance ag writer. She can be reached at conniegroop19@gmail.com.

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