ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Thank goodness Paul Suderman loved a challenge. Suderman enters his 50th and final year of battling wits and trying to outguess one of life’s most challenging professions-farming.
“How to cope with different weather situations, markets, machinery and farming techniques has been a constant learning challenge,” Suderman says. “I think to be successful, you have to keep up on marketing strategies and you have to figure out what method of farming works the best.
“But what works the best one year might not work the next.”
Suderman’s wife of 52 years, Elda, had planned to join her husband for this final harvest. But on April 21 she lost a brief battle with cancer.
Neither wheat harvest nor the rest of his life will ever be the same, he said.
“Elda loved to cook and we had very good harvest meals out in the fields for many, many years,” Suderman said.
Suderman said Elda did social work, adoption and foster care work for about 16 years, but upon her retirement she became the best help he ever had.
“She ran some grain trucks to town and we sort of farmed together,” he said. “In these last weeks, I’ve so appreciated the Hillsboro community.
“It’s different around Hillsboro than it would be in a big city, because I have people coming over asking me how I’m doing,” he said. “I usually ask them if they really want to know, but I tell them I’m OK.
“I would say I’ve had better days, but being alone makes a big difference.”
The Sudermans were married in 1952 and moved to the farm in 1954.
“This is a third-generation Suderman farm,” he said. “I kept it going, although it’s going to be different when I retire because there won’t be a Suderman farming it anymore.”
Suderman said he had two sisters, one older and one younger, but neither showed interest in continuing the local farming operation.
“Either I farmed or the business would have ended earlier than it did,” he said. “But I really wanted to be a farmer, too.”
The union of Paul Suderman and Elda Ensz was blessed with four children: Greg, a hospice worker in Elkhart, Ind., Dena, a registered nurse in Newton, Barry, a cabinet maker in Tulsa, Okla., and Rhonda, who works with a Mennonite relief organization in Mexico City.
Suderman said the lure of the farm didn’t grab any of his children.
“I wasn’t disappointed none of them stuck around on the farm,” he said. “I think after their college years, they all realized there were some areas that were more challenging to them as individuals than the farm would have been-even though they like coming back to visit the farm very much.”
Although they chose not to live on their childhood farmstead, Suderman said his kids were there long enough to learn valuable lessons during their formative years.
“We were very glad we had the chance to raise our children on a farm because we feel it made a lot of difference in their work ethic,” he said. “It also allowed us to enjoy a family life together, which I think they all value to this day.”
The technological changes in farming over the years is staggering, Suderman said.
His first tractor was an “M” McCormick Deering tractor bought in 1954.
“I also bought an Allis combine then for $700, but it only had a 6-foot platform,” he said. “The machines now days are so much larger and have so much more capacity than they used to.
“You can do so much more in so much less time, so it’s just an entirely different way of farming than it used to be years and years ago.”
Suderman said his dad would be shocked if he could see today’s innovations.
“He’d say that’s a long way from the horse-and-buggy type of farming he started out with,” Suderman said with a laugh.
Other key changes have to do with kind of crops grown today.
“When I first started farming, a 20-bushel-an-acre wheat crop was pretty good,” he said. “And wheat was worth about $1.70 a bushel.
“Now, even though yields have increased a lot, wheat is still only worth about twice what it was-but equipment costs have jumped about 200 times what they used to be.”
All things considered, though, Suderman said the past 50 years have been successful.
“I think there have been enjoyable times no matter what the year was,” he said. “I don’t feel a certain time period was the best, although the past 15 years have been better because we had the land paid off and we didn’t have to struggle to pay our debts.
“The last 10 years or so I haven’t spent much money on machinery because I knew it wasn’t worth it when we were planning to get out of the business,” he added. “But farming is something that’s a give-and-take thing no matter what era it was.”
Wheat harvest for a Kansas farmer brings on added stress, Suderman said.
“Many times you know a rain storm is coming, but you can still only get so much done in a day,” he said. “That can mean a loss to your farm, so you just try to do the best you can.
“You certainly do watch the weather a little closer during this time of the year,” he added. “Most of the time we joke that it might not be raining now, but just wait until harvest rolls around-that’ll make it rain.”
During the past 10 years, Suderman said family members have helped prolong his farming days to a degree and make them much more enjoyable.
“It helps to have good help, and it’s nice to know you have good people who know how to operate the equipment,” he said. “It’s been nice to be able to work with family members like my grandsons over the past several years.”
Reflecting on the past, Suderman said farmers are always learning, no matter what age they might be.
“In many ways, if I had to do it again, I’d do things different but that’s because I know things now that I didn’t know when I had to make those decisions,” he said. “I have those regrets, but by and large, I have no real regrets.
“I tell people I’ve farmed for 50 years and I still don’t know how to sell my wheat,” he said with a chuckle. “You just can’t out-guess the markets.”
Being able to dictate the hours he worked was always a bonus, too.
“I would say the general farm life is what I appreciated so much,” Suderman said. “There were times when we could travel as a family, and if I would have had a regular job, that wouldn’t have been possible.
“I don’t know of any farmer that works an average 9-to-5 job.”
As the Gleaner “F” rolls through his wheat fields for the final time, Suderman said he and his family view it not only as a conclusion, but a celebration.
“I’m not retiring because of specific health reasons, but I do get tired much quicker than I used to,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to doing other things.
“I’ll be somewhat limited because my wife is no longer here, and we had big plans so now we can’t do those things,” he said. “But with my family scattered so much, it’ll take a certain amount of time to be with them and I’d like to go on some guided tours or something like that.”
Suderman said he’s sure he won’t be the only one missing the hot and hectic harvest days.
“My family will miss coming back for harvest,” he said. “But they also knew my farming days were limited so I think they’ll appreciate this harvest even more.”
Suderman said he would decide later whether to maintain ownership of his land. For now he’s content to let someone else reap what they sow.
“This fall I’ll have a machinery sale, but the ground will either be sold, rented out, or I’ll do part of each-I just don’t know yet,” he said. “The kids certainly don’t want to sell the grassland where the deer and pheasants are.
“But I don’t want to supervise whoever rents my ground,” he added. “I’ve been able to rent ground and make my own decisions, which is really helpful, and I want to give that freedom to my own renter.”
But he won’t turn a deaf ear to the operation, either.
“Even if I just drive along the road and look at things, I’ll still be paying attention to what’s going on,” he said.
As the final truck hoist is greased and the last head of wheat is clipped, Suderman said he’s sure he’ll have mixed emotions.
“I always say the last time I get on some of my equipment, it’ll make me kind of sad.” he said. “But on the other hand, I’m to the point I don’t want to continue.
“I’ve done the best I can, but it’s time for someone else to take over,” he said.
“It’s been a good run for me.”