Long gone are the days when farmers could only bond over a fencepost, at a coffee shop or waiting at the local grain elevator. Through social media, farmers across the globe are exchanging ideas every day.
One such sociable farmer, Hendrik Kerkhofs, grows corn and wheat in Riemst, Belgium, near the borders of Holland and Germany. He has more than 1,000 Facebook friends and another 1,000 Twitter followers. Of those, most of his Twitter followers and more than 100 Facebook friends are from the U.S.
When Dave Kestel, a northeastern Illinois grain farmer, got a Facebook friend request from a stranger in Belgium last year, he was a bit skeptical, wondering if it was a scam. But after confirming that he and the requester had a mutual friend in Max Armstrong, a popular ag broadcaster, Kestel accepted the new online friend.
The Facebook friendship developed into a real friendship, with Christmas card exchanges and one in-person visit to the U.S. so far for Kerkhofs and his wife Anita Haesen.
“We just clicked and soon became good friends,” Kestel said.
Kestel says he knew they hit it off when they started ribbing each other about farm equipment choices.
“He likes Massey Ferguson. I have John Deere,” Kestel said.
When they were in the neighborhood, the European couple also visited with Kestel’s mom, tried his freshly smoked bacon, and ate raw sweet corn straight from the field for the first time.
They will be back for July 4 celebrations and to see a small-town Independence Day parade in Manhattan, Illinois. Kestel will be in the parade on a four-wheeler, but someone will be driving his Grandpa Frank’s 1954 Super M Farmall, which Kestel had restored for his dad.
Farming is a bond they share. Kerkhofs, a semi-retired heavy equipment operator, is very handy. He built his own planter in his shop and uses it on his farm which is so fertile, he harvests 180 bu./acre wheat, Kestel says.
“Last year my wheat yielded an average of 13.5 metric tonnes per hectare (198 bu./acre),” Kerkhofs says.
His soil can handle a moderate drought better than a wet spring.
“We have heavy, sticky soils, and that’s why I quit moldboard plowing 10 years ago. My soil improved a lot,” he said.
He says he is jealous of the black dirt in Illinois. Still, on his productive soils in the Flanders region of Belgium, he harvested the equivalent of 244 bu./acre corn last year. He also grew sugar beets until five years ago.
Kerkhofs, a self-professed “farmaholic,” says he loves meeting other farmers and learning new things.
“You can’t compare our farming to the U.S. farming because of the scale. I only farm 50 acres and we’re not the smallest farm in our area,” Kerkhofs said. “I have a 43-year career in farming, but am still eager to learn stuff from other farmers, and they can follow on my page how we farm over here.
“We are all different farmers, but we all stay farmers that simply love our way of living! Planting and harvesting crops and all in between — what has to be done to raise a crop with all the challenges from weather or government rules.”
When he and Anita come to the U.S. next year, it will be the couple’s 20th trip here.
“We visited some 40 states up till now. We simply love the rural Midwest and other farming areas,” he said. “We make at least one trip a year to the U.S.”
The Belgian couple avoids the Interstates on their tours.
“We travel the rural roads and we love the friendly and open people in the U.S,” he says.
Kestel, also an avid traveler, mountain climber, and former flight attendant, is just as keen on learning what other farmers have to say and sharing ideas via social media.
He also follows a variety of social media sites including Farm Hats, a private Facebook group started by Kent Blunier, an Illinois pig farmer. Blunier started the page in recognition of how many hats a farmer wears including accountant, mechanic, weather forecaster and more. Today Blunier’s Farm Hats Facebook page has almost 18,000 members, who in recent weeks shared stories about attending a trucking show, photos of pigs feeding, a farmer’s first parabolic waterway, and ice on strawberries in April.
Among the most popular Farm Hats posts in April is Kestel’s drone photo of a giant cross he made on his field for Easter and as a tribute to his dad.