Fourth-generation farmer Terry O’Neel remembers spending many of his high school days helping his dad tend to 100 beef cattle and 50 dairy cattle on their family’s southeast Nebraska farm near the town of Friend. After studying animal science at the University of Nebraska, Terry married his wife, Diane – who also grew up farming – in 1984, and the couple returned to Friend to build their own family farm.
“I decided after college I didn’t want to do dairy. It was too strenuous,” Terry recalls while laughing. “So we did the second most strenuous thing – we got into pork. In 1985, we bought 40 pigs. We saved some of the gilts, or females, and purchased a boar, and we were in the pig business. Today, we have 7,000 pigs on our farm and 500 sows.”
The family also grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
The O’Neels raised two children on their farm. Both are in their late 20s. Their daughter, Danielle O’Neel, works in human resources for Smithfield in Crete, a pork processing plant. And their son, Ethan, lives with his wife, Kayla, on the farm. Ethan works with the crops and pigs.
The O’Neels also employ a married couple, Jess and Dustin Payne, who live on the farm with their two young sons, Gannon and Boone. This past summer, the O’Neels hosted Kai Meierzuherde, an intern from Germany who lived and worked on the farm as well.
“Dustin is in the National Guard and has been deployed to Kuwait, but he’s back with us full time now,” Terry says. “Kai is visiting the U.S. for experience on the farm, and he will go back to Germany to study agriculture when his internship is done.”
Balancing Farm Family Life
Diane handles the farm’s record keeping and finances, and she also works off the farm for the Farm Service Agency.
“Things have changed tremendously since my grandparents farmed,” Diane says. “One change is that most farm wives work off the farm as well as on the farm. I attended a country school, and I can’t think of one mother who worked off the farm.”
In addition to record keeping, Diane helps mow the farmyard, runs errands for parts and also goes to the vet on her way home from work.
“Our vet and parts suppliers know I work, and it will be after hours when I’m there to pick up what is needed. So they accommodate us by leaving items outside marked for me to pick up,” Diane says. “A typical day for me is to do a little bookwork in the morning before I leave for work, and then drive a half-hour to my nine-hour workday. If needed, I go to the vet or parts store to pick up supplies, then come home and fix supper, mow some of the yard and do more bookwork in the evening. During planting and harvest time, I deliver many evening meals right to the field.”
Terry’s typical day starts at 7 a.m. and may include tasks such as weaning young pigs, vaccinating pigs, or loading them onto a semi and driving them to market.
Caring for the Animals
The O’Neel family cares about how they treat their animals.
“A healthy, happy animal is one that provides us with our way of living. It’s frustrating to see videos of animal cruelty, because it’s not in our DNA as farmers to mistreat animals. It’s disheartening that some people today are so removed from agriculture that they don’t understand why or how we do things,” Terry says.
That’s why the O’Neels allow guests to tour their farm.
“Most farmers are quiet and just do their jobs,” Terry says. “Some of us have to open our barn doors and show people how and why things are done – how we are raising their food. We give tours of our farm, and I tell visitors our pigs have a God-given purpose to provide food for people. They are not pets. It’s amazing how many pounds of pork we are able to produce to feed people each year.”
From the beginning, the O’Neels paid close attention to making sure their farm practices were environmentally sound, and they take pride in how their property looks. Over the years, they’ve planted more than 1,600 trees, keeping the farm well-landscaped with flowerbeds and neatly trimmed grass. A horse and an employee’s calves graze the steep banks of their lagoon, eliminating a difficult mowing chore.
In 2008, the O’Neels received the National Pork Board’s Environmental Stewards Award, which recognizes producers who show a strong commitment to protecting the environment while promoting the well-being of people and pigs.
“The trees are a highlight of our farm, but we also use 100 percent no-tillage on our crops. We handle our manure properly to reduce the amount of fertilizer used,” Terry says. “Using good practices is important to us, because we want to leave our farm to our children. We know we have to do things right for it to be viable to them. We will leave the land better than we found it.”
Diane echos that same sentiment, “We’re building a place for future generations to sustain a lifestyle. I look at old farmyards and wonder what the story is behind that farm. I don’t want that to be our farm – I want our farm to keep telling its story.”
Diane adds that one of the challenges the family and other farms must meet is helping educate consumers about farming practices and way of life. Other challenges include high input costs of farming and misunderstandings about GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.
Despite the challenges, farming certainly has its rewards. For Terry, living and working outdoors in wide-open spaces are the best rewards.
“I love seeing things grow. You can’t imagine seeing a piglet born unless you’re there,” he says. “It’s so rewarding to see new life emerge and grow throughout the year.”