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Released: March 09, 2006

Elk County Couple Honored

HOWARD, Kan. – No one could have guessed that Mike and Peggy Bellar would meet – much less that they'd marry, have five kids, and be a 2005 Kansas Master Farmer-Master Farm Homemaker.

The award honors agricultural leadership, environmental stewardship and community service. It comes from Kansas State University Research and Extension and the Kansas Farmer magazine. The Bellars and five other Kansas couples receiving 2005 awards will join decades of Kansas Master Farmers-Master Farm Homemakers during a March 24 banquet at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in Junction City.

Just over 25 years ago, Peggy was an honors graduate from New Prairie High School in New Carlisle, Ind. She was the fourth of seven children and a bit of a "daddy's girl," who proudly described her father as an innovative farmer. And, she was in Holland, milking cows and making cheese by hand during an exchange trip that took her through much of Europe.

Many miles away, Mike had just graduated from Fort Hays State University with a degree in agricultural business and was working with his dad on the family farm near Howard, Kan. He was trying to start his own farm, too, but was having trouble getting a loan. It was early in the farm crisis that sharply cut the number of Kansas producers, changing ownership and farm business patterns forever.

"Four of my high school class started farming or ranching at about the same time. We were kind of in the same boat, but we're all doing well now," Mike said. "The 1980s hurt a lot of people who had a lot of debt. But no one would lend us money for anything, so we didn't have uncontrollable debt."

Nonetheless, within a year of graduating, Mike, who was still a bachelor, found a government agency that would lend him enough to buy 186 acres with a house. Since then, he's regularly bought a small parcel here and a small acreage there, adding facilities as he went along. Today his operation includes crop land, pasture, a small beef cow herd, and a farrow-to-finish hog operation.

"If you're not growing, you're dying," Mike said.

He's proud that he's paid fair market value for every acre of land, piece of equipment and building he owns – even his grandfather's old dairy farm.

"With the size of our family, we had to add to the house and do some modernizing. Still, our kids are the fourth generation to live in the Bellar homestead," Mike said.

Back when he was buying his second or third parcel, however, that wouldn't have seemed likely. Peggy, who still hadn't met Mike, had again left Indiana. She spent seven months in the Australian outback, running a combine and learning to tend sheep from lambing to shearing. Then she ventured on to a New Zealand sheep station.

When Peggy returned home to Indiana, her continuing interest in learning more and meeting new people became the route that finally led her to Mike. She was working for an Indiana Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service office. Plus, she was attending occasional ag conferences and trade shows, where she kept running into the same friendly lady from Kansas. This Kansan, who was Mike Bellar's friend, too, decided Mike would be interesting for Peggy to know.

Peggy and Mike trusted their mutual friend enough to meet. And, their meeting led to a long-distance friendship that became a long-distance courtship that became marriage plans 15 years ago. That's when Peggy learned Kansans can be innovative farmers, too.

The Bellars' tractors are equipped with satellite-directed automatic steering. Precision agriculture is the name of the game for the farm's corn and soybean acres, with global positioning systems (GPS) collecting field data, generating maps and directing variable-rate planting.

The hog operation Mike's dad started in the 1970s has become a sizeable farrow-to-finish operation on three separate sites (to limit the spread of disease). A consulting veterinarian helps identify potential hot spots or needed changes. All hog records are computerized, with the Bellars typically delivering a semi load of swine to the packer three times a month.

"To manage the risk, farming needs to be a year-round business. You need to be fully employed. For example, selling hogs on a consistent basis helps average out the year's high and low prices," Mike said. "We market our corn through the hogs and buy our soybean meal. We forward price a percentage of our soybean harvest and hold the rest until we feel the price is optimum."

The Bellars have several lagoons for the hogs' waste – which they then spread on crop acreage.

"We're probably our local conservation office's best friend," Peggy said with a laugh. "We have put in terraces, waterways, CRP fields and many erosion-control structures. We seem to have a conservation project or projects planned on an ongoing basis."

To spread their business risks further, the Bellars also own shares in U.S. Premium Beef, so they can sell the cattle they put in western Kansas and Colorado feedlots on a quality basis. They've also invested in an out-of-county swine operation and in Brazil Iowa Farms.

Yet, each year Mike, Peggy and their kids plant an acre of sweet corn and a patch of watermelons – some to sell and some to give to neighbors and friends.

"We have quite a following for our sweet corn and never seem to have enough," she said.

The Bellars also buy locally and support local activities whenever they can.

"Our community is a small one, and we don=t want to lose it," Peggy said.

The couple will admit that things haven't always been easy. Farming itself is risky, and innovative farming raises those risks.

"If you don't make mistakes, you're not doing anything," Mike said. "My dad always used to say you're either moving ahead or you're going downhill. You can't just stand still."

So far, the only "not-easy" time that's really bothered Peggy is the year Mike decided to try growing cotton.

"If we just hadn't planted it by the highway," she said. "Anyone driving by could see the cotton was a horrible failure. It even made the newspaper!"

Peggy is now enrolled in K-State's MAST (management, analysis and strategic thinking) distance education course for farmers and ranchers. She has been or is a leader in Elk County's Farm Bureau and Extension Council, the Howard United Methodist Church, and the Flint Hills Boosters 4-H Club. She takes the photos for and produces the Severy Elementary School yearbook. She's also on the Kansas Soybean Association Board of Directors.

Mike has held similar leadership positions in the same organizations, as well as on the Kansas Farm Bureau Swine Committee, K-State Southeast Kansas Experiment Station Advisory Board, the Southeast Kansas Farm Management Association, Elk County ASCS Committee, West Elk School Board, Howard Township Precinct Committee and Severy Co-op Board. He's active in local and state cattlemen's and livestock associations. He's been on the Central Kansas Farm Credit Board since '96.

Together, the Bellars host first grade class field trips to the hog farm and county second graders for Farm Bureau Day on the Farm. And, every day of the year, they're Mom and Dad for Ben, age 13; Luke, who is 12; Sarah, age 9; and twins Ethan and Rachel, who are 7 years old.

Mike won the Kansas Farm Bureau State Young Farmer award four years before he and Peggy married. His operation won first place in Farm Future magazine's 1989 Best-Managed Farm Contest.

The Bellars or their farm also won the 2000 Elk County Farm Bureau Farm Family award, the 2004 Elk County Bankers Award and the 2005 Western Farm Show Family award. They hosted Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on her annual Farm and Ranch Tour in 2003.

"Without doubt, at least a couple of our kids will return to the farm after college – and perhaps after working for someone else, to get another viewpoint on how things are done," Mike said.

"Our kids are what motivate us to be progressive and good stewards of the land," Peggy said. "With their background and upbringing, they'll be a huge asset to Kansas agriculture."

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K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by:
Kathleen Ward
kward@oznet.ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Kathleen Ward is at 785-532-1162