April 5, 2016

Harvard Family Welcomes Fifth-Generation Daughter Back to the Farm

As a young girl growing up on a farm near Harvard, Nebraska, Jessie Portenier Ruppert didn't get to enjoy extended family vacations with her parents and three sisters. A camping trip meant sleeping out under the stars in the pasture and fishing in the farm pond. Attending a high school basketball game was only possible if the cattle were fed first. So after what some would view as a "deprived" childhood, why would this young woman decide to return to the family farm after graduating from college--to manage her own herd of cattle? Because she loves it. "You could just see her passion as a young girl. Whether it was running the tractor or working calves, she was just a natural," said Jessie's mother, Sharon. "It's just been kind of a given that Jessie was going to be our farmer." Jessie is the fifth generation in their family to become a farmer. She began her college career as a criminal justice major, but soon realized that her heart was in agriculture while working part-time at a feedlot during college. "I love being outdoors and just couldn't see myself being in an office with a lot of people," Jessie said. "Just being around cattle comforts me."

After enrolling in the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) in Curtis, Jessie's dad, Kif, presented her with the opportunity to buy a small herd of cows following graduation. Because of her hands-on experience of working with cattle, many of Jessie's college classes at NCTA were a review of what she already knew. "But I was especially grateful for the business classes that taught me how to create spreadsheets to manage cash flow and set up record keeping for my cows," she said.

In addition to the farm near Harvard, the Portenier family has a ranch near Elwood, Nebraska. Jessie's cattle, as well as those owned by her father, are located there from early spring until after corn harvest. "During the summer, I spend most of my time at the ranch caring for the cows and calves--checking their health, getting them mineral to supplement the nutrition in their forage nutrition, and so forth." While Jessie is focused primarily on the beef side of the family operation, she's also always ready to step up when her parents need help with the crops--taking seed to the field during planting, putting out irrigation pipe, and hauling grain. The corn crop is a critical component in the family's beef business. Having both crops and cattle helps diversify the family operation. During the winter months, the cattle are transported from the Elwood ranch to the farm near Harvard to graze on cornstalks. This is also where calving takes place in February.

Jessie has a special place in her heart for cattle, but she points out that they are not companion animals like the cats and dogs on the farm. "We care for and love the cattle we raise, but it's important to understand that we are in this to raise beef. That's the way we've chosen to generate the income we need to provide for ourselves," Jessie said. Jessie has learned that the business aspects of beef production are critical to success. "Marketing is perhaps the most important thing a corn producer or cattle producer needs to understand," Jessie said. "I sold cattle for the first time last year when the market was at an all-time high, so that was exciting. But I also know that won't be the case every year."

So what's it like being a young woman in what is typically thought of as a "man's world"? 

"We have definitely always been a family farm and we never really had any hired help." Jessie said. "It was just dad, mom and us four girls. Everyone in the area talked about 'Kif and his girl crew' because that's just what it was. So I've never struggled with people saying that farming is a man's job." Jessie was married this past November to a young farmer and rancher from the McCook area, and the couple is working out the details of helping both of their families with their operations that are 150 miles apart. "If you want to be able to see your husband, you need to go out and spend time with him doing what he's doing," she said. "My mom has been dad's right-hand since they've been married. That's what I watched growing up and that's what I have always wanted."

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