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Voyageur's Best Features of 2005

Derek Suhonen

Son of a Suhonen Ranch
Sixth grader, Derek Suhonen, owns his own business
by Sadie Frericks  |  May 24, 2005

When people hear the word ‘farmer’, they don’t usually envision a sixth grader with a beef herd of his own and a profitable flock of laying hens. But, at 12 years old, that’s exactly what Derek Suhonen has become.

Since he acquired his first chickens seven years ago, Derek has been busy expanding his farm enterprise; today, his business, aptly named Son of a Suhonen Ranch, includes 12 beef cows and calves, 50 laying hens, five feeder pigs, and a pygmy goat.

A resident of rural Wright, Derek is quick to credit his parents, Jeff and Theresa, grandparents, Niilo and Vera, and extended family with fostering his interest in agriculture. “Farming is a tradition in my family. We’ve always lived on a farm and I’ve always liked farming,” Derek states.

Jeff and Theresa Suhonen are raising their family, Derek, Samantha (9), and Jennifer (5), on the same farm where Niilo and Vera raised their children. And the same enthusiasm for farming that brought Jeff back to the farm has captivated a third generation of Suhonens.

Derek’s attraction to farming flourished with a small flock of chickens, purchased when he was five. The laying hens quickly became Derek’s responsibility and he continues to manage the flock today. He rotates his layers every two years, sells the eggs and retired chickens locally and invests the proceeds in his farm business.

The hens have also served as a good 4-H project. “This will be my third year showing chickens at the county fair. Last year I brought 14,” Derek mentioned. He belongs to the Happy Hour 4-H Club. “The Westers and Montagnes have really helped me learn about showing my animals,” he added gratefully. This year, along with his chickens, billy goat, and a sheep he’s leasing from the Westers, Derek hopes to show one of his beef calves or a cow/calf pair.

His beef herd began with a little bottle calf named Bachman. Five years ago, Derek’s uncle, Roger, offered him an orphaned beef calf to raise. According to Derek, “He’s the one who started it all.” Derek adopted Bachman, feeding him by bottle two times a day and making sure the calf had grain, hay, and water. As Derek tells it, getting Bachman was one of the most exciting things that’s happened to him while farming.

The little bull calf grew into a nice steer and Derek soon recorded his first livestock sale. He used his earnings to purchase a beef heifer, Tazzy. From there, Derek grew his herd to seven: three cow/calf pairs and one bred heifer.

He runs his herd with his parents’ beef cattle on the family’s farm just north of Wright. In exchange for Derek’s help on the farm, Jeff and Theresa help Derek with feed purchases and vet supplies throughout the year. Then, come spring when Derek sells his calves, he returns a portion of his earnings to his parents. “It all works out,” Theresa says.

This past fall, Jeff read an article in The Country Today about a farm family with three children participating in the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Youth Loan Program. Realizing the program would be a great opportunity for his son, Jeff asked Troy Salzer, Carlton County Extension Educator, about the program during a field day at Steve Risacher’s farm.

Troy advised Jeff and Derek to contact Dave Petry, the regional Farm Loan Manager for the Farm Service Agency. Theresa went to work on the internet, looking for information about the program, and a phone call to Dave was made shortly after.

Dave explained the Youth Loan Program requirements and sent an application to the Suhonens. The Youth Loan Program is open to young people ages 10-21 from rural areas (towns of less than 10,000) interested in establishing and/or operating modest sized income-producing projects. In addition, applicants must be involved in 4-H, FFA, or another similar organization and receive guidance from an advisor in the organization.

Derek met the requirements of the program, and after a thorough discussion with his parents, decided to apply for a farm loan to expand his beef herd. Derek created a business plan and outlined his goals for the application.

His loan was approved on January 26, 2005, a day both Derek and Dave Petry remember well. “Derek was very excited about getting the loan,” Dave recalled. “He’s a very ambitious young of the youngest applicants in my region.”

With the loan funds available, Derek set out to find some bred heifers or cow/calf pairs for sale. He personally called on every ad he saw in the papers, made several trips to look at cattle, and attended a couple cattle auctions, both locally and at sale barns. “Going to the auctions, learning to bid with my own number, and buying animals with my own money; that was a lot of fun. I learned a lot,” Derek explained.

Derek’s farm-related learning goes beyond his auction experiences. He says farming has helped him learn to meet new people, keep good business records, manage his own checkbook, and evaluate potential purchases.

Jeff and Theresa have seen first hand how farming has molded Derek over the years. “He knows the value of hard work,” Theresa says.

“I have learned how to work hard,” Derek confirms. “I’m not sitting in the house watching television all afternoon.”

“He’s always outside,” Theresa continues. “He appreciates living on a farm and has developed good values. For only being 12, he’s very capable of handling the chores on the farm. If the cows get out, Derek’s right there putting them in and fixing the fence. If something needs to be done, he does it.”

“Derek is very willing to try new things,” Jeff adds. “He understands very well that nothing should be taken for granted.”

Derek, too, recognizes that farming is very rewarding, but there are times when farming is challenging. As he quotes, “‘There are days of plenty and days of drought.’” Derek enjoys seeing new calves and working with the animals. He doesn’t enjoy losing animals or seeing a field of hay go bad, but he understands that, “it’s life and you’ve got to go through it.”

This maturity has led to a clear sense of gratitude and well developed personal goals. “I have a lot of people to thank,” Derek finishes. “Roger, for giving me Bachman; Dave [Petry], for the loan; Rick Olesiak, for letting me ride along to the sale barn to experience cattle sales; the Wright Farmers Co-op, for donating the expired produce I feed to my chickens and pigs; there really are too many to list. Lots of people have helped me with my farming.”

Especially his parents, whose support is endless and pride is evident. “Dad and I go to every auction we can and he helps me make decisions, evaluate purchases, and, basically, everything outside. Mom helps deliver eggs, writes down directions for me when I call on cattle, and drives me everywhere.”

Derek is saving the proceeds from his enterprise to “buy this farm, live here, and raise beef cattle... and drive a Ford F350.” His plans also include attending college after high school to study agriculture and management.

If Derek’s early success is any indication, with the continued support of his family, good things will continue to grow on Son of a Suhonen Ranch.

This article first appeared in the May 24, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.