It’s well into October and Bob Kernstock has stood by as day after day of ideal harvesting weather has torn off his calendar. Between the sun and the breeze and the cool temps, hundreds of acres of his soybeans outside Auburn are ready to come off.
But the longtime Bay County Farm Bureau leader sits impatiently on the sidelines, waiting for the right tech to arrive with the right part and, finally, an effective fix to the combine sitting cold in his shed.
Several previous fixes have failed, partly because inexperienced techs have misdiagnosed the issue that’s kept Bob — and his combine — on the bench, waiting to finish off their last harvest.
We’ll come back to this, because while the land his ancestors started working 140 years ago may be low and flat and rich — “good valley ground,” he says — it offers him a high perch from which he sees big pictures with unusual clarity.
A Heart Twice Attacked
Usually “retired farmer” is an oxymoron, but when your ticker’s worn down to a nub, the responsible choice is to walk slowly away from the toil. Where most of us walked away from Covid merely annoyed, Kernstock drew a shorter straw: The virus irreversibly weakened his heart.
“This spring I didn’t lift a single seed bag,” he said. “I’m on weight restrictions. No strength left.”
Bob’s last harvest will be number 35. Not surprisingly, walking away from ground your family’s worked since the 1880s also does a number on your heart.
“My first year on my own was 1988 — drought year,” he said, adding Fate’s comment with a chuckle: “Welcome to farming!”
A year later he’d lose his father, then an older brother three years after that. His own children took the wide, smooth road away from agriculture: college degrees and careers that don’t lean on heavy machinery or unpredictable weather.
He’s not physically going anywhere — “This is the house I’m going to die in.” — but next season will see new caretakers working Kernstock’s landholdings.
“I’ve got all the real estate rented out to three different farmers — all younger farmers. The oldest is 36, the youngest one is 27 or 28.
“Some of the bigger, older, established farmers around here are a little upset with me because they didn’t get the opportunity, but who’ll be around when they want to retire if we don’t give the younger generation the opportunity?”
Let that sink in.
“I’m looking long-term — stability — I want stability as far as who’s going to operate the ground. I don’t want to be a 70, 80-year-old having to find a new renter. I’ll make that decision now and hopefully it’s a long-term decision.
“We’ve got to get the younger people into the industry.”
Our Goal as a Team
There’s a parallel in Kernstock’s mindset toward the Bay County Farm Bureau, where he’s been a stabilizing fixture — a rock, an anchor — for going on 20 years. His involvement resume checks every box across the wide spectrum of county and state-level programming, but he recently took a decisive step toward the background.
Last year’s reorganization meeting left both Vice President Bob and President Terry Histed feeling the weight of their own seniority. Bob wasn’t surprised when Terry asked him to be VP again, but he accepted on one condition:
“What our goal has to be — as a team — is to get more younger people involved.”
Struggling with the same health issues hastening his retirement, Kernstock watched from backstage as Histed followed through, recruiting three new young board members.
Fast-forward to this year’s reorganization. To no one’s surprise, Kernstock was again nominated for vice president.
“I said, ‘Guys, we don’t need a grey board. We’ve got new farmers — younger people who are willing to be involved — let’s go with it.
“‘We’re transitioning now. If everybody stays put and we don’t include the younger people, once we die out or retire, there’s nobody here anymore.’”
Kernstock will serve out the remainder of his term as director, but the new VP is one of the youngsters working some of his ground next season. And the new third member is new to the board altogether.
“We still have experienced people to guide the younger ones, but now we’ve got a good mix: older, middle, younger… Four or five out of nine are younger, so I think we’re sitting pretty good.”
Back to That Combine
Again: Bob's "good valley ground" is low and flat and rich, but it offers a high perch from which he sees big pictures with unusual clarity: Selectively vetting young neighbors to take that land on… Intentionally passing his leadership baton to promising newcomers…
It all ties together, and if previous generations had approached things with the same foresight, Bob’s combine would be fixed by now and much of his 35th harvest would already be at the elevator.
“We lost a whole generation of skilled labor when everybody was off to college getting degrees and white-collar jobs,” he said — including his own children, who took that wide, paved road away from the farm.
“Now the old-timers — all the experienced people — are retiring. We’re getting some skilled labor back — they’re coming in now — but they don’t have mentors to learn from because the old-timers have stepped out.
“That experience retired and new people coming in don’t know how to work on older equipment. They don’t have the learning by experience and troubleshooting.”
So it’s back to the cold combine, sitting idle as perfect harvesting days glide by.
“It’s gonna take half a generation for these guys just to get the experience,” Kernstock said — about the tech who’ll eventually get him back in the field one last time.
“Then hopefully they’ll realize we gotta keep this steady stream of talent happening.”
Wait: Is Bob still talking about fixing a combine? …or about the fresh new blood infusing his county Farm Bureau? …or the young bucks working his family’s ground next year?
Decide for yourself, but either way you know damn well he’s right.