Rebuilding America: Southwest Kansas farmers no stranger to adversity

Hannah Brown
Luke Jaeger, left, stands with his parents Sheryl and Tim, and his brother Matthew, right, at the open house of their rebuilt office after a devastating fire. Luke and Matthew, along with Sheryl and Tim and countless other generations in the Jaeger family have been involved in agriculture. COURTESY PHOTO

For Clark County farming brothers Luke and Matthew Jaeger, of Minneola, agriculture is their whole life.

Their family has been involved in agriculture production for generations, as far back as it can be traced. The crop and chemical fertilizer industries have brought obstacles to the Jaeger family before, and Matthew and Luke Jaeger had experienced incredible hardships in their farm-based business before being confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 12, 2018, their biodiesel manufacturing plant caught fire. They had created a system to transform used fry oil into biodiesel. The rapidly spreading fire burned down almost everything on the property, causing the brothers to lose years of hard work.

By early 2020, the Jaegers had rebuilt almost everything that was lost, except the biodiesel plant.

"With the future of vehicles moving towards electric cars, that part of our business isn’t a high priority right now," Luke Yeager said. "The margins are so slim, and getting slimmer, so we may just let that go."

The farming part of their operation has endured, however, and as they face the realities of COVID-19, the Jaegers are confident they know how to overcome obstacles.

The Jaegers own and operate over 17,000 acres of land in crop production in southwest Kansas where they grow wheat, corn, milo and soybeans and feed 330 head of cattle. In 2012, they expanded the family business to include Emergent Green Energy (EGE), a chemical adjuvant business that has been an integral part of their ever-growing and adapting operation.

The pandemic changed how the brothers operate their business, but they are maintaining a positive attitude.

“My brother and I are different than most people,” said Luke. “Where most people choose to focus on the problems and complain about how much harder life and doing business is, we see opportunities.”

An optimistic attitude doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges, though. Luke and Matt knew COVID-19 was a serious threat when rumors started floating around about states and highways shutting down, and the impact was close to home when Matt was placed on mandatory quarantine because of out-of-state travel.

The Jaeger brothers had to think outside the box to obtain chemicals and fertilizers that are important for their farm. For EGE, it was even more difficult to make the chemical solutions because of a lack of ingredients and travel restrictions affecting their ability to keep their warehouses in Texas and Iowa stocked.

Through all of this, the brothers have worked diligently to keep their staff safe and continue to serve their customers. Luke and Matt even took on a new project: producing hand sanitizer. With a fully functional chemical production facility, the two put their love of chemistry to work to create a formula.

“It has been a fun project. (We) even got the kids involved,” said Luke. “It was a good science lesson in how chemistry can be used to help benefit people.”

Luke said he believes many things will never be the same, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

"Now, consumers see the importance of the agriculture industry," he said. "Farmers have never stopped working, regardless of the recommendations from the CDC or KDHE. I think one of the biggest opportunities in crop and livestock production is how the consumer now sees the importance of being tied in more directly with the source of their food."

Day in and day out, the Jaegers are committed to putting food on tables. Luke said he believes this newfound knowledge about how farming works will change the way people buy products.

“I think people are going to search out more (of) the source of their food, back to the farm. So when there are these huge supply disruptions, like packing houses and everything closing down they (consumers) have a supply directly in place to access food,” he said.

Luke also said the COVID-19 pandemic can teach everyone several things about how farmers can get their products to consumers more easily.

“Hopefully, one of the positives that comes out of this is changing regulations and laws for consumers to have better access to products,” said Luke.