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Jepsen and Sonnenbert honored for being Ohio Master Farmers
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Ohio Master Farmer program honors individuals for standing out in farm management, innovation, conservation and leadership.
This year, Ohio Farmer bestowed this prestigious recognition on a pair of farmers who have proven ways to farm more effectively, environmentally, efficiently and economically. Those winners are Jim Jepsen, of Amanda, and Kent Sonnenberg, of Holgate. The two men were nominated by their peers and chosen by a committee of agriculture industry leaders.
“They don’t have any more land, what we have is what we will ever have,” said Jepsen, who raises beef cattle, corn, soybeans, wheat and hay on 1,300 acres in southern Fairfield County. “We don’t want to see it wash away and we don’t want to see it blown away. We just take care of it the best that we can.”
Jepsen’s land is mostly highly erodible land that needs lots of constant work. He went to the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) years ago to learn more about no-till and cover crop practices.
“No-till didn’t work for me the first year and it took about three years to really see the benefit of soil structure with earthworms and organic matter starting to build,” he said. “It takes time and patience.”
Jepsen utilized grass waterways to prevent erosion. He uses cover crops to keep soil in place and has wheat in his crop rotation for straw production and manure application in the summer. He installed three grade stabilization structures (using timber drops and a rock chute), six water and sediment control basins, heavy-use pads for livestock feeding, 11 systematic tile systems, two livestock pipelines and two watering facilities.
“Jim has a passion for no-till and erosion prevention,” said Nikki Drake, who is from the Fairfield SWCD and nominated Jepsen as an Ohio Master Farmer. “He has 38 engineering plans for various (conservation) practices. Twenty-two are for rented or shared farms.”
Jepsen was raised through the ranks of 4-H and FFA, and credits his vocational ag teachers for nurturing his interest in farming. He eventually earned a degree in animal sciences from Ohio State University. There he was on the school’s meat and livestock judging teams.
His passion turned to farming, and he and his wife purchased land near his parents’ farm. There wasn’t enough acreage (or livestock) to work full time, so Jepsen drove an oil truck by day and farmed at night and weekends for three years. With help from his family, friends and neighbors, he quit his off-farm job and began farming full time in 1991.
“There comes a time when you have to quit talking about it and just do it,” Jepsen said.
He joined the Fairfield County Cattlemen’s Association as a member to learn, eventually becoming a board member and then president in the late 1990s. He served the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association for 15 years and in 2001 was selected as the Young Cattleman of the Year by the association.
To this day his acreage is spread out over a 10-mile radius with cattle pastures, feedlot, grain bins and rental ground.
Fourth-generation dairy farmer Kent Sonnenberg operates Sun Mountain Dairy in Holgate, Ohio. There he tends to 1,700 acres of corn, soybean and wheat while milking 3,100 cows (plus replacement heifers and calves). His family farm was established in 1865.
Sonnenberg said keeping phosphorus in the field is a core to the farm’s management as it edges the Western Lake Erie watershed. Sonnenberg said keeping soil covered is imperative.
“There’s a few things I consider for soil health and for yields for profit. You need to keep your nutrients and organic matter in the ground. If you keep the organic matter increasing, you’ll have a healthy system going on.”
Sonnenberg was involved in FFA and 4-H and remained on the family farm after high school. “I farmed with my father for 30 years, and he retired from milking at the age of 90,” Sonnenberg said.
As time passed the dairy grew, so much that they now have 30 full-time employees. With the help of the Henry County SWCD, they designed and constructed two manure ponds and a filter area for leachate.
Through the years, acreage was added and the dairy expanded, most considerable after his son, Ted, returned home in 2010. The farm grew, as did the number of animals on the premise. All the while, Sonnenberg strived to improve the soil, protect the water and best manage nutrients, including manure.
Of the 1,700 acres, 1,600 acres are in corn, 75 acres are in soybeans and 25 acres are in wheat.
“We needed more corn silage. We had to find some way of growing corn back-to-back in a monoculture,” he said. “You have to break that up. So, it is either cover crops or you have to work the ground and put manure on. That’s an oxymoron. You just don’t do that because you’re destroying something and running it down the river. Nobody wants that. We want to keep the phosphorus in the ground and utilize it, as well as the nitrogen itself.”
Sonnenberg tried different cover crop mixes, but plants mainly cereal rye with 100 percent coverage of the land.
“You had to grow a crop year-round, but I terminate rye at 12 to 18 inches to keep it from competing with the crop,” he said. “Harvest the sunlight and treat the ground with respect.”
To help control soil erosion and soil and nutrient runoff, he has installed 40 subsurface water control structures, allowing him to close or raise up as needed. The farm also has extensive filter strips on all fields adjacent to drainage ditches.
Sonnenberg has been a longtime supporter of Ohio State University Extension and the SWCD. He has served on the Henry County SWCD board for many years and is currently chairman.
“Kent has always been a strong supporter of the community and conservation practices,” said Alan Sundermeier, Extension educator in Wood County and one who nominated Sonnenberg. “He’s always been able to stop what he’s doing and put a priority on the person who is asking for help. A Master Farmer has to be willing to help other people.”