Darby Knoll grew up showing her family’s cattle each year at the South Dakota State Fair. She relished the opportunity to talk with visitors from all over about Knoll Family Farm’s humane and sustainable practices. As she got older and learned more about the challenges facing fellow family farmers, she became sure that she wanted to pursue a career in agriculture.
“Each year, we would hear family farmers saying ‘it’s not working, and we’re going to sell,’” Darby tells Food Tank. “It was heartbreaking. That’s when I decided that I wanted to get more involved in agriculture and be an advocate, be a voice to say things need to change.”
The youngest of the five Knoll children, Darby is completing her business finance degree at the University of South Dakota. She serves as VP of the school’s business fraternity, a Resident Assistant, and soon Senator of the Student Government Association, all while working part-time at a local gas station. She’s planning to earn her 4-H volunteer certificate, and every other weekend, she goes home to help out on Knoll Family Farm.
Darby attributes this hard-working mentality to her father, Dave Knoll, who taught her a love of agriculture and a love of cows. Dave has been out on the ranch since he was a young child, starting his own herd at age 19. While working full-time at the cattle sale barn and other jobs, he slowly built Knoll Family Farm to where it is today, raising black Angus cattle from birth to market.
The Knoll family focuses on “reduce, reuse, recycle,” Darby says. They raise their own feed and bedding by growing alfalfa, corn, soybeans, milo, and rye, and rotating crops. Their land is fertilized with the cattle’s manure, and they’re also thinking of ways to better use water resources by collecting rainwater.
Nearly all of the Knolls’ cattle are sold to Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers. Darby describes this decade-long partnership as the perfect fit. Knoll Family Farm was raising natural and hormone-free cattle already, so they didn’t need to modify to meet Niman Ranch’s high standards of sustainable and humane practices.
Niman Ranch provides niche markets to its farmers, which is “absolutely huge for family operations,” Darby says. “It’s an eat-or-be-eaten world out there…You see family farms that have been around since my dad was a kid selling out, because the kids either don’t have the interest or they don’t think they’ll be able to make it.”
Darby sees storytelling as key to pushing for change that will better support small farmers. She’s inspired by more media outlets featuring family farmers as well as farmers themselves engaging with eaters through social media. For her part, she plans to take her farm experience and knowledge beyond her own community. “I like talking to the population that doesn’t know a thing about farming.”
When Darby hears misconceptions about welfare and environmental issues related to animal farming, she says, “spend just one day with me on the farm watching us care for our animals. The goal of a farmer is to leave the land better than we found it. Farmers have so much love, passion, and care for their animals and land.”
Darby talks about getting involved in government someday to take on these challenges. In the meantime, she is a passionate and enthusiastic advocate, answering people’s questions and educating through conversation. “I like to be the person out there saying, ‘let’s change the world, let’s do something about this.’”
She plans to pursue a career in agriculture finance while running the family farm with her brothers, Davie and Dillon. She says she isn’t worried about juggling the work. In fact, she looks forward to it.
“I still get excited when I get to go home on the weekend and pet my cows,” Darby says with a big smile. “I love seeing a yard full of healthy cows that are all fat, happy, and sassy.”