CAROLINE — In one way or another, Kent Kersten’s time in rural Shawano County is most often devoted to family, friends, faith, farming and firetrucks.
As the married father of two teenagers, Kersten successfully juggles family responsibilities along with a herd of 30 beef cattle and a small company building water tanks primarily for firetrucks.
Business at Integra Plastic Products is going so well he’s “swamped” and sometimes forced to turn away potential orders. Kersten and his wife, Felicia, who handles the bookkeeping, employ four full-timers and one part-timer who produce about 250 polypropylene water tanks per year, varying in size from 5 gallons up to 4,000 gallons. Some even include the complete truck body.
So you’d think he may consider doing away with the herd of beef cattle if for no other reason than to save time during the week. Well, think again.
“Tank building pays the bills,” Felicia said, “but he enjoys the farming aspect more. He really likes the livestock.”
Added Kent: “I like having the herd, and I think some of it is the memories. I look at them laying out there and it reminds me of when I was on my uncle’s farm and the herd was laying around. And I guess another reason, too, is that I can’t imagine living here in the country with a barn right by the house just sitting empty.”
Kersten was born and raised just a stone’s throw away. As a young boy, his father, Larry, had a dairy farm on the land he now owns. And the home in which he lives used to house his grandmother and other relatives, including his father when he was young.
“I can remember my dad milking and going out on the old Case tractor and helping pick up stones,” Kersten said.
Kersten’s father ran a construction business, so as Kersten got older he followed in those footsteps. After graduating from Marion High School in 1991, Kersten studied architectural design and drafting and lived in the northern Chicago suburbs, before moving back up to Caroline in the late 1990s. He and Felicia, a native of Troy, Ill., married in 1994.
During his time in Illinois, Kersten occasionally returned to this area to milk about 30 cows on his uncle and aunt’s farm while they were out of town.
“It was nice to get out of the city and be back on a farm,” Kersten said. “I always liked the country. I never wanted to stay in Chicago. It was always the plan to move back up here and be by my folks.”
The Kerstens started raising a handful of calves shortly after moving to Caroline. Within a few years they had surpassed 50 calves.
For their primary income, Kersten worked in carpentry for a couple of years upon returning, before transitioning to a few other jobs in the following several years. Two of those jobs were at firetruck manufacturers, both of which went bankrupt. When the second company folded, Kersten kept alive its service of creating water tanks primarily for firetrucks.
“I called one of the customers out east who still had outstanding orders and I said I could still build them, and things kind of went from there,” Kersten said.
Integra Plastic Products officially became the business name in June 2010, and Kersten has been overseeing production ever since while balancing work with family, farming, faith and their volunteer efforts. The first few tanks were built in their garage near the barn; now they have a recently added onto production facility on site that spans 4,000 square feet.
Kersten said a significant amount of business also goes to products for the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They ship finished units as far as Vermont and New Jersey. Closer to home, some of their regular clients include Custom Fab and Body in Marion and Stainless Repair in Marshfield.
As of early July, the company has made more than 2,000 water tanks in eight years.
When they aren’t running Integra, the Kerstens are busy on the farm. They have 30 beef cattle, including 13 cows, one bull, eight finished steers and heifers, and eight calves. And Kersten recently seeded 18 acres of alfalfa for forage.
The family’s beef is sold through a local butcher shop, Adams Meats in Pella.
“I don’t mean to brag, but I get rave reviews for the beef,” Kersten said. “People absolutely love it.”
Their daughter, Anna, 15, helps care for the calves, and their son, August, 13, raises a small flock of chickens and sells the eggs to friends and neighbors. Both assist with a variety of other farm chores. Each spring, the family also sells maple syrup harvested on the property.
“It’s definitely challenging with both the farm and the business because they take a lot of time,” Felicia said. “But I love living in the country and we make it all work.”