PLOWING THE SOUL OF A NEW GENERATION
Candace Krebs, Contributing Editor
Brian Pine, Lawrence, Kan. Age: 32
There’s probably less emotion in my decisions compared to my dad’s generation," says Brian Pine, as turf grass is harvested into sod strips and loaded onto pallets by two of the farm’s several hired hands.
Emotions quickly surface, however, as he discusses his family, his future and the business of farming.
"I love what I’m doing. But with the farm economy the way it is, if it isn’t going to make a living for my family, I’m going to do something else," he says.
While his agribusiness suppliers do a good job of providing service and value, input prices keep going up while commodity prices go down. "It’s almost like you are paying for the privilege to farm," he says.
His antidote to the financial challenge is to counter emotion with facts, a strategy evident in several areas of the operation. Although Pine prefers farming the traditional crops, he decided to add turf grass to the mix four years ago. "We needed to do something to diversify the farm," he says. Through the years, the Pines have grown potatoes, chrysanthemums, popcorn, high oil corn, seed corn, white corn and tofu beans.
"We’ve tried a lot of variation in traditional crops, but they are still tied to traditional markets. We weren’t seeing profits for all the work we had to put into it," he says. "Sod is what people want, not what they need. And they’ll pay more for what they want."
Use of technology ensures a bottom-line perspective. "Because of the amount of money tied up in farms and the small profit margin, we spend more time analyzing numbers," he says. "Farmers used to go off of a ‘feel,’ a sense, but now you better know down to the penny where you are at."
The Pine Family Farm has been heavily computerized since the mid-1980s. Today, six computers are networked together at the office. Being pioneers of technology has resulted in years of trial and error, says Pine, who looks ahead to using Palm Pilots to make data entry from the field to the office more efficient and cost effective.
The Pines have increased their Internet use during the last 18 months, although Pine says they mostly use it to send e-mail and compare prices, especially on equipment, rather than for buying and selling. "We’re not as comfortable with it yet as we would like to be, and service means a lot to us," he explains.
Biotechnology also has a place in the operation. The majority of the acreage is in Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn. "We are cautious because of StarLink and the perception of genetically modified crops, but we see a future in it," Pine says.
Even when it comes to family relationships, the Pines leave little to chance. When Pine and his sister Shawn, 36, joined the family operation as employees, they hired a Christian counselor to help facilitate the transition. Not only did the four principle family members participate, but their extended families were included as well. They all continue to meet with the counselor about four times a year for what Pine describes as "preventive maintenance."
"My balance between farming and family time is different than it was for the previous generation," Pine says. "When I was growing up, we worked together as a family. It’s not that way now. I don’t get to see my wife and kids on a day-to-day basis out in the field."
Tim Recker, Arlington, Iowa Age: 39 Education: Hawkeye Community College, associate's degree in animal science Farm operation: 1,600 acres of corn and soybeans, 1, 800-head wean-to-finishing hog operation (rented out) in partnership with brother Jim, excavation business with one full-time employee Family: wife, Darla; daughters Ashley, 15, and Chelsey, 12; and son Jordon, 9. Interests/hobbies: hunting, attending school events Personal hobbies: "If you work hard, you'll do fine." What he loves most about farming: Being his own boss, and the challenges. Everyday is something different. Farm background and current enterprise: Recker returned to the farm after graduating from college in 1982. The beginning fo the farm crisis, it was a good time to "humble yourself a little bit," he says. In 1986, he rented his first piece of ground. "I should have been buying land rather than renting it!" he says. He's continued to rent that same 1,000 acres, along with more of his dad's ground. He can see some future growth but is more focused on doing a better job with the acreage he has.
Tim Recker is something of an info-maniac. Using information and outside expertise is one of the biggest differences between his and the previous generation, he says.
Managing information - retrieving, organizing and optimizing it - is one of his primary challenges. "On Monday, we are getting high-speed Internet access so I can quickly get to where I want to go," he says as he juggles phone calls on a busy Saturday morning. "I’m getting rid of some hardware and monthly payment for some services so I can get information more quickly. At about $70 a month, I think I can save some money."
Recker is just beginning to "dabble" with selling commodities and buying inputs over the Internet. Particularly exciting to him is the opportunity to provide detailed information about his operation, building a bridge to potential end users. "It’s going to open up a whole new era of people doing something different," he says. "In the last year, I’ve seen more and more Web sites where I can list specific bushels of specific kinds of commodities, and I can put it out where anyone can see it. It really enhances the small operation where we aren’t out there producing mass quantities of foodstuffs."
He thinks it also will give domestic producers more leverage over large foreign competitors such as Brazil. "We have the advantage of smaller fields and better bin space," he says. "We can do a better job of creating a higher value product because of the infrastructure we have."
Recker says self-promotion requires self-knowledge. "My wife is an accountant and a broker," he says. "We need to be able to do a better job with records and seeing what enterprises are making us money, especially because we dabble in other areas like the construction business. We need to work like a big corporation and know where our strengths are and rely on other people."
That’s a significant change. "The way I was raised, we did it all," he says. "We didn’t rely on outside people. That’s where I see a difference. We use more outside expertise. We’re not so independent but more interdependent."
Outside services come primarily from crop and marketing consultants. Recker meets monthly in a small group with a private marketing consultant.
"In the accounting industry, they document everything, and, as farmers, we need to do more of that," he adds. "We document things so that it helps build our portfolio when we go to sell to a processor."
Consolidation in the food processing business benefits smaller farmers, he contends. "I think it opens up an opportunity for an individual farmer like me to fill a niche," Recker relates. "It’s inconceivable that some of the large processors can segregate anything. That’s the niche where we can come in, by segregating on the farm and getting hooked up with the end processor."
The Reckers raise non-GMO soybeans, receiving premiums of 25 cents to 45 cents per bushel for specialty types such as clear hilum beans. They also grow genetically modified Bt corn.
"We are in the infant stages of biotech, and we don’t even understand where it can take us," he says. "Eventually we might be growing a certain crop that cures cancer or food allergies. There is so much we can do, but we have to approach it very cautiously. If you look back in history, when milk first got pasteurized, people were against that. They hated it! And now we wouldn’t think twice about getting milk that isn’t pasteurized."
Brad McCauley, White Cloud, Kan. Age: 22 Education: Kansas State University, finishing a bachelor's degree in ag business Farm operation: 225 row crop acres of his own, and an employee of his parents' 3,000-acre corn and soybean farm. Family: single. Interests/hobbies: playing guitar, snow and water skiing, hunting, sports. Personal motto: "You never know if you don't try. It's important to have goals." What he loves most about farming: The way of life, being able to have control of his time, seeing a tangible payoff as he works. Farm background and current operation: McCauley started farming in 1994. After he entered college, he rented more land from his dad and started making more decisions. A year ago in October, he "got his feet wet" by buying 80 acres and cash-renting an additional 50 acres. Last summer he interned with the Farmer's Co-op at Sabetha, Kan., doing chemical application, crop scouting and merchandising. He enjoyed it, but says, "I would have a hard time working for ag companies, doing applicable practices for other people when I knew I could be doing those things for myself."
Value-added processing, emphasis on marketing and, not least of all, government programs are how Brad McCauley intends to remain profitable after he leaves college for full-time farming. For the easy-going senior - just back from a spring break trip to Las Vegas - the challenges ahead are tempered by youthful enthusiasm.
"I’m going to be taking an increased risk at the beginning," he says outside Throckmorton Hall, the gleaming plant sciences building at K-State. "But my goal is to let it pay itself off in the future by not missing out on the opportunity to get started right away. The next step is my dad and me sitting down and setting goals of where I want to be 10 years from now."
His conversation is punctuated by a few important catchwords: Internet, hedging, niche markets, StarLink. "The StarLink issue is a very big concern to me," he says. "It’s not over yet. It is in the ground, they are saying. If people don’t think our food is safe, there is no market for it. And if there’s no market for it, there’s no profit in it. In the future, if grain isn’t sourced back completely to the farmer, there won’t be a market in it."
McCauley is among a group of farmers in northeastern Kansas who lost an overseas marketing opportunity for non-GMO corn when traces of the StarLink gene showed up in tests. The group has now formed a closed cooperative for processing their food grade corn. McCauley emphasizes he’s not opposed to biotech crops. He plants 100 percent Roundup Ready soybeans for their ease and cost savings.
Use of GMO technology requires a more sophisticated grain-handling system, he maintains. "Identity preservation is definitely the future. I don’t have any doubt about that," he says. "More risk is going to go back to the farmer. With the GMO issues, people are getting more tense about what they want." Within 10 to 15 years, he predicts, producers will be required to undergo testing and receive certification to grow food.
McCauley also is a member in a Missouri-based ethanol plant, Golden Triangle Energy. By forming co-ops to process corn, he and other farmers are minimizing risk from changes in the marketplace such as further consolidation, he says.
"You should always hedge to minimize risk. There are so many tools that can be used now - futures markets, options, hedging and niche markets," he says. He is in the process of setting up an account with a broker and has emphasized marketing in his college coursework. "A good farmer will be a good marketer," he says.
Technology, in the office and the field, is clearly another part of McCauley’s strategy. He and his dad have been using yield-mapping technology for at least four years, and they recently purchased a new outback guidance sprayer, which is satellite-guided to eliminate skips.
He anticipates Internet use will increase rapidly. McCauley uses the Internet to compare equipment prices, order parts and get immediate weather updates. "I’m in the process of making a Web page, so the landlords can go there and check our maps or look at our strategic vision," he says.
Because of threats from overproduction and consolidation, the government will have an important role in his future, McCauley says.
McCauley contends his generation will be more adept at what he calls "practicing the politics of the minority." His peers also will be more sensitive to public opinion. "With efforts by farmers to do a good job with the food system and the environment, the government is more likely to keep supporting agriculture," he concludes. AM
Candace Krebs is a freelance journalist based in Enid, Okla.