One of Brad Harman's neighbors farms 30,000 acres. Another in the area has 20,000 acres. But that hasn't discouraged him from getting started farming on his own.
“I know what I want to do, and I'm doing what I have to do to get there,” says the 32-year-old Boswell, IN, native who planted his first crops on 665 acres in 2008. He wants to put together a 3,000-acre farm before he reaches 40.
Harman has been working toward farming since he worked for an independent ag retailer, Senesac, Inc., after high school. “My grandparents farmed and my dad was unable to stay on the family farm,” Harman says. After graduating Purdue University with a degree in Agronomic Business and Marketing in 1999, Harman continued to work in ag retail until he had the opportunity to become an assistant manager for a 3,000-plus-acre farm operation.
WHEN AN UNCLE decided to quit farming in 2007, Harman had his first opportunity to farm on his own.
For Iowa farmer Will Cannon, that opportunity came while he was still in high school. He partnered with his dad on the family's part-time farm operation. While attending Iowa State University (ISU), he started to rent additional land. After graduating ISU in 2003 with a dual major in Ag Systems Technology and Agronomy and a minor in Ag Entrepreneurship, Cannon started working full-time for Ag Leader Technology and slowly building his farm operation.
And, he admits, the farming part of his life “hasn't grown as fast as I thought it would.” In 2009, the Newton, IA, farmer will have 380 acres of crops, wishing it was closer to 1,000 acres. That's the minimum number of acres he believes he needs to be able to farm full-time.
Although their paths to farming full-time are different, both young men offer encouragement that there's still opportunity among the mega farms for young people determined to farm on their own. Neither have family ties to provide much farmland and financing, but both have a strong desire to do what it takes to make a living farming.
“I'm looking for slow, incremental growth in my farm operation,” says 28-year-old Cannon. “I'm healthier financially than if I got a bunch of land right at the start. Farming on a small scale forces me to be a better manager,” he says. “Because I work full-time, I don't have to take a return to labor and management from the farm. That allows me to reinvest in equipment and technology. Because of my equipment's capacity, I can get everything done in a timely manner.
“I'm looking for landlords who I can build a partnership with. I'm not trying to out-bid other guys for land,” he says. “If I do that, I'm likely going to lose that land again within a couple of years.”
Cannon recognizes the disadvantage of being a part-time farmer from a family of part-time farmers. “My name isn't likely to come to the top of the list of farmers to call when landlords are considering new tenants,” he says. So, he's put together a booklet about himself, his farming operation and his goals to use as a sales tool.
“It lays out the argument for why they would want me to farm their land,” he says. “The approach is how renting to me would benefit them, not how it benefits me. They're my customers.”
CANNON INTENDS TO upgrade to a 12-row planter soon as the last piece of the puzzle to have the capacity to handle a 1,000-acre farm. “My equipment won't cash flow for the number of acres that I'm farming now, but I'm trying to build up my machinery line and do some custom work to compensate for the costs,” he says.
With the opportunity to move back home and farm his uncle's 665 acres, Indiana's Harman knew he'd have to minimize costs and maintain outside sources of income until he could farm more acres. His sales skills developed as an ag retailer helped him negotiate his plan.
“After my uncle and I talked with his landlords and I was assured that they would stick with me, I went and talked to our banker about an operating loan,” Harman says. Part of that negotiation was finding a farmer in the community who might be willing to share equipment with Harman.
“My uncle's equipment was worn out, and I couldn't afford to buy the machinery I needed,” he says. Harman discussed possible partners with his banker and then contacted 62-year-old local farmer Denny Foster. It took Foster only a couple of days to decide the young farmer was a worthy partner.
Like Iowa's Cannon, Foster had more equipment capacity than he had farmland, so spreading it over more acres wasn't a problem. “We use Purdue's custom rates for field operations to establish our equipment rental, and set an hourly labor rate of $12/hour when we're working for each other,” Harman explains. Combined, Harman and Foster have 1,500 acres of crop ground that they farm together, but finance separately.
When Harman and Foster decided to farm together, Foster upgraded his harvest equipment and Harman bought a chisel plow and self-propelled sprayer.
The duo disks or chisel plows all their acres in the fall, followed by a pass with a field cultivator in the spring ahead of planting. “As soon as the crops are in the ground, we each are able to do our own thing,” Harman says. “We keep in close contact through the summer and then get back together for harvest.
“It works surprisingly well,” Harman says. “It's like a father-son relationship without the family ties. Some farmers wouldn't be able to get along, but we haven't had any problems. It's nice to work with someone who has 40 years of experience to rely on.”
Farming just over a section of land isn't enough to keep a young man with dreams occupied full-time. Harman also has a dealer's license and sells ag chemicals wholesale, is a dealer for Heritage/Diener seed, has nearly 50 crossbred and purebred beef cattle, operates a custom haying business, sells crop insurance and also does custom application work. “I'm very motivated,” he says.
In addition to generating revenue, Harman's business activities help him build a base of future landlords. “It keeps me out in the public, building relationships,” he says. “The farmer I work for this year, may be my landlord down the road.”