This article was originally published in The Journal on January 21, 2019.
In last week’s column, I shared some of the insights gained from attending the American Forage and Grassland Council’s Annual Conference and promised to continue this week. The story I shared last week was about forage tragedy and triumph. This weeks’ is about getting started farming without inheriting it or marrying it.
Two beef producers led the session I attended on this topic. Wesley Tucker, an Ag Economist for University of Missouri Extension, shared his story of starting from scratch, as did Dr. Jason Salchow, who is a veterinarian and custom grazer. The approaches they used were very different.
Mr. Tucker had farmed with his father as a young adult, but one day his dad said, “Son, this farm isn’t big enough for the both of us.” So, he started his own beef operation without owning any land.
His strategy was to rent as much grazable land as he could handle and rotate his cattle from one place to another. He would calculate the cost of feeding hay and the cost of renting the land. If the land was cheaper than buying hay, then he determined it was worth the cost to rent. Although it had many challenges, the system worked and he turned a profit. However, at the end of his presentation he said, “I have failed.”
When he first started this system, he was single and had time to run from one rental site to another checking cattle. After starting a family, he took his daughter along with him. She enjoyed helping move temporary fence and riding in the truck. His daughter is now ten years old and according to Mr. Tucker, “she hates the farm.” He continued to say, “I have failed because my daughter hates the farm. She hates it because instead of spending dedicated time with her, I’m checking cows before and after work.”
The take home message of his story was to be smart and economical, but don’t forget that your time has value too. You should be careful how you spend it.
Dr. Salchow, on the other hand, tried something different. He grew up in a farm family and decided to become a veterinarian. In the process, he accumulated a large amount of student loan debt, started a family, and soon realized that veterinary medicine was not his true calling. He made a rash decision to quit the practice, buy back part of his family’s farm, and focus on beef production. He shared that he does not recommend that exact strategy, but he does recommend perseverance and patience.
The past 20 years have been a long rough road for Dr. Salchow, his wife, and five children to get to where they are today. Currently they farm as custom grazers. They own the land and graze it with other people’s cattle. All their clients make monthly payments for their grazing services based on average daily gains. Clients maintain the liability for animal health and the Salchows maintain the liability for the land.
His wife maintains the records and he maintains the pastures and cattle. They are making money, they have gained the trust of their clients, and they are expanding. He continued to share that expanding would be a lot easier if his family’s farm hadn’t been separated by the previous generation in a divorce.
The leading cause of farm fragmentation in the U.S. is not urbanization, but rather death, divorce, and a family that cannot compromise. Dr. Salchow lamented over the loss of the American family farm by saying, “If you want to be successful on the farm, go home and love your wife. We have to be better husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. There is no success outside the home that can compromise for failure in the home.”
A fellow member of the audience tied Dr. Salchow’s comments back to liability insurance, to say that the best liability insurance you can hold for your farm is a good relationship with your family. That is the glue that holds the farm together.
Dr. Salchow’s take home message was that success in farming is like a crockpot, not a microwave. He said, “Everyone wants quick results, like a microwave. But, nothing good comes out of a microwave. A crockpot on the other hand, that’s what the good stuff comes out of, but you have to cook it low and slow.”
My advice for you after attending this session is to consider both of these producer’s approaches, their struggles, and their successes.
Neither presentation was about the animals or land as much as they were about relationships with your neighbors and your family. Success in agriculture requires capital, but it is built on perseverance and trust. Trust takes time to develop and perseverance is what drives the crockpot approach to success. Take the time to build trusting relationships with your family, neighbors, and clients. Those relationships are like insurance for your current struggles and future successes.