Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hell yes, I'm mad.

This morning, in what in my opinion is an act of sheer desperation, a "undercover video" showing some indefensible animal abuse on a farm in Ohio (allegedly) was released. The timing couldn't have been better for HSUS. With just over a month left to collect nearly 1/2 a million signatures for their ballot initiative, they are woefully short (like, less than half) and in desperate need of a boost. Will this video play to the heart strings of the uneducated consumer, or will people employ some critical thinking skills when it comes to this type of release. When was it shot? Why not take it immediately to the proper authorities, rather than try the farmer in the court of public opinion? Figure that last one out for yourself.

When a release like this occurs, it is imperative that ALL of agriculture stand with a common voice and condemn the actions. Not just cattle folks, or dairymen, or vets. ALL OF US. From apples to potatoes and corn to cucumbers, this should enrage us all. This is a direct attack on agriculture, farming, our families, and our way of life. We need to realize, these people are out to destroy everything we do on a daily basis. I don't care what crop you raise, you need to take the time to talk to anyone who will listen and help dispel this garbage. And this doesn't just go for the animal care issues. Whether it's the EPA trying to ban Atrazine (corn guys take note), labor issues (fruit folks like me aren't real happy with this), or animal care issues, we all have a vested interest, and we need to take the time to stand up and say it. Enough is enough. Period.

What is shown in those videos is sickening, indenfensiable, and inexcusable. However, calling for a ban on farms or farming practices is ridiculous. A few years ago, when I was still in high school, a teacher was caught having, well, "inappropriate" relationships with a few young ladies at the school. This guy was a pervert, and was kicked out of school and punished. But at any point did people suggest closing schools? How about male teachers for male students and female for female only classrooms? Are you nuts? This would have never happened. So why are we demonizing an entire industry over a very few bad actors.

Farmers everywhere should be angry and upset over these events, and they need to show it. It's time to stop quietly driving the tractor and waiting for someone else to fix your problems. It's time to step up, or be stepped on.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Can I please speak with your manager???

So this afternoon, I’m riding around in the tractor trying to get some corn planted, and I get a tweet (that’s a twitter message) from a guy I talk to on occasion. He wondered how much of my time is spent managing my farm, and how much time is actually farming. I gave it a lot of thought, and then said 50/50, but I don’t think that quite explains it.

We have a unique set up on our farm, and there is a definite reason to why we do things the way we do. I took a personalty profile a while back and it said one of my strengths was context, or the ability to read the past to see the future. So, we’ll go back, to see how we’re moving forward.

When my father and uncle started farming, I mean, really started doing it as more than just a glorified hobby, they both had full time careers, families, and bills to pay. Farming full-time simply wasn’t an option. They wanted to grow the farm business, if not for themselves, than for their children and grand children. They were tired of old equipment. New tractors needed more acres to pencil economically. Over a period of years, the farm grew to the point where they could no longer just do it nights and weekends anymore. The need for employees had arrived.

The path for the orchard business was a little different. Joe and I grew our business much faster (for better or worse), and so our need for help appeared quicker. But it was different. We depend on migrant labor for picking, so when our crew leader of a couple of years, Jose, wanted to start working pretty much year round, we saw the need. He already worked from September to March harvesting or trimming trees, so it wasn’t a huge stretch.

So back to the first question, how much do you work, and how much do you manage? Well, that’s tough. Joe and I handle pesticide application for the apples, so we’re in the field for that. My dad and uncle John and in the fields as much as they can, usually a couple of hours a night. But, we have a lot of work to do. Our guys do things like tillage work, planting, harvesting, and pretty much all our trucking for both fruit and grain. We are out as much as we can, but for example, my dad handles all our grain merchandising. Not much field time required for that, just lots of time on the phone and on the net. I handle a lot of our fertility planning, field mapping, and crop input decisions. Joe does all the orchard scouting, and decides what we are planting, spraying, and when we are picking fruit. My uncle pretty much handles our human resources, and does a lot of mechanical work, and probably spends as much time in the field as any of us. He is the very successful co-owner of a building business, and has an incredible knack for money, finances, and dealing with people. Pretty much all decisions go past the big guy.

So in the end, are we farming, or managing? Well, both really. We have grown to the point where we can’t do the work ourselves, without giving up our other business interests, which, quite honestly, we are all very successful at. But ultimately, it’s still our money, our land, our equipment, and our last name. Regardless of who’s in the field, it’s our family’s farm.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

But you don't look like a farmer!!!

Took a few minutes out of my busy spring today to get a much needed haircut. Stopped into my barbershop, a local chain that caters to younger men-rock music played, attractive young ladies cutting hair, you know, my kind of place. Anyways, I always get some interesting perspectives on life from the gals that cut my hair, and today was no different.

The young lady cutting my hair today started in with the typical “so what have you been up to” small talk. I told her I’d been busy trying to get planting done, and I was on my way to the co-op for a lunch meeting with some other farmers. She asked me “are they, like, REAL, farmers?” With a laugh I said “yea...., why?” She replied, “oh, I don’t really like farmers, they are dirty and gross!!” Perplexed, I asked her to explain. She explained that she frequented a local watering hole, and, on Tuesday nights (country night) there was always a group of young guys wearing cutoff flannel shirts, cowboy boots, and driving jacked up trucks. She went on to say that they were rude, dirty, and usually drunk. They loudly proclaimed to be farmers to anyone who would listen.

Now, at this point, I’m getting a little bent. So, I asked her, what SHOULD a farmer look like? Well, she didn’t know. So I asked her if I looked like a farmer. “NO WAY!!! You always have a clean shirt on, and, like, carry a blackberry. You look like someone who sells something or runs a business. You don’t look like a farmer!!”

Well, I informed her that I was. And just maybe I have that appearance because I do more managing than wrench-turning these days. I asked her if she thought those guys were real farmers. Well, she didn’t think so, but they looked like they could be. I thought, ok, let’s let this die and see if she takes some bait....

I asked her where she usually buys food. “Well, local stores! You know”, she continued, “local food is better for you than factory food!” Really. So I asked her who she would trust more raising her food, me, or the guys from Tuesday night. “You” she said, “you look like you’d have a nicer farm”. Interesting. At our size, I told her, most people would consider us a “factory” or “corporate” farm. Those guys would, by most peoples guess, be considered “local”. She looked utterly confused, and maybe a little annoyed with me. She finished my hair cut without many more questions.

So here’s the point. We have a serious perception problem with ag in this country. People still view the Hollywood image of farmers, and of their farms. They can’t believe that the modern, especially YOUNG farmer, carries a blackberry and wears a golf shirt. Where have we gone wrong? Are we so busy trying to convince them we know what is best that we’ve forgotten that appearances DO matter?

A friend told me once, “If you don’t want to be treated like you need to be told what to do, than don’t look and act like you need to be told what to do!”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Big, Bad...Family Farms?!?!?!

Trolling twitter the other day, I heard some more of the typical anti big-ag rants; Monsanto is the devil, Tyson is running farmers out of business, Cargill is evil. I find all these statements humorous, even if they are a little disturbing to read. But what is more amazing, is how hypocritical some of these people are-they praise the family farm, family business, local co-op, local market. But when do you transition, at least in most peoples minds, from family-whatever to corporate, and why the demonetization when it happens?

In the 1930's, there were hundreds of companies building cars, trucks, tractors, and refigerators. Today, there are a handful. But do you see people on the net bemoaning the death of Packard to that wicked tyrant Henry Ford? Hell no. No one cares about Packard. So why the connection with food? I mean, most people spend more time each day thinking about their car, or using their car, than they do food. Why food? Keep that one in mind, that'll be another blog. But for now, back to our point-when do you make the jump from family to corporate?

When you talk about family to "corporate" transition in American Ag, I love to talk about Cargill. For those of you who don't know, Cargill is the largest privately owned company on the planet. It was founded in the 1860's by Mr. Cargill, his brothers, nephews, and ultimately his son in law, John MacMillian. Today, Cargill is still owned and controlled by the Cargill and MacMillian families. So why did they grow so large? The same reason Henry Ford started building factories-it's the American Way. Capitalism rewards risk and hard work-and both demonstrated this. Cargill wanted a better life for his family, stable work for his children, and a company that his great-grandchildren could depend on. Is that all bad?

When my family and I meet and discuss our vision and mission statements, and our goals for the future, they are pretty simple. To create a viable, sustainable business for future generations of our family. To us, that means we need to grow, expand, incorporate. We need to make sound fiscal and environmental decisions everyday to ensure our profitability and survival. When we buy a tractor, we work off extremely conservative economic models-what if prices crash? What if we lost acreage? Can we pay cash? If not, how fast can we pay for it? We believe these principals make us strong and smart.

So, I ask you, are we corporate, or are we family? We have full time employees who do a sizable share of the work for us, but we are still the owners, and we make all the management decisions (aside from menial day-to-day decisions). We personally have the capital at stake. But we realize that our talents are not utilized best in the cab of a tractor. Are we wrong for that?

Until the 1960's, Ford Motor Company is still more than 50% family owned. Henry Ford the Second (Hank the Deuce) ran the company, and his brothers, uncles, and cousins sat on it's board. Were they family run? At that level, yes. But would anyone call them a family business? Doubtful. So that's the final question I post-are we ready to lump families who have grown beyond a nostalgic 1960's era image on their farms into the same league as Ford or GM? I hope not.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why should I care???

Agriculture is a diverse industry. In Michigan, it's a VERY diverse industry. Despite what Washington attempts to claim, we are second only to California in crop diversity. We are in the top ten states of the top 25 commodities. We are a very big deal in ag. Though my job, I am fortunate enough to see this diversity through my job. I see farms on a weekly basis that raise everything from apples to zucchini, from corn to cucumbers, and it's amazing how all these crops and industries inter-relate with each other. Agribusiness depends on all facets of the industry to survive. The co-op I work for sells to all farmers, from large animal operations to small vegetable farms. The same goes for equipment dealers, parts stores, and insurance agents. These local business are part of the rural American fabric, and they are essential for rural America to survive. And for them to survive, all parts of ag need to thrive. So here's where the plot thickens...

When dairy prices crashed a few months ago, I'll admit it, I had a small chuckle about it. I had watched dairy farms (not all, just some to be clear) spend money like water. Some paid unbelievable prices for land, tractors, anything. It was like the money would never end. Then the wheels came off. People didn't get paid; new tractors stopped showing up, the new pickups came to an end. Reality. A few months later, the apple industry experienced the same fate. The value of our crop dropped by 50-60% in a matter of weeks. All of a sudden, I'm the guy who can't pay, who isn't buying a new tractor.

So by now your asking, "what does this have to do with anything?". Simple. We all need each other. My orchard spends 4-5 thousand dollars a year on parts at the Case dealer. A 1500 cow dairy spends that every month. I might buy a new tractor for 40 thousand dollars every 3 or 4 years. The dairy spends that each year on tires. But here's the kicker. I spent more money on fungicide sprays at the chemical dealer for 150 acres of apples than they spent on all the inputs for 1500 acres of corn. Now the shoe is on the other foot. I need them and they need me.

So here's the point; when an animal care issue comes up, we need to all become involved. Just because I don't raise cattle doesn't mean I don't need them around. When a food safety issue comes up, I need crop farmers to help defend me, because I need them and they need me. When I hear farmers, young farmers especially, tell me that they don't care about other commodities, it bothers me. I'm still not sure how someone could embrace the concept of a blackberry and a twitter account, but not understand why all sectors of ag are important.

The world is flat folks, and people are moving your cheese on a daily basis.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Here we go.

Well, it's raining today here in West Michigan, which is a good thing. And now, I'm not talking Luke-Bryant-Rain-Is-A-Good-Thing, but it gives me an oppertunity to catch up on paperwork, do a few maps, and write a blog!

Well, I suppose I'll introduce myself to you all first. My name is Jeff, and I'm a 29 year old farmer and agronomist here in West Michigan. My wife and I farm in partnership with my dad, uncle, and brother. We currently raise around 2000 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans and have 120 acres of apples and peaches. In addition, we custom harvest roughly another 2500 acres each fall. I'm the fourth generation in my family to farm here in the US, but I can trace farm roots in the Netherlands back 12 generations. My great grandfather never REALLY farmed-he was the head of maintiance for one of the hospitals in Grand Rapids. The farm was just an investment to him. My grandfather began farming the land in the late 1940's, and they milked cows until the late 70's. My dad and uncle didn't really get into farming as more than a hobby until I was in high school, in the mid 1990's. At that time, we farmed about 200 acres and had a herd of 40 beef cattle. By the time I left high school, the cows were gone and we had almost 1000 acres. That's about the same time we incorporated into a business. My brother and I started our farm (orchard) business in 2004, with 10 acres. In 2009, with 120 acres in production, we combined forces with our dad and uncle and created a "umbrealla" corporation that we all own.

Outside of the farming, we all have ag careers. My dad started with a little seed company called Payco Seeds in 1980. He pretty much stayed in the seed business until the late 90's, when he moved into ag retail. My brother and I, despite going to college for anything but ag, followed our father into the business. Today, we all work for Hamilton Farm Bureau Co-Operative, based in Hamilton, Michigan.

Well, that's me in a nutshell. I'm sure I'll get another blog post up later on. Thanks for reading.