The Decade of Family Farming
Rome, May 29, 2019
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak to you today.
Like some of my colleagues on this panel, I too am a family farmer. This makes me especially excited to talk about this subject. Family farms, like family businesses (and of course the farm is our business), tend to be passed down over generations, and our farm in the United States dates back to 1837 (182 years) – that is old, by US standards! Before that, my ancestors were farming in Germany and Switzerland. So family farms go back generations and centuries.
One of the challenges of farming is making your farm sustainable: making the right choices so the farm can grow, remain profitable, preserve its natural resources, so it can survive for generations. Given the challenges, that is no small feat!
When I was born in 1955 my parents were farming 120 acres, which represented a part of the land that my family settled on in 1837. The farm in 1955 was operated singlehandedly by my father, who only had an 8th grade education but who was, in my mind, a lifelong student of life. He still is. He worked long hours by himself to operate the farm in the days when there was little mechanization and no crop-care products or commercial fertilizer available. At that time, we weren’t much more than subsistence farmers. However, as time progressed, my father’s work-force grew – he and my mother had 5 children! And sure enough, we all worked on the farm, doing everything from gathering eggs, to feeding the livestock, to weeding and harvesting the crops by hand. We would work before we went to school, and after we came home, and I still clearly recall those long hours. In the summers we worked long days getting up at dawn and working all day in the summer heat, walking the rows and pulling weeds from the corn and soybean fields.
As time progressed, Mom and Dad saved their meager profits, and continued to invest in growing more livestock, renting or buying more land, and buying equipment to operate the farm as it grew, because we knew we wouldn’t be able to do all of the farm tasks by hand as the farm expanded in size and number of livestock. I remember my father and mother in the mid-1960s saying that it was time they started running the farm as a business. And to do so, they need to understand where they made money and where they spent money, so they bought a ledger from Purdue University and an extension agent would come out every other week to show my parents how to accurately account for their financial activities.
By my 18th birthday in 1973 we had grown the farm to 525 acres and yes, the family still comprised all of the labor on the farm. It was also the year we lost my brother Kevin in an auto accident – he was intending to stay on the farm. My sisters, of course, were making plans to attend college and seek careers off the farm, so this left the work for my father and myself. So we borrowed money and bought more equipmen,t and used the latest technologies that were available then to fertilize the crop and control the weeds. We soon found that with the help of technology we could farm even more acres, and the farm quickly grew to 1150 acres – ten times the size of the original farm.
After a few years, we decided that due to some severe droughts in the Midwest we should consider irrigation. We borrowed money again and invested in irrigation on half of our property. Even with this increased workload, it was just my father and I running the farm. We knew, however, that we needed to consider value-added opportunities. We started to produce seed corn, a crop that would leverage our investment, and add revenue and profits to our business. As profits came back to the business, we expanded our acreage even further and we were soon farming over 3,000 acres. That is when we brought on our first employee for the cropping season.
As we continued to grow, he became a full-time employee, and we soon added another, as my father was in his 70’s and couldn’t work those long days. It wasn’t long before we started to utilize the latest technologies in equipment, seeds, crop-care products and data science, which increased our productivity and, importantly, lessened our impact on the environment. We soon reached 10,000 acres in size and within five years had reached 20,000 acres in the U.S. and another 5,000 acres in Argentina. Today our field operations employ 15 people. We have doubled our yields of corn and soybeans since the 1970’s while using fewer natural resources such as water, and using fewer chemicals and fertilizer per unit of production — all by applying the latest that science and technology could offer from GMO’s to data science.
All of these changes over the years allowed us to improve our lifestyle, embrace family values, and give back to the community.
Social responsibility – giving to our communities – is key to keeping farming sustainable.
We engage actively with our communities in the United States, and that engagement takes on many forms: it might mean serving as a leader of a 4-H Club for youth development, where we help young people learn skills such as raising farm animals or crops and managing a budget. Or it can involve serving on a school board, were you shape policy to have positive impacts on education. It could also mean delivering food to the needy locally, or helping others who have fallen on hard times financially or physically. Family farmers can also serve as advocates in our nation’s capital, arguing for support for various food security issues. It can mean working with organizations focused on health care, food production, or resource development globally to help people in developing countries.
The growth of our farm also meant we now had the time and resources that allowed us to invest in making the family farm more sustainable in terms of succession planning from generation to generation. It allowed us to invest in educating our farm staff so they could improve their careers at the farm. I say often that the most valuable crop we grow in a family farm business is the next generation of leaders and business owners.
In conclusion, there is always the perception that the family farm is disappearing and that corporations own our farms. Quite to the contrary, nearly 99% of all US farms are family owned – but they may have a legal and tax structure that requires them to incorporate. In fact, many times they incorporate for tax reasons to make sure the farm business stays in the family. It is within these farm families that decisions are made on how to assume risk, invest in new assets, bring other family members into the business, or preserve the natural resources that they work with. In fact, theses family farm businesses are focused on sustainability for the future by preserving resources for future generations because they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for running a business for generations, and feeding, fueling and clothing a hungry world.
Family farm businesses will continue to be the predominant farm structure for generations to come.