Sophisticated Farming

By - Tyler Land

“Sophisticated” and “farming” aren’t words we normally associate with one another. In fact, most people would associate them on opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet here I am throwing them together like peanut butter and jelly. So what the heck do I mean? Just follow me for a few moments. I promise it will all make sense in the end.

Let’s start by getting on the same page regarding context. When I say “sophisticated” I’m not talking about wearing a tuxedo and going to the opera or making sure you stick your pinky finger out when you sip tea in the afternoon. I’m talking in a much broader sense.

Webster defines sophisticated as “highly complicated or developed.” Folks, if that doesn’t describe the world we live in today, I don’t know what does. Our world is SO complex and fast paced that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it at times. Technology has and continues to advance at breakneck speeds, in every facet of life. What’s even more mind-blowing is this has happened in a relatively short time.

Farming has not been exempt from this complexity and technology in farming has certainly come a long way. How else could we continue to successfully feed and clothe the world when the population is over 7 billion? My 83 year old grandfather started farming with mules and has now lived to see tractors with auto steer capability. The yields we see today and the sheer amount of land farmed by one farmer were unimaginable when he started farming. All of this has happened in less than 100 years. Who could have ever imagined?!

I know that change is not a popular topic around the farm. I can’t tell you how many farmers I know that would rather have a root canal than change up the way they’ve been doing things. To a certain extent, I get it. I’m a creature of habit too and HATE to have my routine changed. However, to continue farming, farmers in this day and time are going to have to evolve and adapt (i.e., make changes) to survive. Those that don’t will go out of business (i.e., die). Period. I know that’s harsh, but that is just the cold hard truth. It’s just where we are. This will likely only intensify in the future. So what’s a farmer to do?

This is where “sophistication” comes into play. In farming today, margins are tighter than ever before. I’m not sure they could get any tighter, but I really don’t want to say that because just as soon as I do, I might jinx everyone. Seed is outrageous. Fertilizer is high. Chemicals are super expensive. Equipment…get ready to give your first born. And where are crop prices? Somewhere in the basement. I doubt this changes moving forward. So how does a farmer become “sophisticated?” I thought you’d never ask.

It’s starts by recognizing the obvious—farming is a business. That means we’re here to make a profit. If you were in any other type of business and were doing something that wasn’t turning a profit, you’d make changes quick. For some reason though, a lot of farmers will keep doing the same thing…and keep losing money. Makes no sense.

So, the first step to becoming “sophisticated” is recognizing that change isn’t a necessarily a bad thing. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it should be immediately refused. Once upon a time, we walked everywhere we went and carried everything we needed. Then, one day, someone invented this thing we call the wheel. Over time, that led to other inventions such as cars, trucks, etc. I think everyone would agree those things have made life much better and enjoyable. What am I trying to say? Trying something new isn’t always a bad thing. It could end up being a GREAT thing and could reap dividends for your operation. Now, does that mean that every time a new idea comes along you should jump head first into it? Of course not. Exercise due diligence to the best of your ability. Each operation is different so some new ideas may work for your operation while others won’t. Grab the ones that work and toss the others in the junk pile. Above all, don’t be scared to try something new.

Second, it is imperative to remember that there’s more to farming these days than just playing in the dirt—there’s also the paper part and it has become a leviathan all its own. What am I referring to? Taxes, dealing with lenders, making sure all the bills get paid, etc. Within this realm, it’s also important to consider proper business planning. Is your operation large enough that you should hire a “farm manager” to handle all of that? Many operations are doing that these days, with positive results. Should you should make your operation a formal entity on paper (e.g., corporation, LLC, partnership, etc.)? This could help you in a lot of ways from tax benefits to protecting assets for future generations and continuation of the operation for future generations if that’s what’s intended. This has not been a popular trend here in the Tri-State area, but it’s been going on out west for quite a while and is, I believe, one reason for their successful farming. Thankfully, it is starting to slowly catch on around here. I speak more at length about this in episode 9 of the podcast so check it out if you would like more information.

Third, efficiency is the name of the game. As I’ve said previously, margins are razor thin on farms today. Because of that, there is ZERO room for any waste or inefficiency. Think of waste and inefficiency as a slow bleed, it may not kill you immediately, but it will over time if you don’t fix it. Sit down and examine your operation. Are there inefficiencies or areas of waste you can eliminate? If so, DO IT. The survival of your operation could depend on it. It may be a situation where you can’t stop the bleeding immediately, but at least take the necessary steps to start the process so that you can eventually sure up your operation’s overall financial health.

Fourth, bigger isn’t always better. We have this concept in America that bigger and more is always better. This rationale seems to be especially prevalent in farming and it simply isn’t always the case. For some reason we associate a certain prestige with it. We also like to think farming more land, means more peanuts or cotton produced which translates into more money earned which means I have more money. Well, potentially. But it’s a double-edged sword…and a really sharp one at that. Yes, you may make more money. BUT, you’re also going to have more risk, more/higher inputs, more time, etc. Don’t overextend your operation. One need only look at the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018 for evidence of this. I know several smaller farmers that weathered the aftermath of Michael better than some larger farmers simply because they weren’t extended as far. I’m not saying that growing your operation is a bad thing. Just use wisdom and exercise due diligence when doing so. Prestige doesn’t pay the bills and the name of the game these days is survival.

Finally, consider diversity within your operation and alternate streams of revenue. This will be different for each operation based on a multitude of factors and you may have to get creative, but creativity/resourcefulness isn’t a bad thing. In fact, farmers are some of the most creative/resourceful people I know. They have to be. For some that may mean running cattle or selling hay. For others it could mean diversifying into different or unconventional types of crops. It could also mean getting into or creating a niche market. For example, I know a local farmer that used to be solely row crop. One year, he decided to try a small amount of produce. It went great. The next year he did it again and increased the amount of produce and the variety. Success continued. Now, he doesn’t even do row crops. He is solely produce and has built a THRIVING produce business. He’s created a niche market for himself and it is going great. What started as an alternate revenue stream for him has become his sole revenue stream. As always, use wisdom and exercise due diligence, but if it can’t make you money, don’t be scared to try it.

I hope this information has been helpful and given you some things to think about. Until next time, keep it between the field rows.

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