Survival for the Long Term

Two farming operations focus on diversification to weather tough times.

Brothers Jacob, left, and Brian Handsaker diversified their operation with excavation and drainage tile work, Image by Des Keller

In mid-September, the slow churn of what had been Hurricane Florence dumped 30 inches of rain in four days on eastern North Carolina’s Strickland Farming, near Mt. Olive. Owner Reggie Strickland watched as the waters from a nearby creek inched up the business sign in front of their office.

Racing to beat the storm, workers finished tobacco harvest the day before the downpours began. “We’d have almost been better off leaving the crop in the field,” says 55-year-old Strickland, “because we then lost power for several days and couldn’t run the fans in the curing barns.” Without that curing process, the tobacco’s quality deteriorates rapidly and becomes worthless.

Fortunately, tobacco isn’t the only crop on which Strickland relies. The value of having a diverse operation can sometimes be best appreciated in the wake of a natural disaster. In the case of Strickland, what he grows and why is a combination of geography, soil type and access to markets.

The 4,200-acre farm sits amid sandy, quick-draining soil, which makes it ideal for the growth of crops like sweet potatoes and vegetables. The region is also home to some of the highest-producing counties in the country for hogs and poultry. Strickland has raised contract hogs for years and, beginning a year ago, began growing turkeys.

“We can’t make a living growing just corn and soybeans,” Strickland says. “Our average corn yields are around 135 bushels per acre, while our soybeans are 40 bushels per acre.” However, the nearby presence of numerous pork, broiler and turkey operations is great for corn demand. Strickland often receives up to 70 cents per bushel above the Chicago Board of Trade price.

TIMING IS IMPORTANT

Prior to the storm, Strickland Farming had harvested 1,000 acres of corn and 213 acres of tobacco. Earlier in the summer, they had picked 150 acres of cucumbers and 20 acres of banana peppers. Following the rains, they were able to resume harvest of 350 acres of sweet potatoes while planning for the harvest of 1,500 acres of soybeans.

The Stricklands (Reggie’s father, Garrett, is semiretired, and, family members have farmed here for eight generations) have grown cucumbers on and off for several decades, the result of their relationship with nearby Mt. Olive Pickle Co., which has been in business since 1926.

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The cucumbers and banana peppers, like sweet potatoes and tobacco, are labor intensive. Strickland Farming hires more than 100 foreign agriculture workers under the federal H-2A program. The workers--those at Strickland Farms are from Mexico--are busy from April to November, moving between various jobs on the multiple crops. On a day we visited, more than 60 workers were harvesting cucumbers, while, elsewhere, another two dozen were “topping,” or removing the flowering part of the tobacco plants to spur leaf growth.

While the sweet potatoes, cucumbers and tobacco are all high-value crops, they are a necessity to justify the expense of keeping the workers for months. In 2018, H-2A workers in North Carolina were paid a mandated wage of $11.46 per hour. Strickland Farming also has to pay for their housing and transportation while in the country.

The labor costs are high, but, so is the gross income from the specialty crops. An average gross for sweet potatoes might be $3,000 per acre, but, $2,500 of that goes to labor, Strickland explains. Likewise, the per-acre gross for tobacco is about $4,500, with multiple trips in the field using hand labor. By contrast, the gross income from an acre planted to corn is about $600 with an average yield.

HANDS-ON BUSINESSES

Diversification at Handsaker Farms, in central Iowa, near Radcliffe, seems almost a necessity given the number of family members who are or have been involved. The family farms 3,800 acres, raises contract hogs, runs an excavating and drainage tile business, contracts more than 1,000 acres of their farm to edible pea and sweet corn production, and operates a Beck’s Hybrids seed dealership.

“I think we’re diversified enough that we have a few extra cards to play with,” 36-year-old Jacob Handsaker says. He, along with brothers Brian, Brett and cousin David Handsaker, make up the management team for the businesses. Jacob’s father and two of Jacob’s uncles are also still involved with the farm. Three additional cousins work at the excavating business, Hands On Excavating LLC.

That enterprise got its start 15 years ago, when the Handsakers purchased a used excavator for a good price then learned the business from a family friend in the trade who was retiring.

“With that equipment on hand, it was a natural fit that we also got into tiling,” Jacob says. “The timing was good; we were really getting going in that business when the $8 corn prices hit. Everyone was putting money into tiling on their farms, and, the big tiling operations were busy with all the large jobs.” The Handsakers were able to secure many smaller jobs.

“We were hungry for the work, and, we didn’t turn down anyone,” Jacob says. In addition to tiling, the company now does excavations for everything from housing developments to commercial buildings.

OPERATIONS STREAMLINED

Opportunity struck again a few years ago, when Brian Handsaker was talking to a friend working in the college of agriculture and life sciences at Iowa State University. The friend, a professor, had been contacted by Minnesota-based Birds Eye foods seeking farmland in the area for contract production. Now, that company facilitates the planting and harvest of 600 acres of sweet corn and 500 acres of sweet peas on Handsaker land. The peas are harvested by mid-June and the sweet corn by early August. The Handsakers’ double-crop soybeans follow the pea harvest.

“It’s working good so far,” Jacob says. “The peas spread out our planting window, so, we aren’t having to do that 500 acres at the same time as our corn and soybeans. As for the sweet corn, that’s 600 acres we don’t have to harvest in the fall--the company sends specialty equipment for that.”

Jacob describes the profitability of the peas and sweet corn as similar to that of commodity corn and beans, with the added savings of fieldwork they don’t have to perform. Additionally, the Handsakers can install drainage tile on those specialty acres at a time of the year (August) when they wouldn’t be working on anyone else’s farms.

Each separate business entity is evaluated on its own merits, Jacob explains. “We watch costs like everyone and know what the margins are and where we need to be,” he says.

The business attitude is the same for North Carolina’s Strickland. All crops and livestock are evaluated as separate businesses. He says the jury is still out on growing banana peppers--the labor needed to harvest even 20 acres is daunting.

“We really need to grow them with drip irrigation under black plastic,” Strickland says. “The drip irrigation would be a more efficient use of our water, and, the plastic reduces the labor needed for weed control. But, the cost of doing that runs about $2,000 per acre, and, I’m not sure the production and price will justify the expense.”

Strickland has about 800 acres under well-fed center-pivot irrigation installed after corn prices shot up early in this decade. That means about 500 acres of corn are irrigated every year, with average yields of 200 bushels per acre. The cucumbers and banana peppers are also irrigated.

The irony is that, despite the disaster of too much water this year, lack of moisture is often the bigger issue for Strickland Farming. Relentless high heat in season coupled with sandy soils means that anything grown on dryland needs frequent rain.

“We say around here that we’re only 24 hours away from a drought,” Strickland says.

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