First Generation Farmers

A Natural Match

From first generation to retiring, James Hepp (left) and Keith Sexton talk about the ongoing farming transition between their families. (Jim Patrico)

Growing up in the farming community of Rockwell City, Iowa, James Hepp had a strong interest in agriculture. He handled most of the field-plot work for the Rockwell City-Lytton FFA chapter and enjoyed working for local farmers. Hepp even thought he might like to farm someday but figured that was unlikely.

"Farming looked cool, but my family didn't have direct ties to agriculture," says Hepp, 32, whose father runs an auto repair shop. "I figured I could get some type of job in agribusiness, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to farm."

All that changed in 2019, when Keith Sexton hired Hepp to work part time on his farm. Sexton was also considering retirement and looking for someone to farm his land. "Being raised on a farm was not a major factor, as sometimes that can create 'we've always done it this way' habits that prevent considering other alternatives,'" Sexton explains. He and his family were also looking for a young farmer who was patriotic and supported animal agriculture.

The two established such a good relationship that Hepp entered into a crop share agreement on 160 acres in 2020. The crop share agreement increased to half of Sexton's acres in 2021. This year, Hepp is farming all of Sexton's ground, as he recently retired.

"We had been looking for someone to transition our farm to," says Sexton, 72, who runs his family's century farm with his wife, Barb. The couple's three grown children have various nonfarming careers. "When our son, Brent, a veterinarian, suggested some names of people who might be good to work with, the Hepps [James and wife, Paige] rose to the top. They are people of integrity, they protect soil health with the conservation practices they use, and they contribute to the community."

As Hepp establishes a farming career, he continues to build his business as an independent crop insurance agent. He knows he's fortunate to have the opportunity to farm.

"If you're a young farmer trying to get started in ag, networking and connections count," Hepp contends.

LESSONS FROM THE FIELD

Hepp is not unlike other young people who are ambitious and interested in production agriculture, notes Tim Hammerich, an Idaho-based strategic communications consultant, founder of AgGrad and host of the "Future of Agriculture" podcast. When he asks potential farmers what prevents them from raising food for a living, their answers tend to revolve around lack of money, lack of land or not having grown up on a farm or ranch.

"The average age of the farmer in the U.S. is now around 60 years old and trending older every year," Hammerich says. "As easy as it would be to blame younger generations and just say, 'They're not interested' or 'They don't want to work,' in my experience, this is not the case."

He shares tips with young adults to help them overcome the barriers to becoming a first-generation farmer, including working for an established farmer they'd like to become. "This is a smart, low-risk, high-reward option," Hammerich continues. "There are major, long-term benefits to working directly with someone who has already accomplished the goals you have for yourself."

Compared to 50 years ago, opportunities to enter production agriculture have become more challenging. As agriculture has evolved and consolidated into fewer and ever-larger businesses, so have the capital requirements.

"This doesn't mean there are no opportunities, though, to be the right-hand person for an existing farmer," says Chad Hart, an Iowa State University (ISU) ag economist who assists with ISU's Beginning Farmer Center. "Building this relationship can help you become the trusted person who can gain more opportunities."

GETTING STARTED

Hammerich encourages first-generation farmers to explore all their options, including specialty-crop or livestock production. "Find a niche that allows you to start smaller, capture more margin and grow your operation from there."

This allows beginning farmers to build financial resources and gain ownership in an ag business sooner in their careers rather than later, Hart adds. "Think of yourself as a farm entrepreneur."

In addition, don't overlook resources like ISU's Beginning Farmer Center. "We're not an employment agency, but we're here to help current farmers find the next person to operate their farm when the farmer is ready to step down," he continues.

The Beginning Farmer Center helps manage expectations as the beginning farmer and existing farmer assess their goals and determine next steps to equitably transferring the farm. "We're looking for quality matches not quantity," Hart states.

The process involves much more than the simple sale of a farm. "There's an extremely personal connection when transitioning a farm," he notes. "This is more like building a marriage than just selling a business."

The Sextons and the Hepps met with a facilitator from the ISU Beginning Farmer Center approximately one year after Hepp started working with the Sextons so they could talk about various aspects of the transition process.

If there's no local beginning farmer center, Hart recommends checking into beginning-farmer programs from university Extension, Farm Bureau or other groups. "Also, approach your state ag department to see what tax credits and loan programs are available to beginning farmers."

TIPS TO PURSUE A FARMING CAREER

James Hepp, who earned his ag business degree in 2013 from Northwest Missouri State University, has relied on five principles when seeking his farming dream:

1. Promote clear communication. Through his crop insurance business, Hepp has met many great people, including some who have become his mentors. "By listening carefully to customers' needs, I've been able to help them, plus I've picked up tons of great advice that benefits me on the farm."

2. Adopt a can-do, positive attitude. "When markets go down, it's easy to get negative, and that negativity can spread like a disease," Hepp says. "It's important to focus on a 'can-do' spirit not a 'can-not' attitude. I just do the best I can every day and trust that things will take care of themselves."

3. Collaborate. Hepp earned his first dollar by helping in his dad's auto repair shop and tow truck service. He learned the importance of working together for a common goal. He gained a deeper appreciation for the power of teamwork through his sales internships in college, his role as a 911 dispatcher at the Calhoun County Sheriff's Department and his volunteer work with the Rockwell City Fire Department, the Calhoun County Farm Bureau (where he serves as president of the board of directors) and other organizations.

He's also glad that his wife, Paige, is on Team Hepp, which includes their infant son, Karsten. "I don't know if I could do all this if Paige weren't so supportive," says Hepp, whose wife grew up on a farm near Treynor, Iowa.

4. Adapt. Not many people in Hepp's age bracket are farming today. "Poor prices scared off many who weren't 100% committed," Hepp notes. "Adaptability has helped me stay involved in production ag." Questioning is also key. "I see so many people just blindly following along without really understanding why they're doing something," he adds. "Ask questions so you're clear on the decisions you make."

5. Embrace grit. Persistence and passion define grit, which is reflected in Hepp's love of the land, his focus on conservation and his goal to build a successful ag career in rural Iowa without having to move to the city like most of his high school classmates. "I'm confident there will be lots of opportunities to grow my career and my farming operation. The sky's the limit."

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Beginning Farmer Resources

-- https://www.extension.iastate.edu/…

-- https://www.gotfarmland.org/…

-- https://www.fsa.usda.gov/…

-- https://www.findafarmer.net/…

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