Career Change

This producer's path to farming includes twists and turns, and a focus on margins per bushel rather than costs per acre.

Caleb Wilson, Progressive Farmer image by Jodi Miller

After stop-and-go attempts to plant corn on his west-central Ohio farm, Caleb Wilson called it quits on June 8.


The Manchester Farms team switched to soybeans, but the going was slow, and time was running out. That's when Caleb's father-in-law, Tim Manchester, suggested using the corn planter. At 80 feet wide, it would cover more ground but in 30-inch rows.

"It was not a decision I was excited about," Caleb says. Wider rows leave more room for weeds, and they'd have to skip some of their usual tillage. But, once the corn planter joined the soybean planter and grain drill, he knew it was the only way all of the treated soybean seed in his shop would get into the ground.


"We got a lot done in a hurry," he says.


It's Caleb's ninth spring on his wife's fifth-generation family farm and the third at its helm. He spent most of his career in commercial construction, and while managing labor, materials and equipment translates well into agriculture, this growing season has emphasized the differences.


"You can always work harder in construction. The harder you worked, the better it got, and I'm finding that that's not true in agriculture, because we're so dependent on the weather," he says.


Wilson says this growing season has left him humble, and it's taught him the best-laid plans, for crops or careers, rarely work out how you think they will.

THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER


Even though his family doesn't farm, Caleb says it's in his blood. He grew up helping his neighbor scoop horse manure and bale hay, and loved the two summers he spent detasseling corn in Iowa. College friends called him a farm boy.


He was working in construction in Florida when mutual friends introduced him to his now wife, Karen, who was visiting from Ohio.


"I had lots of nostalgia about the farm, and I liked the idea" of going back someday, Karen says. Caleb liked the idea, too.


As committed Christians, they share a passion for cross-cultural work. Caleb went to Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami to help rebuild roads and infrastructure, and Karen spent two years teaching English in the Middle East. In the years that followed, they considered different mission opportunities in countries like Turkey and Pakistan.


In 2008, the Great Recession hit the construction industry. Caleb was still employed, but the stress was mounting. Then the couple had their son.


"The year Jack was born, I turned 30," Caleb says. "Tim turned 60, and her grandpa turned 90. We said, ‘Wow, none of us are getting younger. What are we waiting for?' "


A year later, Karen and Caleb moved back to the farm.

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CHANGE OF LEADERSHIP


Tim Manchester and his wife, Martha, never pressured any of their three children to come back to the farm and thought they'd just rent it out when it was time for Tim to retire. To them, the farm was just a thing.


"I don't think we ever had the nostalgic feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, we've got to keep this in the family,' " Martha says, but they were happy when Karen and Caleb expressed interest.


Caleb helped with harvest in 2010 and started at the farm full-time in 2011. He spent the early years learning everything he could from Manchester Farms' employees, a couple of whom have been at the farm for more than a decade.


"Without them, I wouldn't be farming," he says.


As Caleb earned more responsibilities over time, they realized he and Tim approached the job with different mindsets and communication styles. So, they worked with a consultant to help the farm transition, not only from one generation to the next but from one leadership style to another.


In 2017, Tim decided to retire and allow his daughter and son-in-law to run the farm.


At first, Martha worried he'd miss it.


"I think that was easier to do than we ever thought it would be," Martha says. "God has opened doors, and he's doing things that weren't on the radar, fulfilling things," like playing trombone in the pit of a musical, volunteering in a prison ministry and going to Africa to work with farmers. Caleb says he relies on Tim's wisdom and guidance more than ever.

BUILDING ON A LEGACY


Manchester Farms primarily grows corn, soybeans and wheat now, but it's seen a lot of changes since it was founded in 1858. With a rich history as an early adopter of technology, each generation made decisions that shaped the farm as it is today.


Tim's contribution: popcorn and seed production.


Caleb is working to build on that legacy by specializing in identity-preserved crops.


"I want every bushel this farm raises to get a premium on it," he says. While that includes popcorn and seed beans, it also includes non-GMO and organic production. This year, he even planted 66 acres of malting barley, which unfortunately didn't overwinter well enough to keep.


"As the consumer has demanded more transparency in the market, we've found more opportunities to make a profit. If the market is demanding a non-GMO crop or identity-preserved crop, I'll be glad to give it to them," he says.


But, he also sees it as key to keeping the farm in business for the long-term.


There are several very large farms in the area, and it'd be an uphill battle to try to compete on cost of production.


"There is only one lowest-cost producer," Caleb says. "For me, rather than growing more volume in terms of acres, I'd rather have a larger profit margin on each bushel of production. Specialty grains are going to be my niche and enable us to continue to be profitable and sustainable."


Even though identity-preserved crops are a critical piece of his farm's long-term plans, Caleb knew he had to put some of those plans on the shelf this spring.


"We were so delayed by the weather this spring that when we finally got in the fields in June, we had humongous weeds that we couldn't control with some traited products," he says.


He called his seed supplier, who delivered 800 units of Enlist soybean seed within 24 hours. Able to kill weeds and plant in close succession, Manchester Farms wrapped up planting on June 29 with more acres of soybeans than the farm had ever grown before. Less than 10 percent of the farm went unplanted this year.


"I'm learning that you've got to be able to adapt as part of risk management," he says. "I'm not sure I'm great at it, but I'm working on it."

The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers:

Tim Manchester first grew popcorn in 1995 after being introduced to it by another attendee at The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers, a weeklong farm financial-management course better known as TEPAP.


"A lot of people don't want to mess with it, because you have to clean a lot of bins and wagons," he says. But, that didn't bother him; the higher price was worth the work.


While his farm's popcorn acres have fluctuated during the years, the lessons learned at TEPAP made such an impression that he didn't just encourage his son-in-law to attend, he wrote it into their transition plan.


His son-in-law, Caleb Wilson, earned one of the two scholarships DTN/Progressive Farmer sponsors each year to attend.


"It was hard to find time to pull away," Caleb says, adding that it's already made a difference in how he thinks about his farm's finances and management.


Mark Welch, an ag economist at Texas A&M University and TEPAP director, says the program grew out of the farm financial crisis of the 1980s, when many farmers quickly learned they knew how to grow a crop but struggled managing the financial aspects.


"I think the difference today is that farming operations have become so complex and so diversified that the degree of impact, or repercussions, of a decision can be so serious," he says. "It just heightens the degree of proficiency and professionalism we need around making decisions."


While coursework is an important part of the program, many participants learn as much from networking with their peers.


"One of the most common comments we get is, ‘Gosh, I wish I had done this 10 years ago,' " Welch says. "There's an old Chinese proverb: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.' "


TEPAP will be held in Austin, Texas, Jan. 5 through 11, 2020. Visit tepap.tamu.edu for more information.

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