DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Luke Garrabrant calls himself a beginning farmer.
He can document his family's agricultural roots in east-central Ohio as far back as 1840 and across a minimum of three farming generations. But multi-generational farming titles don't really fit when you branch out as an independent operator.
He's hardly a beginner either -- Garrabrant rented his first land and machinery at age 13. Now 25, he has expanded operations to 700 acres of owned and leased ground where he grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. He tends a small beef herd that is sold as freezer beef. He owns and operates a poultry litter spreading business and also does some custom spraying.
DTN readers will have a chance to learn more about how Garrabrant is building a future in agriculture and negotiating the 2022 season through a feature called View From the Cab. The series follows two geographically different farming operations throughout the growing season.
Also participating in the project will be Marc Arnusch from Keenesburg, Colorado. Farming in the arid west should provide an interesting contrast to Garrabrant's current cool and soggy Midwest situation.
However, both farmers face similar challenges as urban and industrial interests compete for land. Both farmers are attempting to add value by looking beyond traditional commodity markets. Both are so passionate about agriculture that they have scrapped and scraped to gain a foothold in an industry where it is notoriously tough to build from the ground up.
Find the profile on Arnusch here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Garrabrant didn't just dream of growing up to be a farmer, he lived it.
In his early teens, he rented his first 20 acres from his grandmother and farmed it by leasing equipment from his father. "I was hooked even more so than I was before. I remained steady at that size until my senior year of high school in 2014.
"Then, I stumbled onto a Craigslist ad for a nearly 200-acre farm 10 minutes from home, and I ended up getting it leased. Things started to grow from there," he said. He acquired his first operating note at age 17.
Garrabrant went on to attend The Ohio State's Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster and earned an Associate of Applied Science Degree in crop production in 2016. After college, he returned home to work with his father, Tom Garrabrant, while continuing to farm his own rented land by leasing Dad's machinery.
"I left college ready to conquer the world. Dad was, and still is, in the prime of his career," Garrabrant said.
The chance to buy 66 acres came along. In 2018, he also purchased the home where his great grandparents lived and farmed, and his grandmother was born and raised.
In 2019, he started a farm services business that specializes in selling and applying chicken litter and custom crop spraying. Finally, he made the decision to step away from the home farm and pursue his own farming dreams, which also required that he acquire a line of machinery.
IRONS IN THE FIRE
Included in that whirlwind of life changes has been the marriage to wife, Paige, and the birth of daughter, Gracen. Paige is a full-time water quality research associate for The Ohio State University Extension and is also involved in the farm businesses. "Whether she's running equipment or soil sampling or taking care of things at home, her assistance is huge," Garrabrant said.
"We have a lot of irons in the fire," he admitted. This year he hired additional labor to help in the field and a separate, part-time mechanic. "I realized parts of the business were starting to suffer because there wasn't enough of me for everything to get the attention it needs," Garrabrant said.
Delegating tasks is paying dividends, he noted. "We went into spring with the machinery in the best shape it has ever been," he noted. This year that seems particularly prudent as breakdowns aren't what you want when weather is compressing the season. There's also the current issue of questionable parts availability.
"Having help is giving me a different perspective," he admitted. "Communication, training, balancing work/life with them, respecting their time and just learning to loosen the grip on the control of every task and learning to trust are a few of the things I've had to learn."
"Implementing management skills are important in my small operation now, and I'd like to continue to grow," he added.
Turning over the reins of the tractor and spreader was hard at first, he said. He'd been the only person to operate the rig since purchasing it in 2019. "It was like letting my baby go or watching a newly licensed teenager drive off for the first time.
"I trust my guy 100%, and that made the handoff a little easier. It was also interesting to watch as a spectator -- to see something you've worked your butt off to own do the work," he said.
Garrabrant Farm Services LLC started as a business idea for a couple thousand acres locally but has grown quickly to encompass selling and spreading litter across several counties.
That farm service business has also helped underpin his farming enterprise, which he'd like to continue to grow. Finding landowners willing to take a chance on a young operator can be frustrating at times, though, he admitted.
His planter isn't new, for example, but the 1994 model has all the latest precision technology bells and whistles of one that is. "I have all the tools of a larger operator and can do the same job and can pay competitive rental rates. I'm motivated to do well to prove myself. I just need the chance, and that's harder to get than you might think sometimes," he said.
He's realized too that he may have to look further afield for those opportunities. "Until recently, I had a very optimistic outlook on being able to continue to grow the operation in the area where my family roots are established," Garrabrant said. "But I've become worried about what the future holds here."
Johnstown sits about 35 minutes from Columbus. It used to be something of a sleepy suburb of the state capital, but the addition of corporate giants such as Amazon have pushed populations high enough that it is now considered a city. The announcement earlier this year that Intel would be building a semiconductor microchip facility in the area is further amplifying the situation.
"We've recently been referred to as the Silicon Valley in the heartland. I've never been to the actual Silicon Valley, so I'm not sure what all that means or brings with it. But what I am sure of is it is changing the landscape here." Add a proposed new solar farm to the land squeeze too.
Garrabrant's current farming acreage is stretched across Licking, Knox and Delaware counties -- a span of about 30 miles. Climate and weather are like much of the Corn Belt. "We have fairly cold winters, and planting typically begins in late April through mid-to-late May. Fall harvest starts near the end of September.
"We don't irrigate. In fact, we install a lot of drain tile to better manage the water table and so we can complete field work in a timely manner," he said. "Fields can be 25 acres in size where I live in Licking County, but five miles northeast, lie flat fields of 100 to 200 acres."
USDA NASS pegged 2021 corn yields at 201.6 bushels per acre (bpa) for Delaware County to 179.8 bpa for Licking County, with Knox smack in the middle at 185.6 bpa. Soybean yields ranged from 58.6 bpa to 53.1 bpa between the three counties.
"People here jokingly say the Corn Belt ends about five miles east of us where State Route 13 runs north and south. When you hit that road, everyone says you are no longer the Corn Belt," he said.
Corn and soybeans are the mainstay crops, but Garrabrant has built a good market for small square bales of quality hay for the equestrian market.
Wheat gets added into the rotation mostly on acres destined to be put into orchardgrass or alfalfa. "We have the best luck getting hay established in the fall following wheat. We bale the (wheat) straw and wait about three weeks before seeding in August," he said. Double-crop soybeans are a possibility if the wheat comes off early and weather stacks up right.
The beef cattle business is a sort-of hobby as well as an emotional connection to his mother, Lori, who loved cattle. She died of cancer in 2009 when Garrabrant was 13.
The farm currently runs nine mother cows and a bull. Calves start arriving in April and are fattened to 1,200 to 1,400 pounds to be sold as freezer beef.
"We aren't allowed to sell processed meat to the consumer, but we are able to sell the animal to the consumer and help coordinate the processing," he said. "The cattle also help us use up any hay that isn't of the quality needed for the equestrian market."
SLOW, BUT BUSY SPRING
The weather so far this spring has been a little cool, but Garrabrant is not complaining -- yet.
"Our biggest challenge is getting the right conditions to plant," he said. "We farm some high clay soils that really retain moisture. Getting the ground to dry out enough to be fit to plant is something we struggle with -- although we are trying to do more and more tiling and drainage work to address those issues."
Soil temperatures finally reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit last week, and a few planters have rolled already, he reported. So far, Garrabrant has concentrated on early burndown spraying -- giant ragweed and marestail can be real troublemakers here if allowed to get an early foothold.
"In recent years, it has worked out to once I complete my work for others, my own ground is fit to plant," he said. "I farm some pretty good ground, and I farm some ground that is very tough and will make a person humble.
"Fortunately, having help to run a spreading crew and keeping me on the sprayer is going to pay off with our smaller window to get field work done this spring," he said.
He points out that he may have walked his own path, but his father is a manure and spraying customer. Father and son still swap help when needed.
"I'm excited to tell my story as a young farmer and get perspectives from others on what has and hasn't worked for them. I hope others take away that there isn't one way to go about this business of farming. Being flexible and open to learning is huge," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.firstname.lastname@example.org
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