View From the Cab

Kentucky Farm Value-Adds Opportunity

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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The wheat crop is looking good this spring in central Kentucky where Quint Pottinger will be reporting from this season as one of DTN's View From the Cab farmers. (Photo by Leah Pottinger)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- It's no cliche to say Quint Pottinger has an affinity for agriculture. The New Haven, Kentucky, farmer has woven the very word into the name of his business, Affinity Farms.

At 35, he's grown his farming enterprise from 50 acres of row crops to nearly 3,600 acres over the past 12 years by linking with outside investors, strategically merging acreage with family, and raising traditional grains for local specialty markets, such as distilleries. In fact, Pottinger's liking (or affinity) for the word "local" creeps into nearly every discussion.

"Our mission is to find ways to produce products that sustain both the local community and the farm," he said. "As an industry, it's time to look more at the social side of what we do and what supports the community around us."

If that sounds vague or squishy, Pottinger will be the first to admit he doesn't think inside or outside the proverbial lines or boxes. He's simply not afraid to redefine what traditional farming looks like. And he spends a lot of time thinking about how the ag industry will evolve in coming years as large numbers of landowners begin to retire and transition assets.

Rural communities were once built around agriculture as an industry. Are there ways to recognize the production efficiencies farmers have developed over the past decades and build back that rural community focus to make farmers more consistently profitable and sustainable?

Those thoughts and others will likely emerge as discussion points as DTN follows Pottinger and Affinity Farms through the feature called View From the Cab. The diary-like series explores agronomic and rural issues throughout the growing season from two different farming regions.

Also participating is Dan Lakey, who grows a dozen different crops in the southeastern portion of Idaho, near Soda Springs. This is the 20th year for the View From the Cab series which, over the years, has drilled down on the daily lives of farmers across 20 different states.

While the weather conditions, crops and farming practices may vary between these two farms, Lakey and Pottinger bring some similarities to the field. They both made deliberate decisions to return to their home farms. They are not afraid to challenge and pivot their businesses. They are both scratching to find ways to add value to what they produce while protecting the resources they use to do it.

Watch next week for Lakey's profile. Read on to learn more about Pottinger's operation in north central Kentucky.

QUINT POTTINGER: NEW HAVEN, KENTUCKY

Readers of DTN and Progressive Farmer content may recognize Quint Pottinger's name. In 2018, he was recognized as one of the America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. His wife, Leah, and her flower operation (https://www.dtnpf.com/…), were recently featured by DTN and the couple has contributed to articles, podcasts, and other editorial efforts during the past few years.

It takes a review of history to understand Quint's farming background. Colonel Samuel Pottinger settled here around 1778. He envisioned the area becoming an important shipping point for products bound for New Orleans via the Rolling Fork River, Salt River, Ohio River and the Mississippi River. Pottingers have lived and farmed here ever since.

"What's unique about our family is every generation has had to re-buy or buy the land. We've been passing land down that way for nearly 250 years," he said.

Quint grew up farming and even managed 35 acres on his own in high school. He started a farm supply business to make money in college. But he got a quick refresher course in the family's skin-in-the-game succession plan as he prepared to graduate from the University of Kentucky with a degree in agriculture economics.

"I was taking my last finals and picking up an engagement ring that night and scheduled to see my grandmother the following day. She had called and said she was ready to sell her portion of the farm and wanted me to have the first shot," he recalled.

What his grandmother also told him was she'd had the property appraised and thought it was undervalued. "I went from thinking there might be some kind of gift involved to wondering how I'd find money for a down payment and convince Leah to move to the farm," he said.

Ultimately, the young couple used a contract for deed from his grandmother's trust to purchase what was the last 80 acres (23 tillable) of an original eight square mile land grant that dates to the Revolutionary War. They rented some additional acreage from an aunt.

They first plunged into vegetable production. "That was a disaster. I quickly realized that marketing local produce in a community is very difficult in a very connected country because you're always in scrutiny of price. There's no way to hedge it either," Quint said.

The first corn crop also fell victim to drought -- he hauled in 8 bushels per acre (bpa) that year. Crop insurance indemnity payments for that crop barely covered his college loan. Soybeans caught a late rain and fared well enough to help them break even, but not enough to fend off discouragement. Then, in 2014, commodity prices plummeted.

Quint says his father, Ramey, who survived farming in the 1980s, stood by him as a valuable mentor through this rough start and continues to provide important perspective.

In 2016, father and son began talking about merging their operations. In 2017, they filed with the Securities Exchange Commission and had a valuation of the farm. They hired a firm to hunt for investors and eventually partnered with a hedge fund group in 2018.

"The operating structure is such that this is still a family farm. We held all the Class A shares and use Class B shares for fundraising," he said.

"Not only has it given us access to capital, but it has also given us a resource base of people who understand the market, the world, and the cycles. That has been immensely helpful in expanding our business," Quint said.

Key to that expansion is selling the corn, wheat and rye they grow to several local distilleries. New Haven sits amid bourbon country, an industry that may not be recession proof, but has proved its resiliency in tough times.

Again, that chance to tap into a local, more vertically integrated market is where Affinity Farm lives. "It seems to be our best option of becoming economically sustainable," Quint said. Soybeans are mostly sold to a local biodiesel facility at Owensboro and the remainder are trucked to Ohio River terminals for export. The farm is currently exploring other options to use spent grains from the local distiller's market to recycle back into the local economy.

Part of his interest in establishing even more of these connections is a fear about the current economic instability around the world and the dependence farmers have on global customers. He and Leah have spent the last decade traveling abroad to 20 countries to gain a better sense of themselves and the world around them.

"I'm a fiscal conservative by nature," he said. "I know a lot of my friends think I'm liberal because of how I think. I'm not. I'm just very much local minded.

"Take subsidies, for example. I think it's fine for government to chip in to help get things started. We take advantage of those opportunities, but they aren't supposed to be there forever. We need new businesses in rural areas that put money back into communities. Can we vertically integrate the food system and close this loop down a little bit?"

Specialty efforts take time and additional labor. Affinity Farms-labeled deer corn is sold to retailers who sell to deer hunters all over the state. It can double the profits of commodity corn, but requires cleaning, bagging, and stacking 50-lb. bags of corn onto pallets.

Ironically, deer damage wins as the farm's most difficult agronomic challenge. No weed, insect or pathogen compares when it comes to their yield-gobbling potential. "As young farmers, our biggest production challenge is always going to be access to financing, particularly in this current economic climate," he said. "But deer definitely take the prize for eating away at our profits and it is getting worse."

WATER AND WATERWAYS

This part of Kentucky averages between 39 and 44 inches of rain per year. Most of that precipitation falls between mid-April and June. Typically, showers find the area again in late July and early August. "We get a lot of moisture pumped into our region from the Gulf. It intercepts frontal boundaries from northern Canada and the Great Lakes -- it puts us geographically located in a water-rich environment," Quint said.

Those spring rains make maintaining waterways critical, he added. Field sizes tend to be small and irregularly shaped. Quint estimated average field size at 27 acres with many shaped like "kidney beans or peanuts."

"A lot of our ground is leased from retired farmers. They don't want to farm anymore, but they want to run a few cows," he said. "A lot of farms we lease are not 100% tillable and we do rent out some pasture."

No-till has reigned for some time. Cover crops (mostly cereal rye) are gaining in popularity. "We do deep rip some acres -- leaving the surface undisturbed but breaking up some of those areas showing compaction issues."

Yields are highly dependent upon rainfall since there is no irrigation. Corn yields typically range from 180 bpa to 210 bpa. Full-season soybeans will range in yield from 48 bpa to 65 bpa. Soft red winter wheat averages between 80 bpa to 105 bpa.

The ground firmed up and planting took off in mid-to-late April this spring. "We've finally cross that 500-acre planted mark. It seems like that's what it takes to get all the early season jitters out of the planter -- no matter how much maintenance we do in the off-season," he said. This year the challenge has been replacing seed tubes.

Scouting wheat and fungicide applications in wheat were also on the work order. Soft red winter wheat typically averages between 80 bpa to 105 bpa. "We could hit that upper end if it stays cool next week," Quint said. "If wheat pollinates in sub-80 degree temperatures, it really fills out."

Winter wheat is typically planted behind a corn crop. Wheat is harvested in June and those acres are planted back to soybeans. Double crop soybeans typically yield 35 bpa to 52 bpa.

The farm has moved to non-GMO corn and soybeans across the board. "It's totally a COVID story. We switched when Roundup (glyphosate) prices went through the root in 2021," Quint said. He found non-GMO seed costs were lower too -- although they have climbed slightly since.

As DTN Farm Business Editor Katie Dehlinger noted, Quint readily throws away "we've always done it this way" approaches.

"He's found a way to bring together commodity and community and creatively solve his problems, and as a result, very little of his business resembles the multi-generational, "cookie-cutter," way of doing things that you might expect," said Dehlinger.

"Most farmers wear boots, button-ups, and blazers. Quint rocks kicks (sneakers) and throws a blazer over his hoodie. He just thinks about things differently, starts with a different perspective, asks different questions. He's found a way to do it all that uniquely Quint," she said.

Pamela Smith can be reached at pamela.smith@dtn.com

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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