Minding Ag's Business

When Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going

Commodity agriculture took another beating in 2016, the third year of subpar prices. But a group of 150 entrepreneurial farmers are assembled in Austin this week to brainstorm solutions and beef up their business skills. Texas A&M's TEPAP (The Program for Executive Producers) attracts mid-career operators from nearly every type of crop and livestock enterprise across Canada, the U.S. and even several Australians and South Americans most years. Attendees include icons of the potato industry, organic and conventional dairies, feedlots, sugar beet growers, strawberry and watermelon producers, California orchardists, Canadian greenhouse owners, along with garden variety corn, soybean and wheat growers.

For example, Jared Oatney of Partridge, Kansas is weighing a decision to rent farm equipment by the hour in 2017, rather than commit to a lease or purchase. Hourly rentals make more sense, he believes, given the risks that new equipment will continue to depreciate pell-mell in this economy.

"New equipment sales might pick up by 2018, but if the economy doesn't turn, it could be longer than that," he says. So Oatney spent his first breakfast at the Austin golf resort where TEPAP is held comparing outlook on equipment prices with farmers from three other states.

"I came to TEPAP to find out who has a better mousetrap," says Oatney, who owns a car dealership along with a sizable grain operation. "It can be harder to get your neighbors to share that with you, because in some cases they see you as a threat or a competitor. Here you can open up with another because we're not operating in the same area." He thrives by sharing experiences, and hopes he doesn't have to repeat someone else's failure.

Second-year student Albert Keck of Thermal, California, should have been home harvesting pecans this week, along with attending to other personal priorities. "I struggled to come back, given the timing," he says. "But one of the things that drew me here was the relationships I made with classmates last year. I didn't want to lose contact with those friends."

What's troubling Keck is that the large retailers he supplies want him to greatly expand production. He worries about the risk. If he moved to a new location to acquire the necessary acreage, it would take a decade for yields to match current levels. He's found large Corn Belt operators every bit as sophisticated as the top-tier California farmers and appreciates their input. He hopes to continue their counsel after the program ends.

Joshua Deal of Doran, Minnesota, is a former school teacher who only came back to his family's Red River Valley sugar beet and grain farm in 2013. He's hoping the business practices he's absorbing this week will help his family begin to structure a formal 5-10 year farm transition plan with his parents. The first-year class instructors have outlined the steps families need to address so they achieve a family consensus before they launch such a plan.

Weston Rosene graduated with a business degree three years ago, but he's still learning the farming ropes from his father, who runs a Beck's seed dealership and trucking firm in Monroeville, Indiana. They switched to non-GMO corn in 2015 to try to capture 30-cent to 50-cent premiums, yet have needed to go further afield as more farmers have vied for the value-added market. Getting backhauls on their trucking helps. Rosene hopes TEPAP will boost his skill set for a strategic expansion and help refine skills for managing a work force. "Hopefully it can fill the gap between college and on-the-ground experience," he says.

TEPAP aims to professionalize management on today's multi-generation, multi-operator family farms, much like Harvard Business School's weeklong short-courses train mid-level executives for corporate leadership. DTN-the Progressive Farmer offers two scholarships annually to give operators the opportunity. If you're a TEPAP grad, I'd like to hear your experiences. To find more information go to www.TEPAP.tamu.edu.

Follow Marcia Taylor on Twitter@MarciaZTaylor

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