Too many farm operations have not prepared for the next generation to take over

guest writer Gabe Brown

A speaker at a recent conference posed this question: “How many of you have a son or daughter or relative taking over or planning to take over your operation?” Of the more than 160 in attendance, how many of do you think raised their hands?

Myself and one other. I was stunned! I had expected at least 30, and was hopeful of many more. I find it hard to believe that of the more than 120 operations represented, only two ha daughters, sons, nieces or nephews who wanted to make a living on the farm.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I realize that many children do not wish to make production agriculture their career. That is perfectly fine. Everyone should follow their dreams.

But why did only two operations have an atmosphere that was conducive to ringing youth into the business? I have spent the past month asking that question of as many operators and youth as I could and found two reasons cropping up again and again.

Generating answers

In an earlier article in Graze, I talked about the holistic management decision making process. If we use this process to answer the above question, we can arrive at some conclusions.

First, why is the farm not generating enough income? Is it due to low prices? High input costs? Or can it be that the farm is not capitalizing on opportunities for other enterprises?

As for the second reason, why is it too expensive to enter production agriculture? Or is it just too expensive to enter certain areas of production agriculture, such as grain, dairy or beef? What about other enterprises?

I believe farm profit is directly related to carbon. The more carbon we have in our soil, the greater our farm’s profit potential. On our operation we use carbon to grow perennial pastures, cover crops and cash crops, including vegetables and fruit.

We use livestock to harvest much of this production. Notice that we are not just running one livestock species. I think that multi-species grazing is a miss opportunity on many operations.

We run cow-calf pairs, stockers and grass-finished beef. These beef animals harvest primarily grasses and legumes in our environment. However there are many other plants in our paddocks – why not convert some of those into cash?

That is why we added a flock of sheep. They graze plants that are not often grazed by the beef animals. This adds income without adding to the land base.

Answering questions

We need border collies to help us move the stock and guard dogs to protect the sheep. Why not breed and sell border collies and guard dogs? There is strong demand for both.

Insects abound on our operation. Most are beneficial: for every insect pest there are 1,700 other species that are beneficial or produce neither help nor harm. Why not take advantage of the insect populations? Why not add some poultry to feed on those insects? This is why we added laying hens that we house in portable egg-mobiles (salvaged and converted stock trailers). We follow the grass-finished beeves with these egg mobiles. The layers feast on all of the fly larvae found in the dung pats, and in so doing spread those pats, thus fertilizing a larger area. The layers are happy, the beeves are happy and our pocketbook is fuller from the sale of nutrient-dense eggs.

We run our grain crop through a “quick cleaner” to glean any weed seeds and cracked kernels before we sell that grain. Why not add a pastured broiler operation to convert these screenings to cash? We take something that would be dockage at the elevator and convert it to cash in our pocket. If we pull the broiler mobiles across the pasture, they will be fertilizing as they go.

Another enterprise that fits well into our operation is pastured hogs. The sows farrow on pasture and as long as we move them frequently they are not destructive. We have many shelter belts surrounding our farmsteads. They are great places to run finishing hogs that are supplemented with the corn, peas and barley we grow, thus adding value to these crops.

As I have talked about in several previous articles, we grow a lot of cover crops. These always have flowering species in mixes. These, along with all the alfalfas, clovers and forms in our perennial pastures are producing a lot of pollen. Why not raise bees to take advantage of that opportunity? We formed a partnership with an apiary to take care of the hives, which provides our partner with great habitat for their bees and another income stream for us.

Those same cover crops and diverse perennial pastures attract a lot of wildlife. Many people are willing to spend a healthy sum of money for the opportunity to hunt that wildlife with a gun or a camera. Do not feel guilty about charging them a fee to do so, as it costs money for the cover crop seed and other habitat you are providing. When deer drop their antlers in the winter take advantage of that, too. People are willing to pay for those sheds. Why not pick them up and sell them instead of finding them in a tractor tire?

How about a vegetable garden? We are selling our grass-finished meats and eggs at the farmers market anyway, so why not vegetables? Consumers appreciate the variety of writing just one check. How about the farm orchard? Jellies, jams and pies can add value.

The labor is do-able

I know that by this time many of you are wondering just how many people are required to raise, grow and market all of these enterprises. The answer is tree full-time people and one seasonal employee: my wife, Shelly; our son, Paul; myself; and one summer employee. Since we are taking advantage of stacking enterprises that go well together, the labor to accomplish this amount of production is relatively minimal.

We are finding that the most labor-intensive part is the marketing, and are working to streamline that process with online ordering.

Direct marketing may not be for you, but don’t let that stop you from adding value to your production. Team up with an individual who has the will and desire to direct market. Use their skills to your advantage and let them sell your products for a commission. This will put more money in both your pockets.

What about logistics? Having a population of 100,000 people within 25 miles of our operation is an advantage to us. However, we are in the process of starting buying clubs in other cities up to 200 miles away. Online ordering and buying clubs will allow us to travel to these cities once per month, thus adding considerable marketing opportunities with little investment of time.

I know of one family operation that drives 700 miles one way each month to service a buying club. This one buying club accounts for more than 75 percent of their income! Distance is an issue only if you allow it to be.

We are considering many more enterprises, including pastured dairy, rabbits, turkeys and ducks. All could be raised in a pasture-based operation. We also produce compost and have had demand for it, so we plan to market more of that in the future. Paul enjoys welding and has seen demand for egg mobiles and broiler mobiles, which means another potential income stream is waiting to be tapped.

The greatest roadblock in solving a problem is the human mind. I wonder how many more young people could enter agriculture if we would just open up our minds to the opportunities available to us.

Editor’s note: Gabe Brown, a highly sought-after speaker, practices no-till farming and grass finishes beef on his family’s ranch near Bismarck, N.D. This article is reprinted with permission from In Practice, the official magazine of Holistic Management International.

Dan Grubbs

Dan Grubbs, editor of Stewardculture, lives in northwest Missouri where he is implementing and managing a permaculture-style design on his 15-acre homestead. A weekly teacher of the Bible, Dan believes that an agrarian lifestyle is one in which he can answer God's calling to steward creation through regenerative techniques that attempt to mimic God's design.

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