On an afternoon in May, a group tours a Wisconsin farm, learning about producing biofuel from soybeans, canola and sorghum. At a pasture walk near Giard, Iowa, individuals learn about rotational grazing, pasture improvements, subdivisions, and watering systems over rough and rolling terrain. In Dubuque, Iowa, the Four-State Dairy Nutrition and Management conference covers adjusting ration starch concentration, corn snaplage and shredlage, pricing homegrown and purchased forages, recycled manure solids for bedding, economics of robotic milking and evaluating farm feeding programs.
While your father might recognize the complexities, technologies and possibilities of today’s farming business, your grandfather likely would not.
From the avocado groves of California, to the rolling wheat fields of Kansas and through mile after mile of cornfields in the upper Midwest, farming isn’t for the faint of heart, and rookies better learn fast if they want to stay in business long.
Farming has long been viewed as a traditional activity in which practices are passed down from generations of families husbanding the land. But with today’s air and water quality regulations, changes in fertilizers and seeds, and the economies of scale necessary to raise enough animals and crops to make a living, how do farmers keep up?
Some choose to attend college to study agriculture. Not everyone has the inclination to take the general education coursework required for a bachelor’s degree. The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides an alternative known as the Farm and Industry Short Course. These courses are billed as affordable, concentrated, hands-on ways to prepare for careers in agribusiness or to bring back to the farm new knowledge to “improve crops, cattle and the farm’s bottom line.” Courses run from November to March so students are back on the farm in time for planting. Their courses in agriculture are Crops and Soil Management, Dairy Farm Management, Farm Mechanics, Farm Service & Supply, Landscaping Industry, Meat Animals, Pasture-Based Dairy and Livestock.
The short courses are tailored to fit in to Wisconsin’s specific farming practices. Wisconsin's top five agricultural products are dairy products, beef cattle and calves, corn for grain, greenhouse and nursery products, and soybeans. Dairy farming provides the leading agricultural activity in Wisconsin.
Rick Roden, who with his parents runs Bob-N-Cin Farm, has taken several of these short courses. Though his family has farmed their land north of Milwaukee since 1995, they’ve raised crops and dairy cows as a family business for generations in another location in eastern Wisconsin. Currently they have around 400 dairy cows and crop about 2,000 acres. Although Roden works closely with his father and others on the farm, he felt the best way to learn the scientific skills of farming was through several UW-Madison short courses. He felt better equipped to face technical challenges, such as maintaining water quality. Even for a relatively small operation like his, runoff from pastures and fields that might enter streams is monitored by county officials. They then provide technical assistance to Roden for improvements.
Roden’s formal education has been enhanced by attending agricultural expos to learn about new products. That’s where his father Bob Roden learned about the Bedding Recovery Unit (BRU) which composts manure and recovers undigested straw to be used in bedding for the dairy cows that provide the raw materials. The manufacturer says the BRU lets dairy farmers reclaim more than 25 cubic yards per day of bedding material. The machine separates, dries and treats the fibers in an aerobic process, resulting in a “self-contained cycle on the farm that reduces manure management costs” and is said to improve cow comfort.
Another Wisconsin dairy farmer, Jason Vorpahl, operates Vorpahl Farm near Milwaukee. This is a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) milking 1,300 dairy cows. Their primary customer is a nearby cheese producer. CAFOs can potentially produce a significant amount of waste, so they are overseen by state, rather than county, regulators. Agricultural specialists from the Wisconsin Division of Natural Resources help Vorpahl comply with regulations that CAFOs be “zero discharge” operations. That means no water that has come in contact with manure or even feed is discharged into streams. Vorpahl said he wanted to run a large operation because the economics of doing so allow him to hire several dozen workers depending on the season. That in turn frees him from the “small-farm lifestyle” that traditionally ties a family to its farm with little break. Vorpahl said he intends to send his son, now 16, to college to study business and human resources. Then he can return to work this fifth-generation farm where spreadsheets and 1040 Schedule-F forms are nearly as important as tractors and manure spreaders.
Even farmers who do not attend college can benefit from land-grant university programs. Agricultural programs at universities share their research with counties, food producers and even consumers through Cooperative Extension. Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, consumers and others.
Andre Biscaro works for the University of California Cooperative Extension, serving Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. Although Biscaro has no farming background, he’s been in this position more than three years. “I like biology and engineering, and this job combines both,” he said. Those two disciplines might sound far removed from the world of composts and combines, but in fact, their approach to scientific theory is what is needed, especially in a state like California where a wide variety of foods are produced.
According to Biscaro, in the 1880s, 50 percent the population farmed. “Now it is less than five percent, which means that few traditions are in place anymore for people to learn from their families or from seeing what their neighbors do.” Biscaro explained how a person new to farming in California might get started. Anyone who farms with pesticides must be licensed with the Agricultural Commission. To do that, they must take a series of training courses and earn a certain number of credit hours. Once that step is completed, they are ready to apply for a business license. To continue learning about farming practices, Biscaro said people might turn to cooperative extension agents, or attend conferences and seminars, or visit with people who sell products and supplies to farmers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says California leads all of the other states in farm income. California's top five agricultural products are dairy products, greenhouse and nursery products, grapes, almonds, and cattle and calves.
One California fruit farmer suggests that local county extension be a first stop for anyone new to farming. Jim Shanley of Shanley Farms went into farming as a second career after retirement from 25 years as an agriculture business executive, and “being around farmers and farming” for many years. Shanley said extension agents can help people think about what it costs to get into production, what it might cost to get water, whether a well with an electric pump will be required. Without that sort of support, Shanley said, “in essence, having no experience, you’d be doomed to failure without doing extensive research.”
Shanley got started by buying land suitable for farming. He got some help from a neighbor already in business who shared some knowledge in terms of specific farming activity. Shanley’s operation is spread over two properties. On one piece in the eastern foothills of the San Joaquin Valley, he raises oranges, lemons, avocados and kiwis. He also has property in the Morro Bay area on the Pacific coast. There he grows avocados “in the northernmost area in California where they will grow.” His technique allows the fruit to hang on the trees long after others might pick them. The result is “creamy, high fat fruit sold at premium prices” to large customers such as Whole Foods. He also grows finger limes, which he said are the “latest thing” that white-tablecloth restaurants and high-end grocers want to have. Shanley said he saw a University of California exhibition on this Australian micro-citrus fruit, which isn’t really a lime. When the tree was released by UC for commercial development, Shanley Farms purchased 600.
Shanley said there are significant financial risks for someone starting out in farming. He calculates that 10 acres of farm ground suitable for growing citrus costs around $15,000 per acre. A person can expect to spend another $10,000 on irrigation, buying trees, and various infrastructure expenses that are additional yearly costs. “Then, it’ll be another five years before you’ll see any income. If it flops, you are out five years and $350,000, and you have to start over and spend money again.”
Jim Shanley said, “Starting something new is not for everybody, especially if you are on the brink. That’s why new products are rare.”
Because Shanley’s gamble with his post-retirement vocation has paid off, he hired his daughter Megan Shanley to be in charge of marketing after she graduated from Cornell University. Her major was Applied Economics and Management, with a concentration in Agriculture. After college she worked two years for Driscoll's, a very large berry company headquartered in California. “That's where I started to pick up an interest in the marketing and sales side of agriculture,” she said.
In Kansas, a long-term and steady farm product is wheat, although farmers produce substantial amounts of corn and soybeans, according to the USDA. They also produce lots of cattle, for meat and dairy products. Chelsea Good, with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, explained that many people in agriculture “go to college and study agronomy to learn about technologies and seeds, and then bring that back to the operation.” Trade organizations and associations play a “huge role,” in particular the Kansas Wheat Association, she said. That’s the group that informs farmers about changes in regulations by providing weekly updates. They also work directly with regulators such as the EPA, Good said, as well as the state agriculture department.
Bill Spiegel works for the Kansas Wheat Association, where he is the communications director. He is also a fourth-generation Kansas farmer who went to Kansas State University. He said that for Kansas farmers new to the work or who wanted to upgrade their technical skills, there wasn’t one central agency there to serve as a resource.
“There are some things we do, like teaching tractor safety for young farm workers through the local extension office. Also there are agencies in place like the National Resources Conservation Service. Each county has one, to make sure not too much erosion is taking place in our fields, to be sure that pollution doesn’t take place.”
The NRCS is formerly the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. “NRCS experts from many disciplines come together to help landowners conserve natural resources in efficient, smart and sustainable ways,” they say. “Whether developed in a laboratory or on the land, NRCS science and technology helps landowners make the right decisions for every natural resource.”
Spiegel has experience working with the NRCS on his own rolling farmland in north-central Kansas. When there was an issue with soil erosion after heavy rains, NRCS advised Spiegel on the best way to fix his eroded ditches to prevent soil runoff.
Another issue for farmers, who operate a lot of mechanical equipment requiring fuel and oil, is the question of proper fuel storage. “There is a right way and wrong way to store fuel, and everyone wants to do the right thing,” Spiegel said. “But if something goes wrong, there really isn’t a textbook or go-to resource to consult.”
If you should happen to inherit a Kansas wheat farm but have no farming background, Spiegel said, your best bet is to start with a county extension agent. “Then contact the county farm service agency, then the seed companies who will help you identify which products are best for you, then fertilizer places.”
That Kansas wheat farm will likely be a substantial quantity of land, Spiegel pointed out. Wheat, like corn and soybeans, is a large acre-requirement commodity crop. Spiegel said farmers need substantially more land to make it profitable as compared to producing dairy or fruit. While there are changes every year in corn seeds, dry land farming methods, and so forth, the complexities will be small compared to other sorts of agriculture. “Livestock operations are much more highly regulated than grain farms,” Spiegel said.
Some support for this story was provided by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.