Commodity prices are down. Input costs are up. Exports are down. Livestock prices are down. Even the new kid on the block, ethanol, is on the ropes with bankruptcies and plant sales. Not the scenario where most people want to call a client and recommend they invest in improvements on the cropland they own.



However, farm managers are not most people. They bring long-term perspective to their roles as managers and advisors. Sometimes, such as this past fall, that perspective can be hard to maintain, noted George Baird, Land Management Group, LLC, Collierville, Tenn. He recalls clients, many of them older, sitting around watching the media report on the economy and being paralyzed by what they saw.



"I have to admit that I started to get caught up in it myself this past December," said Baird. "Then I thought about where we were a few years earlier, where we were in December and where we could go. I got very optimistic. Even though beans had pulled back from $15 to $9 and corn from $8 to $4, that was still 100 percent better than just a few years ago."



Baird realized he had to share that enthusiasm with his clients; so, he put together a report to clients, reviewing prices and costs in 2002 with 2005 and 2008. It was the information that he knew his clients needed in order to be reassured about their long-term investments. Communicating information is Baird's stock in trade, whether working with new prospects or with long established clients.



"Communication is usually what is missing between a landowner and a tenant farmer," said Baird. "What we do is to try to bridge the gap. We work with the client on how to embrace technology going forward and maximize their opportunities with their investment. Whether the property was handed down within the family or bought for a specific investment, we work to identify the farm's full potential. That may entail land development such as leveling and irrigation. Sometimes it means developing an exit strategy if the client isn't willing to commit the time and money."



Making Lemonade From Lemons
Ironically, suggested Baird, the worst of times can be the best of times for a farm manager. In good times, people tend to let things ride. Until people realize they have a problem with a farm or are being taken advantage of, they don't realize they need help. As margins tighten up, problems become more apparent. They also create opportunity.



"I've had more opportunity to talk to clients in the past six to eight months than in the past six to eight years," he noted. "A lot of our growth comes from word of mouth and satisfied clients. Our biggest competition is people not knowing we are here to assist them in meeting goals and objectives."



Kirk Weih, Hertz Farm Management, Mount Vernon, Iowa, pointed out that gains made the past few years, combined with instability in other markets, have reinforced the value of land ownership with many of his clients. While he did see an influx of investment by pension funds and other non-traditional investors in ag land in recent years, the core of his business remains long-term landowners with a historic tie to farming. Part of his job is to help reinforce that tie and identify the tangible and in-tangible benefits that accrue from land ownership and effective management. Doing so requires a combination of communication and education that is changing as his client base changes.



"Depending on the type and age of our clients, communi-cations vary from written reports with pictures to e-mails with attachments," said Weih. "However, nothing beats the opportunity to meet with clients on the farm so they can see, touch and feel their farmland and really appreciate the investments they make in tile, waterways or conservation and how these benefit the farm."



The look and feel of reports is also evolving as new generations of clients further removed from the land take ownership. Weih noted that they are often better educated, and while heritage of the land is still important, it's only one facet to consider.



"It is often more important that the land be competitive with other investments in their portfolios," he said. "We are truly asset managers and need to provide information that allows them to compare returns on their land with their 401k and other investments."



A Shift in the Pacific Northwest
Farm management client profiles and relationships are changing in the Pacific Northwest as well, said John Mathwich, Baker Boyer Bank, Walla Walla, Wash. But, change is coming slowly, and that helps when prices soar and then crash. "Most of the clients we work with have been in ag for a while and understand there are fluctuations in the markets," he explained. "In '08, we had a great price ride and sold most of our crops for very good prices. This year we are relying heavily on crop revenue type insurance to carry us through."



Mathwich handles land held in trust by Baker Boyer Bank as well as works with private owners, absentee and resident. One of the services that attracts resident landowners is his understanding of government programs. He noted that the complexity of farm programs and the fluctuations in the ag economy have both been business builders for him. He has seen his business nearly double from 40,000 acres to about 70,000 in the past 10 years.



"We also are seeing a gradual increase in absentee landowners," said Mathwich. "We did see a real increase in outside capital looking to purchase ground early last spring and summer. They were putting together several big deals, but that all vanished by fall."



Although he indicated real challenges are ahead for his largely dryland grain production area, in the short term, Mathwich shares a sense of long-term optimism with Baird in the Midsouth and Weih in the Midwest. "Right now prices are down, and that may be an opportunity for people to get in and purchase," he said.



Keeping Things Fresh
For Weih, optimism about the core value of land and its place in a diverse investment portfolio is only enhanced by the changes he sees in technology and the new generation of farm managers he works with. For nearly half of Weih's 30 years in the business, Hertz Farm Management has hired one or two summer interns with around 40 percent of them eventually being hired by the firm. The program benefits everyone, said Weih.



"The reality is that the young people coming out of undergrad programs today have many more and different abilities from those of us with practical experience," he said. "If we can learn and benefit from each other, the client benefits tremendously. I may have 30 years experience understanding fundamentals of grain marketing and rally timing, but these young guys can pull up detailed analysis of trends through the Web and share that. The challenge for us seasoned professionals is to impart the people skills we have acquired and help these young people blend them with their technical skills."



It is those technical skills with the Web and other tools that Weih credits with continuously enhancing communications with clients. "They help us serve more clients and do so better, with more professionalism in a more informed manner and with a better understanding of their situation."



Recognizing and adapting to change is key to Baird's optimistic outlook. "We are going to see a lot of new technology introduced, a lot of new information, new crops and new markets," he said. "We need to help landowners embrace the resulting growth opportunities while helping them recognize and manage risk. I'm about as optimistic now as I've ever been. There will be bumps in the road, but we can handle those too."