Farm Managers of the Year: Plans To Succeed And For Succession

Continuity during change is a goal at Hatley/Cobb Farmland Management. That’s true for both their business and their clients.

“We are on the third generation with some of our clients, and over time, we’ve wanted every one of them to know that we are rooted in agriculture, and we want to take care of their needs in the future,” says Allen Hatley.

The partnership Hatley/Cobb is based in Spokane, Wash., and Hatley and Tim Cobb have been named the 2017 Farm Managers of the Year. The business started in 1993 as Sharp & Hatley, but it was renamed after John Sharp retired and Cobb entered the business in 2011.

Today, 80% of the company’s portfolio is in Washington, but it also serves other acreage in Oregon and Idaho. The firm manages more than 100,000 acres and works with 75 clients. It specializes in farm-lease agreements, custom farming operations, grain and crop marketing, farm appraisals and long-term farm planning. 

Both farm managers are graduates of Washington State University and say the firm’s partners are required to have been raised on a farm.

“When we meet a new client, we always tell them our story, and it starts with our farming backgrounds,” Cobb says. “Our job is to relay the challenges of farming to the absentee landlord who may not understand the circumstances. We can provide assurance in a literal way so that the landowner knows someone who has been there before.”

Hatley/Cobb Farm Manager of The Year

Geography Yields Diversity. Farming in the Pacific Northwest brings a unique set of challenges and opportunities. The crops are diverse, and the geographic spread is far.

“Our cropping patterns and rotation vary within just 10 miles,” Hatley says. “Our clients are so diverse. Every client has different needs and demands.”

As Cobb explains, they put in a lot of miles to build their book of business. And the variance in their portfolio demands that they stay up to date and sharp on a variety of production practices.

“Our topographies, soil types and moisture levels vary greatly. We have to have working knowledge of yields, budgets and rent,” he says. “We have ground worth $500 per acre that we use to raise a small grain crop every other year, and then we have ground worth $50,000 an acre that grows the best fresh vegetables in the country.” 

Coupling ag knowledge with a focus on relationships, the firm has had a 100% retention rate in the past three years.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and the common theme is that this business has to do with relationships. And if the time comes to sell a farm, we can provide a pool of clientele and options so that when someone makes a decision, we can provide a known option. In that, we can continue to help manage the land. It provides continuity,” Hatley says.

Continuity is an important theme for the farm management firm in its succession planning. Cobb’s entrance marks a gradual but intentional departure for Hatley. In the transition, the two continue to build the business by playing to each other’s strengths.

“When we go to meetings, I bring a legal pad, and Tim brings an iPad,” Hatley says.

While Cobb looks to Hatley to provide background and insights from previous experience, Hatley has seen Cobb bring new technology and efficiency practices to the business.

AcreTrac is a proprietary farm management software platform that Cobb developed to be accessible on a desktop, tablet or smartphone. It tracks leases, production activity, insurance, tax payment activity, photos and more to be a property management software specifically developed for farm management.

“Clients want more touches, and we’ve created a portal attached with AcreTrac,” Cobb explains. “So eventually, this will speed the effectiveness of communication with clients while creating more transparency to the day-to-day management of the farmland.”

Cobb reflects that when he joined the business, he was asked to streamline processes for time and efficiency savings.

“Business today is a lot different than even when I started in 2011. And it’s not because I’m super techy that I think these are important tools. There are a lot of time-saving opportunities,” Cobb says.

Using new technology and being rooted in their business principles, the partners have evolved with change. 

“New management clients don’t come into our office every day, but when they come, they stay,” Hatley says. “And once they find us, they say, ‘Now we don’t have to sell the farm. We can keep it.’ And that is what our business is about—perpetuating the land’s legacy through high-quality farm management.”

The partners have been active in ASFMRA and are both Accredited Farm Managers. Cobb is the president-elect of the Washington ASFMRA chapter. Hatley is a past president of the chapter and has moved through all of the chairs on a local level more than once.

Sponsored by AgPro, ASFMRA and Syngenta, the Farm Manager of the Year Award has recognized professionals for 31 years. To watch a video honoring Allen Hatley and Tim Cobb, visit http://www.syngenta-us.com/farm-management/farm-manager-of-the-year.aspx.

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