Q&A With Jim Farrell

After 34 years at Farmers National Company, Jim Farrell retired as its president and CEO in December 2019, and he became president of Farrell Growth Group. He has also been involved in the Federal Reserve System since 2004, and he currently serves as chairman of the board of the KC Fed. He shares reflections on his career, which has always been in agriculture, and some of his insights into the future for ag retailers. 

Describe how you got to where you are today in your career.

Like many other professionals, where I ended up was not where I initially was headed when I graduated college. At Iowa State University, my focus was on communications and journalism. 

In 1976, my dad became ill and asked me if I would come back to help with the farm. He passed away that May, and my wife and I took over the farming operation for the next 10 years raising corn, soybeans and some small grains and had a mid-sized hog operation.

The farm crisis hit starting in the late 70s with the increase in interest rates to 19.5% for my oper-ating and term loans. (I was an undercapitalized young farmer.) That was followed by a grain em-bargo, extremely wet back-to-back-to-back years and rapidly falling income. In 1986, my wife and I made the decision to leave farming. We were fortunate that we had no land debt, just operating and term machinery and livestock loans. The sale of our equipment and livestock was just enough to pay off our debts.

Farmers National Company (FNC) was purchased by Metlife in 1986, and I interviewed for a farm manager position in Rochester, Minnesota, a week before my auction. That started a 34-year career with FNC. 

Who have been your mentors?

I have been blessed with several good mentors and role models starting with my dad and his work ethic and high ethical standards. However, over the years, my brother Ron has really been my men-tor. We have consulted together on many things, and I rarely made a major career decision without visiting with him first.

What’s the best advice you’ve received? 

Evaluate alternatives, and make the best decision possible, and move forward. Don’t look back to second-guess yourself. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but always learn from them, so you don’t repeat them.

What are the greatest challenges in the next 10 years for ag retailers?

1. Commodity prices and their impact on farmers’ financial stability and buying patterns
2. Farm profitability/evaporating working capital and rapidly rising credit risk (for retailers)
3. Continued farm consolidation and its impact on retailer scale economies
4. Escalating competition and margin pressure in response to tightening demand
5. Alternative (e-commerce) buying options
6. The tight labor market  
7. Major companies dealing directly with largest farming operations

Describe your involvement at the KC Fed in the past, and tell us about your current role.

I have been involved with the federal reserve system, specifically the Kansas City 10th district bank since 2004. Initially I participated in a yearly agricultural roundtable. I was appointed to the Omaha branch bank board in 2009 and to the Kansas City main bank board in 2015 where I serve as chairman today. In many ways, I represent the interests of agriculture in the 10th district.