Seasoned Farmers Offer Top Advice for Young Growers

Illinois producers Grover Webb, left, and Jake Dunning check planting progress in Pope County. ( Photo by Chris Bennett )

Wise counsel weighs heavy, particularly when passed from farmers with 150-plus years of combined experience. What advice should young growers take into account in 2020? Three seasoned producers offer perspective from Illinois, Kansas and Minnesota.

Grover Webb, Illinois

Grover Webb, 73, owns and runs Tanglefoot Ranch on 950 acres, along with his brother, Richard, in southern Illinois’ Pope County. He grows 500 acres of corn and soybeans, in addition to two hoop houses of specialty produce, 300 peach trees, shrimp production and 70 head of cattle.

“The first thing a young farmer needs to do is find somebody that he respects and trusts, and seek advice,” Webb says. “Listen and keep an open mind. Then gather the facts, weigh the advice, act, and don’t procrastinate. After you’ve done all of that, take personal responsibility for the consequences of your decision.”

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“Never, never stop trying to gain knowledge,” Webb continues. “Also, you can’t start farming without borrowing money, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spend the money wisely. Another thing: Make the effort to get involved in local politics, and go meet your county commissioners and state congressmen. Last, we’ve got enough problems in agriculture without producers fighting each other: Always pull for all for all segments of agriculture and that’s very important.”

(For more on Webb, see Shrimp Farmer Hits Homerun in the Heartland)

Kent Winter, Kansas

Kent Winter, 65, grows 1,500 acres of alfalfa, corn, grain sorghum, soybeans and wheat in Sedgwick County, Kansas, roughly 20 miles northwest of Wichita. In no order of significance, he emphasizes five pieces of advice for young farmers.

“First, reevaluate crop production expenses with a trusted advisor or agronomist to see if you can cut costs without losing effectiveness, because it’s so important to get the right stuff on without cutting the wrong corners. Second, consider grid soil sampling to bring precision nutrient application into your operation to maximize your fertilizer dollar,” Winter says.

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“Third, maintain crop diversity and rotation to manage risk and enhance yields. Fourth, do whatever you can to pursue pathways to enhance your marketing skills. Fifth, keep a very close watch on safety net tools available through crop insurance and your FSA office.”

(For more on Winter, see Big Yields, Tiny Aphids in Crosshairs)

Jim Nichols, Minnesota

Jim Nichols, 72, works a 600-plus acre operation in southwest Minnesota, a mile from the South Dakota border, with 500 acres in corn and soybeans, 100 acres in pasture, and a tiny remainder in CRP.

“Do the cold, hard math,” Nichols advises. “Calculate out what it’s going to cost you to plant and harvest, and what you can sell for. Personally, I don’t see prices changing much anytime soon, and I forward contract a lot of my crop. Use honest numbers because nothing pays out right now. The math doesn’t work on rented land, although ownership changes the equation.”

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“The unknown is how much you’ll get from the federal government. Sometimes, a third of our income comes from the taxpayers and that’s just ugly reality,” Nichols adds. “You have to realize the time we’re in and prepare, and break-even may be the best outcome for some guys. It’s a real gamble and it’s not right to sugarcoat how tough things are at this point in farming.”

(For more on Nichols, see Corn’s Carbon Cowboy Busts Outstanding Yields)

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