For aspiring young farmers, often times the only thing standing in the way of them and their dreams of farming on their own is a chance. Starting a farm is tough. It’s tough if you are starting with help from your family and it’s even tougher to start from scratch on your own. Farming is a game of scale which means that your best chance of surviving and thriving is to accumulate a large enough land base to realize machinery, labor and overhead efficiencies. Therein lies the problem for many young farmers. A question that seems to get asked a lot is, “How can I pick up more land?” The answer is surprisingly simple though it’s often not what they want to hear...Be so good they can’t ignore you.
The actor and comedian Steve Martin appeared on the Charlie Rose show in 2007 and was asked to give advice to aspiring young performers.
"Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it's not the answer they wanted to hear," Martin said. "What they want to hear is ‘Here's how you get an agent, here's how you write a script,' . . . but I always say, ‘Be so good they can't ignore you.' If somebody's thinking, ‘How can I be really good?' people are going to come to you."
Often times people seek easy answers or even the smart way out when the truth is that patience, perseverance and taking pride in your work is the clear path for opening up future opportunities.
There are multiple paths to getting started in farming. The easiest way is to marry an established farmer’s daughter and go from there. However, this post is not about the easy way. Head on over to FarmersOnly.com if you’re more interested in that route. However, if you’re willing to put in the work and have a long-term outlook then read on.
So to answer Steve Martin’s question, “How can I be really good?”, let’s explore a few different scenarios.
You’re a beginning farmer who has a little land but not as much as you ultimately will need to scale: To be really good, just be really good on a small scale. It sounds so simple but it’s the little things that will get you noticed. I know a farmer who started from nothing and went on to rent upwards of 6,000 acres without ever approaching a landowner first. His secret? “I always kept the land really clean, whether it was ditchbanks or the dirt roads or just making sure all the fields were weed free.” He went on to explain that what got people in town talking about him was his super clean fields in the middle of neighbors who had given up on pigweed and let them take over fields. His clean fields were his best advertising. If you do a really good job, people will take notice. Someone is going to have to farm the land when all the other farmers around you retire and it might as well be you.
You’re working for your family and are ready to have some skin in the game: In a recent poll, 97.8% of farmers who at one time worked for their father felt like their ideas weren’t taken seriously. Just kidding...I totally made that number up. We all know that the true answer is closer to 100%. The reality is that it’s hard to influence change on the farm as a young person. And unfortunately, when you don’t feel like you have influence and you don’t have any of your own land to make decisions on, you can feel trapped. And when you get trapped, there’s only two options: Get out (meaning leave the family farm) or get good. Really good. What’s really good in this instance? Howabout, “Create So Much Value, They Can’t Ignore You”. Oh they don’t let you have much responsibility? Start small. Those coulters your dad buys four times a year from the John Deere parts house can be had from Shoup during a sale for ½ the cost. Make him money there. You heard at the coffee shop that the local elevator has a one time basis deal for an additional ten cents per bushel this week. Make him money. Offer to create variable rate seeding and fertility zones from yield maps and make him money. Become so indispensable to the success of the operation that you hold all of the leverage when the time comes for you to ask for a bigger role in the management of the family farm. Chances are, if you’re as good as you think you are the answer is going to be a quick yes. And you'll deserve it.
Your family has no farming background but you have aspirations of farming on your own one day: This one is the trickiest but it is doable...perhaps more doable today than at any time in the past hundred years of farming. If you have aspirations of owning your own farm but no family connections, simply find a farmer that needs help. Farmers aren’t getting any younger and more and more children are not returning to the farm after their college education. Combine that with the transition of farm employees from laborers to technicians means that it’s likely you can add immediate value to the farm through technology alone. Find a farmer who you view as a mentor. Let them know upfront what your aspirations are and ask them to teach you. You can even find an internship. The best advice I’ve heard on seeking employment is try to work for someone you admire both professionally and personally. As you add value to the farm, chances are you will see opportunities open up. I once heard an older farmer describe what he was looking for in an employee as, “Someone who makes sure when I go to the beach on the weekends, the last thing on my mind is the farm.” Be so good that the farm owner feels comfortable leaving the farm in your hands for a week and one day you may have it for your lifetime.
Getting started in farming is tough, especially if you’re trying to do it on your own. The good news is that there will be plenty of opportunities for you in the future if that’s your career aspiration. Someone once said they’d rather be lucky than good. Well what is luck? Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Do the work. Be really good. And wait patiently for your opportunity.
As an aside, many of you who read this article will already be farming on your own or the key decision-maker in an operation. If you remember how it felt before you got your opportunity and know of someone who has career aspirations in ag, please pass along some encouragement to them.