When it comes to success in farming, it’s all about relationships: with neighbors, landowners, tenants, family, bankers, tax professionals, USDA and extension specialists, and the larger local community. And most importantly, relationships with the land.
The relationship theme ran deep at the inaugural Emerging Farmers Forum, August 1-2, hosted by Iowa Learning Farms and southwest Iowa farmer Seth Watkins. The new Emerging Farmers project is a proactive initiative that reaches out to emerging farmers and future landowners, offering insight into integrating successful business and financial operations with conservation, caring for the land that carries deep familial and emotional ties.
Our Emerging Farmers Forum brought together seven emerging farmers from across the state, each with a unique situation and story to share. Some of the participants were actively farming with family, raising livestock and/or row crops. Others were landowners trying to discern the best ways to responsibly care for the land in their hands. From a personal perspective, we both can be considered emerging farmers, having grown up on family farms in Butler and Floyd Counties, respectively. While not involved in day-to-day operations, as future landowners we both have a desire to see the land nurtured for years to come.
The two-day Emerging Farmers Forum was packed full of information and insight, good food and fellowship, multiple farm tours on the hay rack, and a shared vision for healthy farms and vibrant rural communities, all interwoven with Watkins sharing his personal stories and experiences from his little “slice of paradise” on Pinhook Farm outside New Market, IA.
Consider our Top 5 take home points that really resonated with us throughout the forum:
1. Relationships are key. Nurturing relationships with landowners and neighbors is a big deal, and it’s all about building trust. Seemingly little things like mowing a drive or cleaning up the grounds with a weed eater can make a big difference to landowners. Relationships are key on the business end of things, also. Consult with your banker and your tax advisor/CPA – they are there to help you succeed!
“Age doesn’t matter. Relationships matter a lot.” – Seth Watkins
“Younger farmers are really proactive. It’s exciting to work with them and be a part of that journey for 30-40 years.” – Jake Jobe, Bank Iowa
2. Balance taxes and debt.
“Don’t do all of your business planning around avoiding taxes. You don’t go broke paying taxes. You only pay taxes when you’re making money.” – Frank Comito
3. Consider what business opportunities are right around you. Embrace innovation. Diversifying the operation makes smart business sense, whether that be offering custom planting/spraying services, adding a herd of goats, or embracing the agritourism trend.
“Start small. Start with what you are comfortable with and grow the innovations that work.” – Seth Watkins
“The most successful businesses come from those with passion, pursuing something they truly care about.” – Kevin Kimle, Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University
4. Conservation is a long-term investment in the land. It’s all about working in harmony with the land – strategic placement is key.
As Seth described, “Sure, I could grow corn and soybeans all over the place out here, but looking at this land, it makes most sense that it’s in perennial vegetation and grazed by cattle.” The same thing applies with prairie strips and areas of timber on his land. “I love cows, but I really love the land.”
5. Pause and enjoy. Find your happy place. For Seth, that means taking a trek out to a peaceful wetland in his pasture – water full of life (you should see the frogs!), surrounded by healthy wetland plants, abundant bird calls in the air, and adjacent to an extensive timber.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’m having, but I can come out here, hear the birds all around, take it all in, and it puts everything in perspective.”
What does it take to make it work as an emerging farmer or landowner? Passion, drive, love of the land, willingness to work, sacrifice, problem solving, and creativity were common themes that emerged. Nurturing a healthy ecosystem and vibrant communities takes every single one of us. The land is in good hands with folks like Seth Watkins and this exceptional group of emerging farmers leading the way.