By Jenny Burgess, CommonGround Kansas volunteer farmer
Jenny and her husband are first-generation farmers. You can find them raising wheat, corn and grain sorghum with their two children around Sterling, Kansas.
To farm today requires guts and money. It takes capital to get land and equipment. Then, farmers pay for inputs like seed and fertilizer upfront, and we accept the market price when the crop is ready to harvest. In fact, that price can be lower than what it costs to grow the crop.
On the other hand, the average bakery (that uses flour made from our wheat) can always just charge more for a muffin if the price of rent, butter or sugar goes up.
The inability to set our final market price, and sometimes operating at a loss, makes it challenging to stay afloat. In addition to market forces, we also risk the business impacts of weather. A storm can bring timely rains or flood your entire field. All this can create extra strain on the business — and the family running it.
As new farmers, we’re acutely aware of our profit margin. My family hasn’t accumulated acres of land with each passing generation — but someone is always the first. That’s why we rely on proven agricultural techniques to make our farm as profitable as possible.
We were presented with an opportunity to lease farm ground shortly after getting married. My husband is an immigrant from England, and I’m from a family of hobby farmers. My parents both held down full-time jobs, and we used antique tractors to harvest our hay.
My husband and I knew enough about farming to realize we’d be operating on a tight budget. On the other hand, we’d be our own bosses. We’d be partners in family and farming.
I like to say we started with a borrowed pickup truck and zero dollars, and now we own the pickup truck and have zero dollars. Most often, farming pays in assets rather than cash, and assets are only worth something if you’re willing to sell them. On the other hand, not owning the pickup truck means we can’t drive to our fields or drop off our kids at school.
Our children see the value of money firsthand. They see the actual sweat (and sometimes tears) that goes into our farming business. There is a clear difference between want and need. My husband and I hope these lessons carry on into adulthood.
Like most businesses, we have a budget we adhere to. The budget affects our farm and family life. In farming, the “income” side of our budget happens once a year at harvest. In other businesses, there may be a steady stream of income from year-round customers. For farmers, harvest is a one-time sale. Then, you see how much money is left to live on.
Proven to work
When we invest, it’s got to work. For example, we introduced cover crops to help reduce weed pressure and wind erosion of the topsoil. We still incorporate regular tillage, but it’s not like the deep plows shown in history books.
We’ve tried other technologies too. We experimented with no-till farming — where the straw and plant matter is left in the field after harvest. This method can be great for increasing natural organic matter in soil, but it also required more herbicides. High chemical costs made no-till the wrong fit for most of our fields.
As first-generation farmers, we can’t be early adopters of all technology. We just want the right kind. We evaluate research on each seed, piece of equipment, fertilizer and herbicide. We’re looking for technology and improved methods that can help make our land productive today and for future generations. Yes, we want a profit this year. Yet, we also want to protect our most important long-term asset: the land.
Despite the challenges, farmers are an optimistic bunch. Like life, farming throws everything at you. Our love for the family business keeps us going.