WRITTEN BY DAN MILLER, MARCIA ZARLEY TAYLOR AND ELIZABETH WILLIAMS
Minutes after the March 31 crop report, partners in Carson & Barron Farms huddle in their Iowa conference room. These allies-eight in all, ages 23 to 62-make independent decisions and farm individual holdings.
But as a team, they operate with the clout of a 5,000- acre farm-pooling equipment, labor and skill-and extracting premium prices from the market.
Insurance companies and pension funds have long packaged land holdings as investments. This is different. “What’s different now is that it’s also happening on the operator side,” says Mike Boehlje, a Purdue University economist.
They operate under the notion that being big confers both cost-saving efficiencies and monetary rewards.
The “Bigs,” defined as farms, or groups of farms operating under a common business plan with incomes north of $500,000, control large chunks of America’s farm and ranch productivity. They compete in a highly competitive acreage race that inflates local land prices and rearranges local markets. They wield a purchasing power that commands discounts from the suppliers of equipment, seed and other inputs.
Best estimates show there are 57,000 farms with annual gross incomes of $1 million or more. Less than 3% of all farms, these million-dollar farms haul 59% of all farm sales.
to the million-dollar club the 64,000 farms earning $500,00 but less than $1 million and you have a tightly controlled farming resource of 121,000 farms making 73% of all farm sales.
The consolidation of farming might into fewer and fewer hands has been a fact since the 1930s. But consolidation may have new velocity. At the turn of this century, it took 144,000 farms to produce three-quarters of the nation’s agricultural output. Back in 1982, million-dollar farms accounted for only a quarter of u.s. ag output.
Cotton, high-value crops-fruit and vegetablesdairy, poultry, hogs and fed beef dominate the structures of million-dollar farms. A quarter of the nation’s largest farms are 5 years old or less.
There are also million-dollar grain farms. Take a look at corn: 347,000 farms produce corn. Of those, 151,000 farms grow at least $50,000 worth of corn while 62,000 farms have corn sales in excess of $50,000 and operate more than 1,000 corn acres; 29,000 farms have 2,000 acres or more of corn.
The number fluctuates, but in all there appear to be 21,000 million-dollar farms that produce at least $50,000 worth of corn for grain. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, this thin 6% slice of corn farms generates 38% of all corn sales.
Take this analysis a couple of steps farther. There are 29,000 farms, with incomes of $500,000 to $1 million that produce at least $50,000 worth of corn. They account for another 25% of corn production. In total then, 50,000 farms account for about 63% of all corn for grain sales.
These corn farms and other have purchasing muscle. That’s evident in USDA study of big farms. Operations earning more than $1 million a year produced an operating profit margin of 20%. Operating profit margin increased to 26% on farms earning $5 million a year. Nearly 80% of million-dollar farms produced a positive net farm income that year, and they posted a net worth exceeding $5.3 million-compared to a net worth of $790,000 for all farms.
Farming businesses with sales exceeding $1 million average 3,400 acres-although the specialized farms that make up more than half of this group may work much less ground. Compare that to the 281-acre average for farms earning $250,000 or less per year.
American agriculture is still a family business.
Eighty-four percent of million-dollar farms are family operated. Non-family farm operations generally have less than 10 stockholders.
Joint buying, marketing power and machinery efficiency create an $85- to $100-an-acre advantage for those who had farmed 1,000 acres solo, Carson & Barron members say of their alliance.
“My dad and grandfather started farming together in 1966, so I learned the benefits of farming in cooperation,” says Chris Barron, of Rowley, Iowa.
But this has new applications. Moe Russell, a Panora, Iowa, farm financial consultant who works with Barron sees merit in the concept for lowering machinery costs. Among his farm clients, those savings can range ftom $26 to $180 an acre.
In theory then, the efficiencies and benefits found in large farming operations perpetuate the cycle that allows big farIIls or alliances to pull additional resources into their operations. For example, one Illinois producer who works 20,000 acres is able to bank a 9-cent-per-bushel savings on storage costs because he stores his own harvest.
At times, Carson & Barron will pool its grain sales to capture lO-cent-per-bushel premiums on 100,000-bushel contracts to processors in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Large farms and alliances also can benefit by owning their own crop insurance agency ordering inputs direct or pooling grain deliveries in volume to export elevators or grain processors.
“To play [this] game, you’d need a group that could fill unit trains or buy fertilizer by the barge load,” says Danny Klinefelter, a Texas A&M economist and director of an executive education course for commercial farms.
Joe Nichols, with 18,000 acres outside Cadiz, Ky., works in the arena Klinefelter describes. It . is details, not always obvious, that supply the jet fuel for his operation. Look at his annual, $7 million equipment budget.
“We traded every motorized vehicle last year,” he says, adding he trades his Seven Springs Farms tractors and combines annually. This year he brought home seven combines and 18 tractors. “We own every bit of the equipment. We don’t rent them. We don’t lease them.
They are all on the same depreciation schedule,” he says. “It’s a wise financial investment for us and we can stay with the most up-to-date systems.” Nichols declines to provide details of his equipmentbuying program, but he assures the caller his strategy works profitably for him and his equipment dealer. Key to Nichols’ equipment strategy is the turnover. By keeping operating hours under control (if separator hours on a combine start to push 350 hours, he’ll add another combine to the effort), he claims tax benefits and commands a premium dollar at trade-in. “You have to have a good dealer to make this work,” he explains. Notice he says “dealer,” as in one. Nichols does not shop around. He has developed a beneficial relationship with a local dealership. That dealer supports his fleet and is assured a supply of highly maintained, low-hour equipll1ent~ Right-sizing equipment makes sense to Bob Craven, director of the Univers~tf of Minnesota’s Center for Farm Financial Management. The 2,400 farm records he tracks in Minnesota show that farms in the 2,000- to 5,000- acre category spend about $255 per acre for machinery investment, versus $382 per acre for farms in the 250- to 500-acre category.
But studies of farm financial records in Minnesota and Illinois show grain operations hit maximum equipment efficiency at 1,200 to 1,500 acres. Craven thinks larger operations lose some advantages once they hire labor and bring on all of its added costs. Nichols might argue with that. “The last thing we focus on is ‘investment per acre, or our [equipment] cost per acre,” he says. Rather, he maintains an equipment line that gives him the ability to capture opportunity-and 2 million bushels of storage capacity.
At its most basic level, Nichols’ marketing strategy is simple: Time equals money. He loathes missed opportunities simply because his semi driver is out planting, for instance. To that end, he employs drivers to deliver grain into those brief moments when the markets offer unexpected profits.
“If I’m planting corn and the market wants corn, I want to be equipped to move corn and plant corn at the same time,” Nichols says. “If [other farmers] are planting, I can deliver more loads to the elevator because no one is there.” That capability may cut his corn delivery costs by 21h hours per day. “On a cost-per-bushelper- day [basis], driver costs start to fall.” Nichols’ grainhandling system is designed to strike quickly. It load out a semi in seven minutes. On one day last fall Nichols’ drivers dumped 72 loads of corn.
Terry Jones and his wife, Susie, started farming in 1983 with only 92 acres of.com in Williamsburg, Iowa. From that humble beginning-in a highly competitive area of eastern Iowa-the Joneses, along with Terry’S brother Eric and Eric’s wife, Kathy, have grown their operation to several thousand acres, a grain elevator business, a consulting business and land investments in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Brazil.
“Every decision we make we look at the return on investment,” Terry explains. “We don’t necessarily have the lowest COSt on equipment, but timeliness is extremely important to us and our landowners.” The farm recognizes opportunity-contrarian instincts help. Here are some of the farm’s plays.
After watching cattle feeders lose money in 1994 and 1995, Terry and Eric moved into the cattle feeding business. “We bought bred heifers for $600 to $650 and built a cow herd. We fed a lot of cattle and built up equity.” In 2003, the Joneses cashed in that equity and exited the cattle business.
Terry had four semi trucks that mostly sat around.
After buying an elevator, they commercially licensed those trucks and three more. “Our elevator picks up the corn. So”a farmer can sell us 10,000 bushels or 50,000 bushels and we’ll send three or four trucks and be done in one day,” explains Terry.
Terry expects improving corn genetics will expand the size of the Corn Belt. “I think the fringe areas like Oklahoma and Nebraska will see the biggest bang from drought-resistanthybrids,” he predicts. Terry bought land in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The Arlington, Ky., family operation in which Darren Grogan farms is fine-tuning a strategy to “discover” unrecognized value in land. The family does it in part by putting water onto their ground and by removing excess water from it. The Grogan’s run 5,500 acres of corn and 11,000 acres total.
To bring a good return on that investment-and that marketing opportunity-the family has invested heavily in irrigation, with more than 1,000 acres under center pivots and more being added.
They do it, Grogan explains, because the farm can only be as good as the number of 180-bushel acres harvested. In other words, irrigated ground produces 240 or more bushels to the acre. But Grogan’s dryland corn fields yield about 180 bushels. Those dryland fields limit the farm’s potential.
“[The irrigation] is not for free,” Grogan says of the substantial investment. “But it does give us a management tool.” More interesting is the strategy the Grogans deploy to remove water from ground newly added to the farm. They aggressively tile these new purchases with the farm’s own tiling machine.
“Tiling land that needs to be tiled will make more corn,” Grogan says. “We can see 100% yield increases.” Essentially, tiling reveals a yield potential not apparent at the time of purchase. It also allows them to plant their corn up to a month earlier.
“You need to look at the final product-find value” no one else saw, Grogan says.
Family Farms LLC, organized by AgriSolutions founder Allen Lash of Brighton, Ill., is experimenting with a business model-a kind of big-farm strategy on steroids.
Family Farms aligns large farms in a kind of consortiUm. Some members farm 10,000 acres and more. But many believed their operations had hit a ceiling. “They were big but they weren’t growing and they couldn’t figure out why,” Lash says.
With coaching from Lash’s group, Family Fanus members analyze their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and write business plans incorporating the findings. They draft standardized operating procedures. Members commit to training and education programs, three weeks in year one and two weeks annually thereafter.
Lash’s Family Farms organization requires members to pay a fee to join and adopt his accounting system.
Some reveal they must be willing to double or triple the size of their personal operations, build grain storage, keep a sizable amount of working capital on hand and clear their public comments through a public relations firm. The Family Farms arrangement has not been without controversy. “It works in Argentina and Brazil because there’s no local backlash,” observes Texas A&M’s Klinefelter. “Here, someone with 10,000 acres or more is viewed as a predator because he’s taking away land from local farmers.”