The run-up in cash rents prompted two Red River Valley farmers to join forces to stay profitable. Gaylen Affield and Jared Nordick raise corn and soybeans in the rich glacial soils of ancient Lake Agassiz, along the Minnesota-North Dakota border. The Wilkin County, MN, growers also operate two successful farm-related businesses together – a Precision Planting dealership and an excavation service. After both men lost leased cropland to rising cash rents, they teamed up on their farming operations, too.
By pooling their equipment and labor, they’ve lowered their machinery costs and increased their labor efficiency, they say. Affield gets access to a full line of recent, fuel-efficient equipment, which he couldn’t afford on his 500-acre farm. Nordick gets the skilled help he needs to run his family’s 1,500-acre operation. And for Jared Nordick’s father, Gerald, the team approach lets him concentrate on his Pioneer seed customers.
“By joining forces, I think we’re doing a better job of farming,” Jared says.
“I see quite a bit of cooperationoutside family groups,” says Keith Torgerson, a farm-management instructor at North Dakota State College of Science at Wahpeton. He advises half a dozen groups of non-related farmers who work together, including Affield and the Nordicks.
Common ways that farmers team up include sharing combines and harvest labor, lifting sugar beets, and going together to buy larger planters, he says. “They might go from a 12-row to a 24-row planter. They get the newer technology, they can finish planting quicker, and they free up a man to do digging or other tasks.”
In fact, Torgerson adds, “A lot of equipment sharing is done just as much for labor efficiency as for equipment efficiency.” Skilled labor is a critical need for farms he calls “’tweeners” – mid-sized operations that are too large for one farmer working alone, but not big enough to employ full time help.
Working with another professional farmer can be a good way to solve this labor crunch, and get reliable, experienced help, too, Torgerson says. “These days, a screw-up can cost a lot of money.”
Gaylen Affield and Gerald Nordick, both 61, have been friends since high school. Gaylen helped Gerald occasionally at harvest, and “we talked about joining forces back in the 1980s and again in the 1990s,” Gaylen says, but the circumstances were never quite right.
In the winter of 2000, Gerald’s son, Jared, was finishing up his college degree in farm management and looking for opportunities. For some time, the Nordicks had been dissatisfied with their planter’s performance. That led them to a new line of after-market planter attachments from Tremont, IL-based Precision Planting, which promised greater accuracy in seeding depth and spacing.
“We got interested in being a Precision Planting dealer,” Jared says. “Gaylen and I decided to start a business together. We figured it would be a good fit and give us something to do in the winter to supplement farming.”
The two men enjoyed working together on the new venture. Jared took on the main sales effort, and both men handle equipment installation and troubleshooting. Over the past decade, they’ve grown the business into a year-round enterprise. This partnership set the stage for future collaborations.
In fall 2006, as Midwest farmland values and cash rents began to climb, Gaylen lost 800 acres of leased cropland. “I didn’t want to pay the rent they were asking,” he says. His farming operation shrank from 1,300 acres to just 500 acres. “I needed more income. Jared said, “Let’s buy a full swing backhoe together.”
The two launched their second partnership, Meadows Excavating, to do ditch cleaning, farmstead demolition, site preparation and foundation work. The business quickly took off.
In 2008, just two years after Gaylen lost his rented ground, Jared also let a half section of leased land go to higher bidders. “I’d only been farming for a few years.” His dad, who lived through the Farm Crisis years in the 1980s, advised Jared to be cautious about taking on higher land rent. “I decided to let the land go.”