Willing to work hard and eager to learn, it's easy to see why Carly and Jeff Johnson of Central City, NE, are thriving in their second year of farming the sandy Nebraska soil that's been in their family for four generations.
The couple says planning and communication made it possible for them to join the family farming operation almost seamlessly in 2003. They're excited about how far they've come this past year and about their prospects for their future in farming.
In early 2003, The Corn And Soybean Digest visited Jeff and Carly Johnson, and Carly's parents Roxanne and Evan Brandes, to document the entry of the younger generation into the farming operation. (“Returning To The Farm,” Mid-February 2003, page 12) The farm also includes Evan's brother Roger and his son, who joined the business earlier this year.
What a difference a year makes. This year the couple is confident and excited about how things are shaping up. They exceeded their profit goals last year and more than doubled their acres to nearly 700 this year. They're maximizing their acres by experimenting with double cropping — interseeding soybeans into wheat, growing seed corn, wheat and soybeans. If all goes well, they're planning to buy their first tractor in the fall.
The Johnsons are grateful for the opportunity to join the family operation and are willing to put in the time and effort needed to make it a success.
“Evan is really good at explaining things, yet letting me do them myself,” says Jeff. “He's a good teacher.”
Carly credits Jeff, too, for being open to new experiences. “Last year was such a huge learning curve, especially for Jeff since he hasn't been part of this operation, let alone this lifestyle,” she says. “This year we both know what's ahead and we can work faster and more efficiently.”
Jeff says he particularly enjoyed experimenting with the double cropped wheat and soybeans. “We started from square one,” he says. “I got to be part of the process of learning and experimenting and building a planter from the ground up.”
This year the weather provided a challenge, preventing timely harvest, so wheat yields were reduced about 20%. Still, Jeff says they'll continue experimenting with the concept.
The couple credits the smooth transition with a lot of planning and flexibility. “We hashed out the details for a long time. We wanted to make it fair and cut-and-dried so the emotions were taken out of it,” says Carly. “And Jeff has been willing to turn his life completely upside down and work hard and be open minded.”
The challenge for the Brandes and Johnsons was that it wasn't just their family to consider, but Evan Brandes' brother Roger and his family as well. So there was considerable planning to assure that things were set up to enable anyone from the next generation to join the farming operation if they choose.
Through the Nebraska Farm Business Association based in Lincoln, NE, costs are allocated to each aspect of the operation, including overhead, labor and interest, so everyone pays their fair share.
Now that the Johnsons and Carly's cousin have joined the operation, the family meets twice a week during the busy season and once a week during winter. They also meet for strategic planning sessions. “This way we all know what the year will bring and what we're planning so we're all on the same page,” says Carly.
“Even though we meet often, communication is still our biggest challenge,” adds Jeff. “We have several different people involved in the business with different personalities and ideas, but we all have the same goal in mind. That's what's important.”
The goal for Jeff and Carly is to continue carefully building their farm business.
“We like where we're at right now. We like the crops we're growing and we feel that we've got a good start,” she adds. “If opportunities arise, we'd like to rent or purchase more land. And as long as everyone keeps giving us the thumbs up, we'll keep going.”
Moe Russell of Russell Consulting Group, a risk management company headquartered in Panora, IA, agreed to work with the Johnsons for the first two years of their return to the farm. He's impressed with what he's seen.
“What's unique about Carly and Jeff is that they're not getting any breaks. Their parents aren't subsidizing their start in the business,” says Russell. “Many times bringing the next generation into the farming operation causes financial hardships or friction because the parents can't figure out a way to make it fair.
Carly and Jeff pay for all their overhead, not just their out-of-pocket expenses, but the cost of building and machinery depreciation and other costs that make it feasible and fair for them to join the operation.”
He adds, “They keep excellent records and made financial progress their first year and it looks like they'll continue to make progress in 2004. Jeff and Carly are living proof that you can start farming with essentially nothing.”
The Johnsons say information from a variety of sources — their dad and uncle, neighboring farmers, the university and consultants like Russell — has been invaluable.
“It has really helped with our marketing education in particular to have someone there to verify that we're making the right decisions so we don't have to second guess ourselves,” says Carly. “It's so overwhelming. It's easy to think about it and never do anything — never pull the trigger.” Jeff adds that he appreciates that Russell is straightforward and helps them carry out their plans.
While it's never easy to launch a new business venture, Russell says there are tremendous opportunities in production agriculture.
“However, the attitude, knowledge, skill and profit gaps are growing among producers,” he says. “It's really important for young people to have a positive attitude and look for new opportunities. They need to utilize all the resources available to them in the form of new technology and information. Because farming has become so diverse and complex, we encourage young farmers to understand what they're good at and become better at that.”
On the other hand, Russell says they should also figure out what they don't like doing and hire someone to help them with those parts of the business.
“Young farmers also need to consider that relationships are key,” says Russell. “You need to get along with the people you're working with.”
Taking that a step further, he encourages those just starting out to make sure everything is written down — the roles and responsibilities and accountability of everyone involved. “There are many situations where understandings are verbal at best — if they've even talked about these issues — and that's where there can be trouble,” he says.
Russell's advice to the older generation: “Be willing to turn over responsibilities and accountability and understand that people make decisions differently. Sometimes mistakes are made, but that's how we learn.”