You could call it a May-December relationship. Minnesota farmers Jere and Curt Ettesvold are nearing retirement age. This spring, the two brothers began sharing equipment and labor with their younger neighbor, Bruce Solvie.
Pooling resources has allowed the Ettesvolds to downsize their machinery inventory and cut their workload, while positioning Solvie to expand. “It also allows us to use the newer technology that's out there, because the cost can be spread over more acres,” Jere says. The sharing agreement proved unexpectedly fortuitous after Jere contracted West Nile Disease, which left him unable to shoulder his usual tasks last season.
It used to be common for farmers to work with their neighbors for threshing and other big tasks. Then modern machinery reduced the need for that. But now cooperation among neighbors is on the rise. “There's more interest in sharing than I've seen in a long time,” says Roger Ginder, an Iowa State University economist who has studied agricultural trends for nearly four decades.
Ginder and University of Missouri economist Georgeanne Artz are working on a national study of machinery and labor sharing for the North Central Risk Management Education Center. Ginder says the high cost of new machinery; a shortage of skilled farm labor and a desire for advanced technology are all “leading to more cooperation than in the past.”
Ginder has found a wide variety of sharing arrangements, from simple to complex. The two most common practices, he says, involve close neighbors sharing a combine or a planter and tractor.
Jere and Curt Ettesvold grow corn and soybeans on 1,400 acres near Cyrus, in west-central Minnesota. The brothers had an older 30-in.-row planter. To boost their productivity, they wanted to switch to 22-in. rows and get auto-steer in the tractor. But “new machinery costs are so high now,” says Curt, “that average-size farmers can't afford the price.” Adds Jere: “We knew we couldn't do it alone.”
They were also anticipating some lifestyle changes. Neither brother is ready to retire yet, but both men and their wives are “getting to the stage where we like to be gone in the winter,” says Jere, 64, who has been farming full time since he was in high school. His brother is 62 and also wanted to take more time off. “Curt and I thought about how nice it would be to come back in the spring and have the planter all ready to go into the field,” Jere says.
The Ettesvolds kept an eye out for another local farmer who might be interested in working with them. “We wanted someone who operates the way we do,” Jere says.
Bruce Solvie, 43, has known the Ettesvolds all his life. He grows 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and sugar beets in Stevens and Pope counties and raises hogs. His brother and father farm nearby, allowing family members to share some field equipment. Solvie has been expanding his operation, which was straining the family's planting capacity. “We were looking at getting another planter,” Solvie says, “but we really didn't have enough acreage to justify it.”
In early 2005 he and the Ettesvolds began talking about going together on new planting equipment. “We talked about it through the spring and summer,” Jere says. That fall, “we decided to go ahead with it.”
Curt and Jere sold their John Deere 8300 tractor and John Deere 1631 planter and bought a new John Deere 8230 tractor with auto-steer. Solvie had a John Deere 8200 tractor, which he'd been using fewer than 200 hours a year to harvest beets. He traded it in on a new John Deere 2422 planter.
Last spring, Solvie taught the Ettesvolds how to use the new tractor's GPS and auto-steer functions. “You need the young guys with the computer savvy for that,” Jere says.
In 2006, the Ettesvolds seeded 160 acres of corn before April 20 with the new rig, then turned it over to Solvie, who planted his sugar beets. Then the Ettesvolds finished seeding their corn and most of their beans, before turning the equipment back to Solvie, who was able to complete his planting in a timelier manner than usual.
As part of their sharing agreement, Solvie did all the Ettesvolds' spraying. “We use the same crop consultant,” Solvie says, “so I know what's going on in their fields.” In addition, Solvie is using the Ettesvolds' JD8230 to lift beets this fall.
He and the Ettesvolds charge out their machinery use and time on the basis of Iowa State University's custom hire and rental rates. The partners buy their own fuel. “It's important to set the rates in advance, and agree for one, two or three years,” Solvie says. Meticulous records are essential, too, he adds. They keep a logbook and Solvie prepares detailed spreadsheets, which they used to settle up last November.
The sharing arrangement worked fine the first year, the partners say. One of the main reasons, says Solvie, is because “we think alike, and we have similar farming practices.”
Differences in work habits or outlook can sink a sharing arrangement, Ginder notes. That's what happened with one group he studied. “They were friends going in, but they had different philosophies about farming.” For example, one grower would not allow anyone else to operate machinery on his leased land, which created a bottleneck for his partners.
In addition, Ginder points out, “some personalities are better suited for this.” If you're considering a sharing agreement, he says, ask yourself: “Can I work with others in a give-and-take fashion?”
That's especially important for growers who share planting equipment in the northern Corn Belt, where the optimum planting window is short. Says Solvie: “It's hard to wait when your fields are ready and you wish you had the rig.” That's probably the biggest challenge, Curt agrees: “Having enough patience to wait until it's your turn.”
Last spring, most of the Ettesvolds' ground was ready for planting before Solvie's, which made it easy to decide who should take the planter. A rainy stretch in May made everybody a little nervous about finishing on time, but “you can do things so fast with the new machinery,” Curt says.
Farmers who share machinery often find themselves sharing labor, too, Ginder says. That's a great value because “it's highly skilled labor,” he says. In contrast to hired help, another professional farmer has “the judgment, experience and skills to farm on his own, so there can be a greater degree of trust.”
Not only that, Ginder says, many farmers report that cooperation makes farming more fun and less stressful. Often, “there was a better sense of enjoyment working as a group. And there is more of a feeling of freedom, knowing there's someone who is willing to help you out, if needed.”
That benefit hit home for the Ettesvolds. In September, 2005, not long after they'd made the sharing deal with Solvie, Jere contracted West Nile disease.
Jere has been unable to resume some of his previous tasks. For example, “I'd always done all of our spraying before, but there's no way I can now.”
Although Jere's illness wasn't the original reason for sharing machinery with Solvie, the cooperative arrangement “has made it easier to keep on farming,” he says. Adds Curt: “I think it's a good idea — and the coming thing.”