Market volatility, societal misperceptions and the rapid change in agriculture top the list of concerns for three family farms represented in a grower panel as part of the recent BASF Global Media Event in Durham, N.C.
Darren Armstrong, Hyde County, North Carolina; Ben and Hans Riensche, Blue Diamond Farming Company, Waterloo, Iowa; and Kristjan Hebert, Saskatchewan, Canada, talked about their operations, changes they’ve witnessed, and what they look for in the future, then fielded questions from a diverse group of farm journalists gathered at the BASF office complex.
Our biggest challenge is the speed at which opportunity comes,” Hebert said. He said technology brings much to agriculture but changes the way farms operate. “Technology disrupts relationships,” he said. He added that farmers should begin building networks with “companies we deal with. Our biggest challenges today are not weather or production but management.”
Working with companies as partners, Hebert said, improves management options.
“Farmers need to do better jobs of understanding their business. We need to collaborate and develop partnerships with companies.”
“Change is scary,” Armstrong added. “Some think technology is the enemy. It’s not; it’s the solution.”
He said farmers must look to maintain acreage and production but “do it sustainably.
“Technology, such as GPS, with auto steer and variable rate applications, are keys. We have built on that.”
Ben Riensche said adapting to evolving conditions challenges farm operations. “Diversification is critical,” he said. “We never know where the profit opportunity will be.”
He and his son, Hans, with other family members, operate a 15,000-acre farm near Waterloo, Iowa.
Hebert said soil moisture sensors have helped the operation manage moisture more effectively. “Soil probes help manage available water,” he said. “That technology has changed our management.”
He also looks at data, such as a 25-year rainfall curve, to manage crop water demand.
“We also worry less about yield and more about margins,” he said. “What risk can we take on a four-acre by four-acre plot?”
Soil probes, he says, gives him the ability to manage that closely and manage weather more intensely. “We want to figure out what’s in the whole four feet of the soil profile, and we are doing that with soil probes.”
Hans Riensche says farm management software and soil probes have improved management. Prescription maps, he says, offers opportunities to measure carbon sequestration, a new commodity.
His father says the business model is changing. “We are looking at consumers who want farms to be more sustainable, so we are changing what we do on the farm.”
He added that consumers are more interested in where food comes from, more interested in the nutrition, and how it’s grown. “We are looking at quality in addition to yield,” he said.
Seed technology, including gene editing, has improved production potential, Armstrong said. He said even with horrible weather, a too-frequent occurrence in his area, which he describes as “hurricane alley,” improved varieties can still produce.
“We can sometimes expect a terrible crop but still have potential to yield. It might not be as big as we would like but not a disaster.”
He said a plant’s ability to tolerate stress is much improved. “We can’t predict next year’s weather, but we do have product resilience.”
Hebert said farmers have to take advantage of opportunities. “We have about 30 opportunities to make crops,” he said, “before we turn the farm over to the next generation.”
Accomplishing those farm goals, he said, demands looking at margins. “We’re pretty good at production and even managing Mother Nature. Our challenge now is dealing with market and policy volatility.”
The solution, he said, may be cash flow. “We need to manage cash flow more efficiently. Trade barriers are only problems if you have to sell commodities into a depressed market.”
Crop insurance has been a necessary tool, a concept he works with as director at Global Ag Risk Solutions.
“Crop insurance was a good compromise in the last farm bill,” Armstrong said. “Crop insurance will not make us completely whole but as Jim Valvano [the late N.C. State basketball coach] said, ‘survive and advance.’”
Hans Riensche said on-farm storage offers a good management and marketing tool. “We have enough storage to hold most of our crops. We can hold for better market opportunities.”
“We are building a bigger agriculture footprint,” Ben added. Expansion is part of that. “We keep buying more equipment. We have to be flexible with inputs.
“We also need to more sophisticated market plans. We need to use marketing tools to take advantage of premium delivery times, for instance.”
He said Blue Diamond Farms also will diversify according to consumer needs.
Responding to a question about what they need to improve success, the three family farms responded with diverse answers.
“Trade stability,” Armstrong said. “U.S. farmers can compete with anyone if we have the opportunity. We can excel in a world market.” Recent policy actions, he said, have affected markets.
Armstrong, in his role as chairman of the board, U.S. Grains Council, has participated in several U.S. Grains Council trade missions. “We are planting seeds,” he said, referring to a recent trip to South Korea, Japan and other Asian nations. “We have to make something happen.”
He said those countries may not have received much attention until the recent trade dispute with China.
“Asia is where our new customers are coming from,” Armstrong said.
Hebert said he sees access to people and capital as key challenges. He says a labor shortage is a significant concern for north America. To deal with that issue, he co-founded an online platform, WorkHorse Hub, geared toward solving labor issues.
“And bankers are doing a horrible job working with agriculture,” he said.
Listen to consumers
Hans Riensche says a new challenge is producing what consumers want. “Changing food products and preferences,” he says offers challenges but also opportunity. “There is room on the dinner plate for everyone,” he said. “Tell me what you want.”
Managing politics offers another tricky challenge. “Pay attention to global politics,” Hebert said. “Change in policy can affect cash flow.”
He also noted that volatility may not be a bad thing. “Volatility creates opportunity,” he said. “But a farmer’s independence will be his greatest asset and his biggest challenge in adapting.”
“Be involved with trade groups,” Hans said. “Be aware of nutritional needs.” A student at Iowa State University, he’s aware of the global nature of agriculture marketing. “I’m learning Chinese,” he said.
“Be involved,” Armstrong said. “Tell our story.”
That’s a message that resonated with each panelist. They agree that social media has the ability to spread misinformation about agriculture and disperse it rapidly.
“Overall, throughout society, farmers are trusted,” Hebert said. “About 1 to 2 percent struggle with what we do. “Farmers have to tell our stories, and most are not communicators. So, a group of us need to do a better job of telling our stories. People need to know that we despise nothing as much as losing a crop.”
“We have a great story to tell,” Armstrong added. “Sometimes, it’s not easy to do, but consumers may not realize how big an impact agriculture has on the planet. We improve lives.”
“It’s a family business,” Hans said.
He also said that his generation is more accepting of technology, like GMO, than the previous generations. He believes that trend will continue. “The next generation will push acceptance a little further.”
Ben said farming sustainably will help. “People are concerned about the environment and climate change. “Farmers want the same thing, we’re just not getting our message across now.”
Challenge to ag media
Paul Rea, senior vice president, BASF Agricultural Solutions North America, encouraged the agriculture media to tell the positive stories of agriculture.
He also said, in a later interview, that members of the agriculture media can take advantage of opportunities to promote agriculture in their own communities.
“I think it would be great if the ag media were able to engage the people in their communities who don't see agriculture every single day. We encourage farmers to bring urban folk to their farm. What could the ag media do to showcase agriculture and their local community and tell that story?”
He suggested holding forums where growers talk to local community members. “Reach across to local newspapers and encourage an ag segment in their local reporting. The more we have the opportunity to tell the story, the better we'll be.”