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Ambition bests troubling times for young farmer

A first-generation farmer makes his debut in 2020.

Luke Baugess has been around farming his entire 23-year-old life, but 2020 is the first year he will be planting for himself as a first-generation farmer. His introduction to growing crops was a bit of happenstance, not a family legacy. Through a friendship and mentorship, one farmer is semiretiring while Baugess takes on the risk, responsibilities and — he’s hoping — the rewards.

In the early 1990s, before Baugess was born, his grandmother dated self-made farmer Gregg Pontius of Lancaster, Ohio, who became close to the entire family. And, while the relationship faded, the friendship remained with her children and then grandchildren.

“As toddlers, he [Pontius] would take me and my brother, Levi, out to ride in the combine,” Baugess recalls.

“I fell in love with it. He would put the armrest down on the John Deere 4450 tractor, and I was small enough that I could sit there, and it wouldn’t hurt my butt. I never got bored. I enjoyed it so much.”

As time went by, he was driving that tractor by himself; and a couple years later, he was running the combine. “At first, Gregg would sit in the buddy seat, so he was there to help me,” Baugess explains. “He pushed me to get my driver’s license so I was able to help him even more.”

In addition to helping Pontius — first for the experience and later as an employee — Baugess started doing custom work for several other farmers in the county.

Pontius, who was farming as much as 550 acres a couple years ago, has no children of his own, “but has treated me like one of his own,” Baugess says.

At 70, Pontius says it’s time for someone else to “give it a go. The weather and the markets have been pretty damn stressful,” he says. “I’m in good health, I just completed a lease on some ground and I’ll still stay busy doing part-time custom work for other farmers.”

Pontius controls 165 acres: 45 acres of owned ground and another 120 acres in a family trust. Baugess is leasing 126 acres and plans to plant corn and eventually soybeans.

He is also leasing a tractor, planter and sidedresser from Pontius, and a combine from another grower. “I’ll have the co-op spray the ground for me,” Baugess says.

“Luke always loved being with me on the farm,” says Pontius, who describes him as smart, dependable, honest and methodical. “He’s knows the operation and how to push a pencil,” Pontius adds. “It feels good to get a young kid started that has wanted to farm for a long time. He will do things right. Whether he is successful will depend more on the weather and markets.”

The path to farming

There is a clear difference between farm work and farming, Baugess recognizes. “I really beat this decision around, about taking on risk,” he says. “It’s always on my mind when I go to bed. I know it’s really tough right now with margins very tight, but, if I don’t do it, I may never get my opportunity. I’m young and don’t have a family or a mortgage. So, I decided to go for it, and if I take a loss, I have the rest of my life to recoup. I just pray to God things turn out as planned.”

After graduating from Canal Winchester High School in 2014 and then Ohio State University in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural systems management, he took a full-time job working for Franklin County Metro Parks as a park technician. He provides maintenance in the 1,200-acre park, which includes 10 miles of a paved trail around Columbus and is part of a much larger park system.

He has been saving money, but he knew what he had was not enough. “I walked around Farm Science Review and talked to a bunch of ag lenders and set up meetings,” he says. “I decided on Kingston National Bank, even though it has no young farmer program — but what got me was, my loan officer knows my name when I call, and my operation.”

He secured a line of credit, and “some family members have invested in me a bit,” he says.

Baugess gives praise to an OSU farm management class taught by Barry Ward for helping him develop a budget. “He [Ward] supplied different Excel spread sheets for different commodities with cost and break-even scenarios — it’s like a road map on things to consider,” Baugess says. “I asked farmers around here if they use these sheets, and they say you’ll be surprised at how accurate they are.”

Come planting season, Baugess is going to use time off he’s banked at the park. And right now, because of COVID-19, the park is operating with reduced staff and adjusted shifts to minimize contact among workers. “And the parks manager is pretty easygoing and is willing to work with me,” Baugess says. “But you never know, if things get tight … I may have to hire Gregg to help plant corn.”

For the love of farming

When Baugess began farming with Pontius, the thought of his retirement was still far off. But looking back, Baugess thinks maybe there was a little inkling of the idea in recent years. “He put me in the combine four years ago; most farm owners will have their farm help running trucks and carts,” he says. “He rode with me for a bit, but after a while, he was like, ‘There you go, you have it.’”

They think alike and have spent hours and hours together in the cab of a tractor or a combine, Pontius says. “I’d think out loud about what we should be watching for, listening to, and feeling for in the seat of your pants in the combine,” Pontius adds. “Luke is really good in the combine and is really good with computers, which he is teaching me.”

To get to that point, Baugess says he’s done a lot of observing and asking questions when needed. “When a person you have looked up to all your life lets you know you’re doing a good job, it means a lot,” adds Baugess, remembering a time when he tore down a combine for repairs.

Shop class and vocational agriculture were dropped from the curriculum just as Baugess was entering high school. So, much of his mechanical education was from Pontius — and as a sticker on his toolbox proclaims, he’s also a YouTube-certified mechanic.

New name

With a new farm business, Baugess needed a name. Pontius’ farm is called Part Time Farms, because over the years he’s worked seven different part-time jobs, in addition to farming.

“That got me thinking,” says Baugess, who designed a new farm logo. “Since I’m working full time [at the park], everything after that is overtime. … so the farm is Overtime Acres. And even though the land I’m farming is in Lancaster, I established the business where I live, in Canal Winchester.”

Baugess knows being a young farmer has many challenges, “But I feel like this is where I need to be,” he explains. “I was that one kid who went to school with beat-up boots and a well-worn Carhartt jacket. Farming is not just a job or career, it’s a lifestyle. I like being outdoors and working ground. I’ve found purpose in it.”

If the weather and markets offer opportunity, Baugess could be on his way to becoming a full-time farmer.

 

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