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Sharecropping helps a soybean grower find long-term partners and stability for the family farm.

Mindy Ward, Editor, Missouri Ruralist

February 24, 2023

5 Min Read
Justin Rone
FARM DECISIONS: Justin Rone spends times assessing crop management plans and commodities that succeed on his southeast Missouri farm, searching for the ones that bring the greatest value to his family and landlords. Photos courtesy of Missouri Soybeans

It could be the beginning line of a joke — “a teacher, nurse and retired farmer stand in a cornfield” — but it is not. They are Justin Rone’s landlords, his partners for raising identity preserved crops in the Bootheel of Missouri.

“These are the people that drive the decisions I make,” the Pemiscot County farmer explains. “I want to make sure that we get them a return on their investment, and their largest investment and asset is the land I farm.”

Rone, who spoke at the Identity Preserved International Summit, incorporates identity preservation, or IP, with his crop management strategy to increase those returns. He — along with his wife, parents, sisters and brother-in-law — raises cotton, rice, soybeans, corn and wheat near Portageville, Mo.

The family owns land but uses sharecropping, renting land from a landowner in return for a portion of the crop, to expand their acreage footprint. In this scenario, the three receive about one-third of every soybean bushel, Rone explains.

“Every year,” he says, “I’m thinking about how I can get them a 3% to 4% return on their asset.”

Start of identity preserved production

The Rone family had been raising a version of identity preserved crops before it became a movement in the agriculture industry. Rone’s father grew non-GMO soybeans for years.

They tried Roundup Ready soybeans for a time, but when the herbicide started losing its efficacy in the south, Rone made a crop management choice.

“We were relying on different modes of action, different residual programs, and layering residual programs,” he explains. “We found that we could do the same with non-GMO soybeans that we were doing with Roundup beans.”

The difference? There were premiums offered in the non-GMO market, he says.

Securing that added value for a crop starts with a contract.

Develop IP market contacts

Finding the right identity preserved market can take time. Merchandisers and retailers work with farmers to provide the variety of crop to match individual farm acres to yield the best price. The contract time length can vary. Rone says building relationships is key.

For the past 12 years, the farm has been raising the same company’s soybean seed. “It is the right seed that performs well in our location on our acres,” he notes.

There is extra management for raising identity preserved products, like long-term farm planning for crop rotation. “I can’t grow the seed beans behind beans,” Rone says. “I have to make it fit in the operation as far as what returns on corn, returns on rice, returns on cotton are, so that I can get the best returns for my landlords in the process as well.”

Grain setup is another factor to consider. Rone does not have large grain legs on the farm as it is one area that can cause contamination. Storage bins are generally smaller, allowing for separation of commodities. There is also additional time required for cleaning equipment and bins.

“Raising IP crops is not for everyone,” says Rone, who serves as a director on the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council. “You need to look at it from your own perspective and see if it works in your farm system.”

Farming is a business, and Rone has partners that look at the bottom line. During times of lower commodity prices, he notes, “That extra revenue really helped make a difference on the farm.”

However, he manages revenue expectations with landlords.

IP profits are not guaranteed

“You want your landlord to be aware of what is happening on the farm and with the crop,” Rone explains. “You want them to be comfortable with the fact that they're going to share in the premium, but you want to also be honest about what and how much they're going to share.”

While landlords may focus on the premium price, they also need to see the costs — whether seed, chemical or even transportation and storage fees — to the farmer. Rone goes a step further and explains potential crop situations that could impede realizing that added value.

For instance, to raise high-quality soybeans, Rone waits until the first planting window in April. It is a risky move with Missouri weather as farmers can face excessive rains keeping them out of fields. If that happens, there is a need to replant. But the reward for quality often outweighs the risk.

Farmers and landlords need a written arrangement outlining expectations.

Expanding IP for future of farm

Cropland in southeastern Missouri is prime ground for growing cotton and rice. Rice already has aspects of identity preservation without the namesake.

Rice is segregated by variety, Rone explains, primarily to maximize milling. There are different types of rice — medium grain and long grain grow well in this region of the nation. However, domestic and international rice buyers are looking to up the ante with their own specifications including climate-friendly production practices.

“Going forward, there are a lot of opportunities being presented for a significant premium for identity preserved rice and cotton as well,” Rone says. “It is all about traceability, identity and meeting contractual obligations. That is how farmers can realize premiums.”

Often, those premiums are significant with a chance to capture up to 25% premium on the rice crop.

Every year, while some farmers make tough choices that affect other family members and employees, Rone spends hours investigating options with one more group in mind — a schoolteacher, a nurse from Texas and a retired farmer.

“Farm decisions are not easy,” he says, “but these individuals drive my decision making not just for the current year, but for years to come. I want to make choices that benefit both parties to sustain a long-term relationship.”

About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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