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Serving: IL
Julie, John and Ron Lawfer
BETTER? Ron and Julie Lawfer, shown here on their Kent, Ill., farm with son John, learned a lot from 2019. Says Julie, “We have survived! We are flexible!”

Been there, done that: How to succeed in 2020

Master Farmers weigh in on how younger farmers can make the most of 2020, coming out of a rough 2019.

When it comes to formulating a game plan for 2020, the best advice might well come from those who’ve been there and done that — people like Prairie Farmer Master Farmers Ron and Julie Lawfer.

“Having a very difficult year makes a farmer better,” says Ron, who with Julie and their son John operate a dairy and grain farm near Kent, Ill. “We are reminded that field work should be done according to weather and field conditions, and not according to the calendar.”

The Lawfers have weathered brutal economic conditions with simple advice: Don’t pay too much for land rent if it doesn’t pencil out; consider hiring custom field work instead of making capital purchases and hiring more labor; and remember that top yields don’t necessarily mean top profit.

“It’s the dollars we keep that make us profitable,” Ron says, adding that 2019 reminded them how important conservation is on their farm. “Cover crops, buffer strips and waterways helped keep our soil intact.”

Here’s what other Master Farmers have to say about their plans for 2020 and the opportunities they see.

Bill Christ
Bill Christ, Metamora, Ill.

Business advice?
“Persevere. Keep in close touch with your banker and evaluate the crop insurance you had this year. If yields were less than desirable, be sure to communicate all that with your landlords so they know the situation you had to deal with.”

2020 crop?
“Don’t cheat on fertilizer and nitrogen. Some operators try to cut inputs when they need to hit a home run, in order to catch up from a bad year. This doesn’t mean go crazy, but do the normal recommendations on crop fertility.”

“2020 could be a great year of opportunity. Trade deals could bring some marketing strength to corn, beans and livestock. A more normal crop year could see some great yields, as seed genetics are getting better every year. Interest rates appear to stay low. The whole American economic picture looks very good!”

Jim and Pam Robbins
Jim and Pam Robbins, Peotone, Ill.

Business advice?
“The ‘plan’ for 2019 was a solid one. We always have variables. Be calm and figure out plan B and sometimes plans C and D.”

2020 crop?
“If you have a history of success, do not change everything because of one year; 2019 may be an outlier. We are not changing agronomic plans in 2020. We do have to deal with the prevent plan acres, so we will burn the cover down before we plant. On our prevent plant acres, we took the opportunity to tile, clean fence lines and put biosolids on — that’s fertilizer for 2020 completed in 2019. Make lemonade out of lemons!”

“As stressful as this year was, farmers may see exit stage right as their ‘plan.’ This will open opportunities for young farmers to pick up acres and grow their farming operations. Have your eyes wide open, and do not be shy communicating with potential landlords to rent or buy ground. Make your move in a respectful manner, as you want to keep your name at the top of their list if a farmer is considering retiring. Figure expansion of your operation into your financial plan, if that is one of your long-term goals.”

Russ and Marilyn Rosenboom
Russ and Marilyn Rosenboom, Clifton, Ill.

Business advice?
“First off, take care of the 2019 crop in storage. This crop will not store well! And, delay capital item purchases.”

2020 crop?
“Consider lightening up on fertility programs. Most farms will not suffer yield loss for a year or two. We used this strategy in the 1980s when interest rates were 13%.”

“Share your financial concerns with your family so they understand why you cannot eat out as often or make unnecessary purchases. Seek a mentor in your community or church that you feel comfortable to confide in. It’s important to not turn to drinking or drugs. That only compounds the problems. We have witnessed people under stress often make poor decisions. Financial problems can be solved. Many times, health problems cannot. Weigh your priorities.”

Darrell Sarff
Darrell Sarff, Chandlerville, Ill.

Business advice?
“It is easier said than done, but if you are given a chance to cover your costs of production early in the crop year, sell. In this environment, being liquid is the place to be rather than holding inventory.”

2020 crop?
“Every farm is different, but if you cut your inputs and don’t raise as good of crop as possible, you have less to sell no matter what the price. You need to keep gross dollars as high as possible and be a low-cost producer without cutting production. This may sound like an oxymoron, but you need to always be a low-cost producer. This may mean you use old equipment another year or lower family living.”

“We in agriculture get to raise 50-plus corn crops in our career, so every year we start off thinking this will be the year of my greatest yield and price!”

Tim Lenz
Tim Lenz, Strasburg, Ill.

Business advice?
“My business advice is the same as every year. Try to work harder than most. Try to make a few more well-informed decisions than most, and try to treat others better than anyone else.”

2020 crop?
“Agronomically, don’t make drastic changes based on one year of extremes. However, do realize that a ‘normal year’ is just an average of extremes. So we do have to implement practices that allow the crop to reach its maximum potential knowing there’s a good chance it will face extremes in moisture and temperature. And I think we learned it’s never good to mud it in. A good stand of corn planted in June was better than a fair stand planted in May.”

“For young farmers, I think a year like 2019 can create opportunities to rent land. Stressful years can make older farmers feel like it’s time to retire or slow down. At the least, they might realize they need more labor or custom farming services. This could lead to opportunities for young farmers.”

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