Farm Progress

For Josh Steward, and his wife, Katie, farming is about building a legacy for the future.

Willie Vogt 1, Editorial Director, Farm Progress

August 24, 2017

5 Min Read
FORWARD THINKER: Josh Steward of Harrington, Wash., has worked hard with his wife, Katie, to start farming. However, he's thinking beyond running rented land, with an eye toward investing to have something his children can take over.

There was excitement on the Steward farm near Harrington, Wash., recently. Behind the house in a small, penned area, a few chickens were pecking away; but on the ground, young Jack Steward found a prize: his first egg from those chickens.

Jack's father, Josh, explained that the chickens had been raised from chicks, and that they were Jack's responsibility and his business to build. "We're not showing a positive return yet," Steward smiles.

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FARM FAMILY: This is what a first-generation farm family looks like. Josh and Katie Steward are building a future for their children, Jack and Sadie.

Yet the chicken-and-egg episode paints a picture of how Steward and his wife, Katie, are working to build a legacy. Steward is a rarity these days; he's a first-generation farmer. A thirty-something with an ag econ degree and a penchant for saving, Steward took on farming full time in 2011. But the story of how he started shows it's possible to get going in this business without relying on a previous generation.

Timely investment
Steward wasn't raised on a farm, but his father always worked on a farm, as he himself did growing up. When he went off to college at Washington State University in Pullman, he aimed for an ag degree, and ag economics was his focus.

In his junior year, Steward made an investment decision and bought a house rather than paying rent to a landlord. "It probably wasn't my best move; it was an interest-only loan," he recalled, noting that he wasn't paying any principal on the house.

But sometimes timing and luck pay off, and when he graduated — having met Katie in college — and sold the house, the Pullman market was hot. "We made a profit on that house, which we put into savings," Steward recalled.

Out of college, Steward went to work for Odessa Trading Co., a Case IH dealership. "That was a great experience for me, working with farmers and helping them look at their equipment investment."

And all that time, Steward was saving.

"We were saving to build a new house," noted Katie during a recent interview.

Then along came Jim Els, a Harrington-area farmer, who offered Steward the opportunity to take on the farm. It was an opportunity the couple couldn't pass up. So that house saving account became a farm investment account. A deal was struck, and Steward took on the equipment and a long-term lease for the summer fallow winter wheat operation.

In 2011, wheat hit $8 at harvest. "I sold off the combine and we paid off our first, and only, operating line the first year," he said. Call it lucky, or just the right timing, but from then on the Stewards were full-time farmers — and they like it.

Soft crop prices lately have been a challenge, and they're still in a smaller home than they might like, but their children, Jack and Sadie, don't seem to mind; and Josh and Katie are living the farming dream.

Back to that egg
When Jack proudly picked up that egg, and took it into the house to put into a carton, Steward smiled, too. For this family, getting started farming is just the beginning. "We know we could lease land and farm now and do fine, but we want to do more than that," Steward said. "We're looking to acquire land and have something for the next generation."

Most farmers these days often talk about this legacy, but how to do it as a first-generation producer? The Stewards are building equity in their farm. They're frugal, and the couple works in a partnership. During the interview, Katie and Josh both answered questions, and they tend to fill in the blanks for each other.

"But we're worried about land values, and whether we can buy into land around here," Steward said. "I am a newcomer to this area."

There's no family history, or long-standing network of contacts in the area for acquiring land. That's not always a negative, and the Stewards are an active part of Harrington, Wash., a forward-thinking city with a Microsoft employee as its mayor. The town even has fiber-optic web service the Stewards can access using point-to-point wireless.

The challenge is knowing when land becomes available and having the cash for an acquisition. Steward admitted he's debt-averse, adding that the farm is currently carrying no debt to the bank. Building equity will give him the opportunity to invest for the future.

For the Stewards, getting started as full-time farmers took savings, and a little luck — and they're always up for a challenge. Next challenge: Building for the future.

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DIGGING FOR MOISTURE: In eastern Washington, 8 inches of rain a year means farmers are preserving moisture. Josh Steward digs down to show the moisture he'll plant into this fall.

Telling the farm story
Josh and Katie Steward love what they're doing and what they're building on their farm, but there's a concern these millennial farmers see: Changing consumer attitudes. "We worry about what people think about farming," Josh said recently. "When we get questions we try to answer them."

The family has a Facebook page and they chime in on conversations. They're part of the National Association of Wheat Growers and are open to farm visitors.

"We have to be willing to explain to the consumer what we're doing out here," he said.

This summer fallow wheat operation is focused on boosting yield. The use of Washington State wheat varieties and solid management are providing good yields on dryland wheat that sees about 12-13 inches of rain a year. Uninformed consumers who don't understand the technology or what farmers do are a growing concern.

"We're doing all we can to tell the story," Josh said. He encouraged other farmers to reach out and be ready to answer consumer questions, no matter how silly they may seem at first.

Added Katie: "It's important that people know what we're trying to do here."

 

About the Author(s)

Willie Vogt 1

Editorial Director, Farm Progress

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