If you missed the first part of the series, catch that here.
Most dedicated distance runners carry a few things with them — scuffed and scratched shoes, a water bottle and a handful of philosophies — as they manage through the miles. The most important of these is a simple edict: “Run the mile you’re in.”
That advice translates well for farmers, especially for those managing increasingly large operations. As we told you in part one of this series, running a large-scale grain farm requires several attributes, starting with hard work. You also need to manage as many variables as possible, says Annie Dee, who, along with brother Mike, manages Dee River Ranch, a diversified 10,000-acre operation near Aliceville, Ala.
One way to protect yields was adding irrigation to as many acres as possible. There was just one small detail to work out: Where were they going to find several more millions of gallons of water they’d need each crop season?
Dee ultimately chose to hedge her bets in a major way by building a 110-acre reservoir and a massive custom-engineered pumping station that could deliver more than 10,000 gallons of water each minute to thirsty fields that needed it most.
The move was bold, but it continues to pay off — especially in dry years like 2011, where Dee’s irrigated ground vastly outperformed the non-irrigated ground.
“From late May to July, the rains just shut off that year,” she recalls. “Outside the pivot, we had 39-bushel-per-acre corn, and under the pivot, we had 160 bushels per acre. That was the year we realized pretty quickly that we needed to put irrigation everywhere we could.”
One change leads to another, and Dee had to think holistically about the farm, as bigger yields drastically changed the farm’s storage needs.
“One of the consequences of irrigation is we made so much grain, we had to build more storage. We couldn’t get the grain hauled away fast enough,” she says.
Dee also implemented moisture probes at 6, 12 and 24 inches, and made the farm’s irrigation systems as automated as possible. Those efficiencies were must-haves to make sure labor needs didn’t get out of hand by constantly needing to check the new pivots.
“We can turn on our irrigation with my phone or computer access,” Dee says. “It’s as user-friendly as we could get without needing a lot of manpower.”
Speaking of manpower, running may sound like a solitary sport, but race days are anything but — from trained medical staff typically on hand to a bevy of other volunteers and sideline gawkers. As an individual farm grows, it becomes more important to sort through the layers of inside and outside help to tap the sources that will provide the best support.
For Darren Bailey’s Illinois farm — which employs about 13 full-time workers (plus additional seasonal help) and has acres scattered 40 miles in every direction — having quality labor is essential to the operation’s success.
Darren says he keeps some of the farm’s hiring practices guarded, but there are some pretty high moral and ethical standards. Most of the farm’s employees have settled in long term — no easy feat, considering the hard work involved, not to mention ongoing competition with area factories.
“My management style is work, grow, learn,” Darren says. “We don’t throw fits, and we talk through our mistakes.”
That goes for sons Zach and Cole, too. Currently, Darren considers his two older sons “multi-tool players,” able to function broadly across the operation. Over the next two years, he’s going to push them to specialize more, and stay focused on getting everyone to respect and value their roles during this process.
To that end, the family meets every Sunday evening to talk about the farm — and life in general.
“When we’re together, everything is laid out on the table,” Darren says. “Communication is a major aspect of working together as a family.”
Dee River Ranch has even fewer people running its operation, with just six employees. That’s Dee, her brother Mike, her sons Seth and Jesse, and two additional employees. That’s it, and Dee recognizes that might not fit the trend of many other large farming operations.
“We have fewer people and more technology, where that may be opposite to some other operations,” she says.
That doesn’t mean getting along with each other is any less important. In fact, a smaller staff needs to be even more acutely connected with each other, she says.
“With family, it’s a lot more compromise and figuring out ways to work together,” she says.
Do not hesitate to get outside help, Dee adds. When the farm ran into situations they were unable to resolve internally, they hired outside help.
“A neutral person has the ability to see things from all sides and can often help work out problems we cannot,” she says.
Fostering strong customer relationships is equally important, too. Dee learned that valuable lesson as she built rapport with area retailers. Some bargain hunting is fine if it doesn’t antagonize those connections, she says.
“I used to shop every chemical and every seed until retailers were worn out,” Dee says. “I even bought chemicals off the internet once. But I discovered retailers weren’t loyal to me because I wasn’t loyal to them.”
Now, Dee still shops around, but she’s more likely to simply ask a retailer to match a price rather than head elsewhere.
“They need to make money, too, and I need them,” she says. “They’re providing services, so I don’t have to go out and find those people, hire them and manage them.”