February 7, 2020
By Darrell Boone
In 1896 Riley Bowman used horses and a mud boat to drag his farming equipment through the still-young Indiana frontier to a spot in southeast Wabash County. Three generations later, his great-grandson Dan Bowman wishes his ancestor had picked a location a few miles west, where the soils are considerably better.
“It would have been a whole lot easier for all of us since then,” he laughs.
But despite not having a totally level playing field, successive generations of Bowmans have nevertheless managed to tilt the odds in their favor to create a successful corn, soybean and wheat operation that now consists of 8,200 acres, most within a ten-mile radius.
To get a better idea behind their success, first look at the emphasis on education. Principal operators Dan and brother Kevin both earned business degrees from nearby Huntington University; Kevin’s son Kyle has an MBA and is also a CPA; his other son Evan is finishing up his master’s degree in in agronomy via an online program through Iowa State University.
In addition, the farm employs five fulltime employees, and two or three part-timers.
Another key to success is top-line growth from additional enterprises. Besides grain the Bowmans operate a commercial grain elevator, do extensive drainage on their farm, do all their own trucking and spraying, and are early tech adopters.
Dan and Kevin credit their dad Charles for the farm’s growth mindset.
“He was a visionary who had a knack for seeing the possibilities of what could be, and who wasn’t afraid to take some risks, says Dan.
First things first
For the Bowmans, everything they do begins and ends with their Christian faith. Credit for any success they’ve had belongs to their creator, who has sustained them during bad times and helped them grow and prosper during good times.
The Bowmans also walk the talk. They believe in giving back and are involved in a myriad of church, community, and civic activities.
“That’s what ultimately holds this all together,” says Evan. “We have complete trust in each other. If I’m not the strongest financial mind in the room, I trust those who are.”
His dad, Kevin, adds that when working so closely together, a sense of humor is frequently a handy lubricant.
“If one of us does something stupid, we just acknowledge that and laugh about it for a day or two. If it was something really stupid, it takes a little longer.”
Closer eye on cash flow
Dan and Kevin’s dad Charles bought his first farm at age 16. He considered land the best investment and always talked about expanding; when he couldn’t buy more land, he told his boys, “You can always fix it up—clear it, clean it up, drain it.”
Charles’ risk-taking is responsible for giving the operation momentum, but there were some downsides, too.
“When things went south in the ‘80s that accumulated debt load with 19% interest was terrible,” says Kevin. “But as bad as times were, we learned from them.”
Dan and Kevin put their college business backgrounds to work and started focusing more on cash flow. They also began to look long and hard at investments that could turn a quick profit.
“We learned that while Dad was a risk taker, we had to balance that risk with the reality of managing it,” says Kevin.
The Bowmans purchased a self-propelled tile plow and often tile wheat ground in much of the summer and fall. Although a major investment, their homework showed it will ultimately pay off.
“With land appreciation, it seemed a better strategic option to invest in our own land, rather than buy more at current prices,” says Kyle.
Passions and strengths
Learning when to pivot is a cornerstone of smart farm operations. As the operation expanded in the ‘90s, Dan and Kevin tried their hand at finishing feeder pigs, but the brothers quickly learned that the hog business wasn’t for them.
“If you’re going to be involved in livestock every day, you’d better have a love for it, and we didn’t,” says Kevin.
The Bowmans also capitalize on complementary skill sets, between and among generations. In generation 4, Dan describes himself as a “detail guy” who runs the elevator and does all the grain marketing, while Kevin is more of a “dreamer” and likes the production side.
In generation 5, Kyle has the financial expertise, while Evan has become the agronomic go-to guy.
“Kyle has the financial background, so I didn’t see any point in doubling down on that,” says Evan. “Agronomy was the niche that was open, so I stepped into it.”
And then there’s technology.
“I missed the technology curve, but Kyle and Evan grew up with it and are good at it,” says Kevin. “In our operation today, I’m not sure what we’d do without them—their energy, interest, and their tech abilities.”
The Bowmans are currently doing prescription farming, and Kyle sees technology playing an even more important role in years to come. He believes that with a smaller pool of qualified farm laborers, autonomous tractors may solve some labor problems. But he concedes that his enthusiasm for what can be the bleeding edge of technology can occasionally get ahead of him.
“Sometimes we’ve bought new technology directly from the farm shows, or the dealer sends us their prototype or first production run, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve with that,” he says. “But when we trade it in, then that’s the technology customers are looking for, which has been a plus.”
Just do it—ourselves
Kyle and Evan are “blessed with the ability to climb a learning curve really quickly,” says Kevin. But it appears that apple may not have fallen too far from the tree. To build their extensive grain handling system Dan and Kevin learned to do the wiring and did it all themselves. And although they were told it wasn’t possible, the Bowmans assembled the grain bins and the entire grain system themselves. They do everything they can in-house.
“It gives us a big cost savings, plus the confidence to know that we did it, and can troubleshoot it if we need to,” says Kevin. “I don’t know how you can farm a lot and not do a lot of it yourself.”
Boone writes from Wabash, IN
7 keys to the Bowman business culture
The Bowmans focus home and work life around these key components:
Faith and relationships. Everything the Bowmans do is grounded in Christian faith. “We’re committed to each other’s best interests and have a strong culture that we hope to build on,” says Kevin. “We’re just here for a time to be the stewards of it and honor the Lord.”
Improve the land. Getting into technology and yield mapping, as well as Evan’s specialization in agronomy, really drove home Charles Bowman’s advice to improve the land. Bowmans have made this a major priority, including a major investment in a self-propelled tile plow.
Know what you’re good at. Getting out of hogs to do what they love and are good at —crop farming—has helped the Bowmans to be much more focused.
Complementary skill sets. Whether from previous, current, or incoming generations, they value the skills that each can bring to the operation. The principal operators currently have a nice suite of skills that complement each other well. But they also do enough “cross training” to not be lost if someone’s gone for a few days.
Early adopters. The latest generation brought an appreciation and an aptitude for technology that has elevated the farm’s performance. That focus positions it for future growth and success.
Doing things in-house. The Bowmans enjoy mastering learning curves. That allows them to do things themselves to save costs and be timelier. Kyle acknowledges that they might be approaching some diminishing returns from this do-it-yourself approach, versus the opportunity costs of not having the time to pursue other promising options.
Adequate critical mass. The goal is to keep growing at a sustainable rate. Their operation’s scale enables them to capitalize on opportunities; they use the latest technology, purchased a self-propelled tile plow, and have working capital to buy or rent more land when good opportunities come along. The business is also large enough to bring both Kyle and Evan back in as principal operators.
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