When Jimmy Hoppe decided to retire from farming, he relied on a strategy that had served him well during his 50 years of producing rice and soybeans – he developed a plan, then stuck to it.
Hoppe retired two years ago, in 2012, but made the decision to retire in 2005. Hoppe’s wife, Brenda, a registered nurse, was also planning to retire and began applying gentle pressure on her husband to develop an exit plan.
“We wanted to travel and be able to see our grandkids,” said Hoppe, who farmed around Iowa, La. Their son Steven, a flight instructor with the naval base at Pensacola, Fla., had also announced his plans to retire, which was added motivation for Hoppe to move ahead. “I figured that I would probably farm until I got too old, but Brenda kept encouraging me to plan for retirement. And Brenda told me that we couldn’t have our son retire before me.”
Hoppe first established a retirement date, then put together a 5-year plan to eliminate all his farm debt, figure out his retirement income and budget and find someone to take over operation of the family farm. “The main consideration is that I didn’t want to have any kind of debt after I retired.”
For Hoppe, this meant not buying any new farm equipment in the five-year period leading up to retirement, “or to spend any money that I thought I might not get back.”
Michael Salassi, economist with the LSU AgCenter, who advised Hoppe on some aspects of his retirement, said each farmer’s retirement plan is different, but every plan should start with establishing a projected retirement age, or date, in the future, “then work backward to predict what sort of financial position your farm will be in on that date. For example, if you’re at a point where you don’t have very much debt, that time frame may be very short. But if you’ve just purchased some equipment, and it’s going to take some years to pay that off, it could be longer.”
Preparing for retirement
In preparation for retirement, Hoppe reduced his rice and soybean acres from 600 acres and 800 acres, respectively, to 300 acres and 450 acres, which he farmed primarily by himself. “Steven would come and run the combine at harvest during the summers. And I’d also hire high school kids that wanted to work to help us in the spring and summer.”
For his last three years on the farm, Hoppe didn’t borrow for his production expenses, instead farming from a savings account. He also purchased all his expenses up front. “We were lean, very lean.” Hoppe took no chances on the market either, contracting his crops up front.
Another objective was to make sure that Hoppe Farms stayed intact. “Each of the farm stockholders (who are members of the Hoppe family) share in the income flow at the end of the year,” Hoppe said. “One of our goals was to make sure that the farm stayed whole, and that the family owned it as a whole farm.”
Because there were no family members wishing to take over production on the farm, Hoppe also needed to insure a smooth transition to a new farm operator. This was resolved one day, when he got a call from Will Hayes, who farmed in the area with his father.
“Will had heard I was retiring and wanted to have a shot at leasing the farm. I knew him and I knew his parents, and I was comfortable with having him farm the land.”
Hoppe consulted with Salassi for advice on transitioning from farm operator to landlord. “We ended up deciding to go with a cash lease, and let the farmer decide what he wanted to plant and how he is going to manage his operation,” Hoppe said.
Hoppe still manages non-production aspects of the family farm, maintains farm roads and keeps the farm’s irrigation systems running smoothly.” I do all of the paperwork for the farm and FSA and help my sister with any kind of insurance issues that the farm has. My older sister is the secretary-treasurer so she takes care of the book work.”
Specialty rice business
Hoppe also continues to operate his packaged, aromatic-specialty rice business, which he began in 1991. Hayes produces the aromatic Jazzman variety for the Hoppe as part of a lease agreement.
Jazzman, developed by Steve Linscombe at the Rice Research Station in Crowley, La., is a domestically-adapted, Jasmati type rice developed to meet a specific market need of the Southeast Asian population that immigrated to the United States. But it has increasingly found favor among new customers, according to Hoppe.
“The Christmas season is really a big part of our package rice sales. Brenda and I package about 10,000 pounds of rice in a three-week span in 1-, 2-, and 5-pound bags. I wanted to keep the business going. It was a way of meeting people and sharing what agriculture is, and how we do business,” Hoppe said.
A 110-acre farm purchased as an investment in 1969 by Hoppe and his wife will serve as a hedge against falling income as the couple gets older. “There’s no new land being made,” Hoppe said. “Right now we’re just haying it. But it’s a nice nest egg because of its location.”
Repurposed farm truck
These days, Hoppe’s farm truck, a silver Silverado, has been repurposed for retirement, and might be spotted hauling kayaks and a 22.5-foot bumper camper to places like Toledo Bend Lake on the Louisiana-Texas border, the Quiski Chitto River in Louisiana or Pagosa Springs in Colorado. “We’ve camped since we got married,” Hoppe said. “When our kids were 2 ½ and six months old, we would float the baby across the Ouiski Chitto River in an ice chest and set our tent up on a sandbar in the river.
“We try to spend a couple of weekends a month traveling. If we can’t do a weekend thing, we may take the kayaks to a lake or river and spend the day floating down the river.”
Retirement will also allow more time for Hoppe to indulge grandchildren – Steven and his wife, Jeannie have two daughters, Miranda and Nicole, and a son, Brandon – or visit their daughter, Caryl, a physical therapist living in New Orleans.
Two years after retirement, Hoppe is surprised that he is still as busy as ever, although he does miss farming. “I wanted to be a farmer when I was 13 or 14 years old. I knew that was the life I wanted. The thing I miss most are the mornings out on the farm, looking at the crop, analyzing what needed to be done that day and figuring out what I was going to have to do. I miss that part of it, I really do.”
Hoppe remains involved in grower organizations, and still serves on the board of directors of Jeff Davis Rice Growers Association. Hoppe was one of the charter board members of the USA Rice Federation and has been a member of the Rice Council for 35 years. He served as president of the Louisiana Rice Council for over 20 years. He is a former USA Rice Council national president and continues to serve on the board.
Although Hoppe is retiring from rice production, he plans to keep attending its annual meeting. “I’ll always go to the USA Rice Outlook Conference,” which will be held in Little Rock, Ark., this year. “It’s a great venue. I get to see people and visit with old friends and develop new friendships. And you can also keep up with what’s happening throughout the industry. I enjoy being there.”