Management experts need to look no further than rural Nash County, N.C., and sit down with farmer Jeff Tyson for a case study in successful business strategy. At nearly 6,000 acres and producing tobacco, cotton, sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, spring cucumbers and stevia, managing Tyson Family Farms presents similar challenges to Jeff Tyson that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and other big businesses face.
Sure, Tyson isn’t managing thousands of employees or worrying about shareholder value that CEOs of publicly traded companies have to deal with on a daily basis, but he still handles personnel issues and relies on well-tuned management skills to produce a multitude of crops across not only Nash County but also Halifax and Edgecombe counties. It’s all in a day’s work for Jeff Tyson.
Tyson comes well suited to the task. He is the third generation of his family to farm the land between Raleigh and Rocky Mount, but seven generations of Tysons have farmed in that part of North Carolina. Tyson’s grandfather Hubert Tyson started Tysons Family Farms with 300 acres with Tyson’s dad, Andrew Tyson, taking over in the early 1970s. Jeff Tyson came on board full time in 1992 after completing his associate degree at North Carolina State University.
Growth has been a key to success. Andrew Tyson grew the operation to 1,800 acres while father and son grew the family farm together to 3,000 acres. “Over the last three years we have doubled in size through different farmers retiring and me being in the position to take on more land,” Jeff says.
Andrew Tyson retired from full-time farming in 2015 although he still offers input and guidance. Today, Jeff and wife Sharon Tyson own and run the farm with Sharon managing the books and handling human resource issues and Jeff running the production side of the farm.
Tyson Family Farms Inc was formed 2015 when Jeff and Sharon took over the farming business.
Jeff and Sharon have three daughters, Morgan, a paramedic training to become a respiratory therapist in Nashville; Taylor, a sales representative for an animal pharmaceuticals company in Raleigh; and Logan, a zoologist who works for a specialty veterinary clinic in Raleigh. “They are all pursuing their own dreams and doing well,” Jeff says.
Through it all, Tyson has relied on independent crop consultants. And this year, for the first time, he has brought on a full time agronomist to help the farm better implement precision agriculture practices from zone mapping to variable rate seeding to scouting and the like.
The new agronomist will also help Tyson evaluate new technology to implement on his farm. “You need to take all the information, interpret it and figure out how to make it work on your farm. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the industry does, if it doesn’t work on your farm, you need to be looking for something else,” Tyson says.
The key, he says, is to manage for efficiency. And the key to efficiency is knowing where tge profit level is on each crop. “What works for my neighbor might not work for me. What works in Georgia might not work in North Carolina,” he says.
For example, in fertility management, you can push too much fertilizer on the crop and not see any yield advantage, but you can also back down and hit the bottom and then come back and find that happy medium. That is an ongoing challenge, Tyson says.
One key to efficiency is grid sampling. Tyson began experimenting with the technology during the mid 1990s. Six years ago he went 100 percent grid sampling for all of his crops. “If everything lines up, we are able to variably apply fertilizer over everything, but sometimes we do get behind and go back to standard fertility on some of our acres,” he says.
Right now, Tyson is considering variable rate seeding, but isn’t ready to make a full commitment to the technology. He’s hoping his full time agronomist will help the farm find a way to make it work.
“We have just updated our harvest equipment to actually track our yields. We’re using soybean maps with yield maps to go back and see if we made a difference with our grid sampling,” Tyson says.
Managing a variety of crops from tobacco to sweet potatoes to cotton to soybeans does present its challenges. But Tyson and his team have developed a plan to make it all work. This year, with all the weather challenges, it’s been tough.
“Normally if things run well, everything flows together. This has not been one of those years. We just finished tobacco up the week before last. Peanuts are four weeks behind. The cotton crop is a month behind. Soybeans have been on schedule. It’s been a challenge this year,” Tyson said in an interview with Southeast Farm Press in his farm office Nov. 4.
All things considered, Tyson says his tobacco crop is shaping up to be quite good, while the sweet potato crop is spotty, with some fields looking excellent and others looking below average. Both the soybean and cotton crops look average, but with his early season beans, he is seeing 25 to 30 percent damage because of wet weather.
“We have just started harvesting our later group beans. The yields appear to be hanging somewhere around average right now,” Tyson said.
Cotton is a month behind and he expects yields will be a bit below average because of the weather challenges throughout the year.
Like other farmers across North Carolina, Tyson is trying his hand at early-season soybeans. But they have been a challenge this year because of the weather.
“We had quality issues with early beans. The hulls were lighter and thinner. If we get a wet period like we went through this year, that’s a risk you take, which is the reason we only planted 300 acres of early-season beans this year,” he says.
One input that is a must for all of Tyson’s soybeans: Fungicides.
“We started our fungicide program seven or eight years ago as our soybean acres started increasing. It works for us; we see a value in it. It’s showed us a big increase in yields and quality. Fungicides are good for us, because we normally run a couple of weeks behind,” he says.
As a very challenging 2020 crop year draws to an end, Tyson is already planning for 2021. He plans to stick with sweet potatoes and tobacco because they are the money crops and he plans to keep experimenting with stevia. He’ll keep looking to the markets to determine his cotton, peanut and soybean rotation.
And for the first time since 2014, he’ll be planting corn in 2021, which hasn’t always been a top performer. Over his years in farming, Tyson has floated in and out of corn. He’s added more grain bin storage and added a dryer which will help with the corn.
With the weather patterns impacting soybeans over the past several years, Tyson said the dryer is needed for timeliness. Last year, he notes, the weather pattern presented challenges because they could only harvest soybeans two days a week, waiting for the beans to dry down.
“We made the decision last year that a dryer was incumbent for us. Right now, we are running two combines. If my dryer works like I think it will, we’ll be able to sell one combine and be able to save some money there,” Tyson says.