The real excitement at the Master Farmer program begins when the Master Farmers take the stage as a group for a panel discussion. Jim Mintert, Purdue University Center for Commercial Agriculture director and an agricultural economist, grabs a microphone and searches for helpful information that each new Master Farmer can pass along to others.
This year’s Master Farmer panel included Dan Gwin, Linden; Tom and Karen McKinney, Kempton; John and Nan Nidlinger, Decatur; Don and Darci Zolman, Pierceton; and Bret Marsh, Indianapolis. Marsh is this year’s Honorary Master Farmer. He serves as the state veterinarian and directs the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.
Comments flowed when Mintert posed questions to the panel. Here are responses to key questions he asked during the discussion.
Mintert: What one piece of advice would you give someone starting out farming today, or someone who hasn’t been farming very long?
Tom McKinney: Do your own budgeting. I thought I understood our business. Later I found out I didn’t really understand it at all until I started doing budgeting and seeing where money came in and where money went out. I knew how to run equipment, but I didn’t really know my business until then.
Mintert: How close do you come on budgeting?
Tom McKinney: The first year I was within 7% for actual vs. what I budgeted. Many people say you should be able to get within 4% to 5%. My advice would be that when you bring in a new person to your operation, have them do budgeting. Nobody likes to do it, but it’s the best way to actually understand your farm as a business, with money coming in and going out.
Karen McKinney: My advice would be to develop a job description when you start out. I didn’t come from a farm background, and I had to earn the respect of my husband and in-laws before I got the responsibility to do a lot of things with the business. And I agree with Tom. You must have a budget. And once you have it, you must pay attention to it.
Mintert: John, what advice would you offer?
John Nidlinger: As big as most farms are today, it’s important to know your role. Then it’s important to find a mentor. Maybe it will be a neighbor or another farmer. Know who it is you look up to and respect. And know who you can go to with questions. If you truly take time to identify a mentor and clarify their role, you may be surprised at how helpful they can be to both you and the farming operation.
Darci Zolman: My advice would be to get involved in some kind of group in your county. See what you can learn from others in the group.
Mintert: Don, what advice would you share?
Don Zolman: Let’s go back to John’s idea of picking a mentor. That was a big deal for me. I picked someone who wasn’t a farmer. He was a businessman with a variety of business experience, and I looked up to him. I went to his office and formally asked him if he would be my mentor. He said he would, and we went from there.
I told him upfront that I wasn’t looking for someone who would tell me what I wanted to hear, or someone who would just blow me off. He never did that. He always told me the truth straight up, and that’s what I wanted. That’s what I needed to know at that point in time.
What he told me became valuable information to me. I firmly believe that in my case, my mentor was one of the keys to my success.
Mintert: Dan, you have had unique experiences. What advice would you give?
Dan Gwin: I have found that knowledge about your business is critical. When I was injured and was limited to a wheelchair as a young farmer, I thought I couldn’t do the things that were important. What I finally figured out was that I don’t have to be the one out doing it. You can hire people to help do that. I discovered I had more time to take care of the financial side of the business. It’s extremely important to pay attention to finances and managing your business properly.
My wife, Donya Lester, is a crucial part of the operation. She is my sounding board. I run all major decisions by her and listen to her opinions before we make major decisions. Someone starting out needs to understand that you need a supportive spouse, and that you need to spend time on the management side of farming.
Mintert: I heard some good advice here, from budgeting to finding a mentor. And I heard that the mentor doesn’t even have to be a farmer. I also heard it’s important to pay attention to the business side of the operation. Those are great pieces of advice.