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Young Farmer Podcast: Seth Sheehan is leading T&S Crop Service Inc. with an eye on technology.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

February 24, 2022

When his father, Tom, died in March 2018, Seth Sheehan was left to run the family’s crop protection and seed business that his father started decades ago, right before the busy growing season.

Luckily, his dad taught him a lot.

"He taught me everything. He was great at that kind of thing," says Seth, who joined the family business, T&S Crop Service Inc. in Warsaw, N.Y., in 2000 after graduating from the University of Buffalo.

Now, 40 years old and with two daughters of his own – 5 and 2 – Seth is leading T&S into the future with a keen eye on technology. It’s a necessity, he says, especially with the demands of increased environmental regulations and higher labor costs.

It wasn’t always like this. As the company’s website describes it, the late Tom Sheehan started the business using a single pickup truck equipped with a 300-gallon spray system. Changes were slow and gradual once Seth returned to the business in 2000.

In those days, farms in Wyoming County, where the business is located, were smaller and there more of them around. These days, farms, mostly dairies, are much larger and can encompass thousands of acres, not hundreds.

“When I came back, we probably still had a couple of GVM pickup truck sprayers, and now we have maybe seven John Deere R4038 sprayers and a couple of Hagies, so things have changed a lot on that end," Seth says.

At one time, custom applicator jobs were written down on paper and handed to employees to execute. Now, every job is wirelessly transmitted to the cab display, where the employee simply sees where they must go and how much to apply. Variable-rate jobs are common these days, something that was almost heard of, at least on a large scale, when Seth started.

But like most producers these days, high input prices are putting a lot of pressure on the business this year.

"It makes planning very difficult," Seth says. “They've gone up not just this last six months, probably starting at the beginning of 2021. It's been a constant trend upward on almost everything. You hear a lot about the glyphosates and the nitrogen prices. … They are the two big ones that have probably doubled or tripled in price in the last 12 to 18 months.”

It’s not just that everything is more expensive. Finding enough nitrogen fertilizer, glyphosate or other inputs to cover this coming growing season has been challenging. It creates a domino effect, he says. When growers hear that glyphosate, for example, is going to be short, they start buying other herbicides, which in turn go up in price and become hard to find.

“The prices are way up, and you can’t get it. It’s been challenging; it’s really different,” Seth says. “I think it will be all right and everything. We won’t be short when it comes to the season, I don’t believe. But it’s been a little nerve-wracking trying to find stuff.”

T&S Crop Service farm

GRADUAL GROWTH: T&S Crop Service has gradually grown from Tom Sheehan using a 300-gallon spray on a pickup truck to a full-service crop protection and seed business now run by Seth Sheehan, the second-generation owner.

So, what is he telling growers concerned about fertilizer and herbicide shortages this spring?

“So far, I’m pretty confident we’re going to be fine,” Seth says. “We’ve been working on it for the past few months. So clients we could plan with and know what they needed, we’ve already secured what they need for the year. We moved a lot of fertilizer last fall.”

Room to grow

Unlike his late father who grew up on a small dairy farm, Seth did not grow up on a farm. He went to college after high school to get a degree, but his father told him that he needed help running the business.

It was an easy decision to come back, Seth says. The job paid well, it was something he was familiar with, and he could work alongside his father. But he had to learn the ropes, first, from the ground up.

He went to work doing custom spraying jobs and making formulations for clients. His father, he says, was more than willing to let him do his thing.

“As far as like buying fertilizer, buying crop protection and when to buy it, he would leave it up to me early on,” Seth says. “When I first came back he would say, ‘You know, do you want to buy this?’ He just sort of let me make mistakes and grow. He wouldn’t let me make big mistakes, but he would let me do what I thought was right, and then if I was wrong, you know, we would deal with it.”

Having room to grow, he says, gave him the confidence that he could do the job of running things on his own.

“I think it’s extremely important,” Seth says. “We run into people that are going to take over farms or take over businesses, or already have taken over, but still are paralyzed by not being able to make decisions because they never had the authority to make one. He prepared me very well for him not being here. That helped me a lot. We would prefer he was here, but he’s not, so we were able to sort of flawlessly deal with it.”

Autonomous future?

At January’s New York State Agricultural Society forum, Seth was awarded one of the society’s most prestigious awards: the Next Generation Farmer Award. It “honors established producers and industry newcomers who are farming in new and vibrant ways.”

In recent years, the business has started using drones for crop scouting and has adapted other technologies to put itself above the competition. Seth says that he is even open to autonomous machines if they can be adapted to maneuver the hillier terrain of western New York.

“We’d have to see how the sprayers would operate,” he says. “Our terrain is very different than central Illinois. We have a lot of hills and a lot of odd-shaped fields, 3-acre fields and 10-acre fields. So we’ll see how all that works and what the capabilities are. But yeah, that would be exciting, I think, to have a fleet of self-driving sprayers.”

Long term, labor is the big concern. It’s not only about his business, but also the effect the state’s tightening labor rules will have on farms in his region, many of whom are his customers.

“There’s just not going to be the labor pool willing to do these jobs I don’t believe, so I don’t know what that looks like,” Seth says.

While his father set the foundation for the business, Seth says he’s working hard to adapt it to whatever the region’s agriculture will look like in the future.

“I had a big advantage that I had a good father do really well and I helped him, but working really hard is probably the most important thing that we've done,” he says. “We work every day of the week and make sure that we get stuff done that we say we will, and be honest.”

Read more about:

Next Generation

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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