Don’t believe the stereotype of farmers sporting dusty overalls and sucking on straw.
Kim Baldwin of Baldwin Farms says, sure, her husband Adam comes home dusty and dirty some days. “But he’s not only working the ground with his brawn,” she explains. “He’s using his brain. Farmers are highly intelligent individuals.”
The Business of Farming
Like all small business owners, farmers wear many hats. They are accountants, lobbyists, marketers, agronomists, scientists, mathematicians and even volunteers in their communities.
“You’re everything as a farmer. A lot of kids aren’t interested in pursuing agriculture because they don’t think it’s glamorous or exciting. The reality is it’s super exciting and requires a lot of skills. It’s super challenging,” Kim says.
Kim and Adam run a family farm in McPherson County. We caught up with them to talk about life on their farm and ended up getting a crash course in the business of farming.
When most people think of sustainability, they think of recycling and other eco-friendly acts. In farming, sustainability means taking care of the land as well as the business because the two go hand in hand.
The No. 1 factor of sustainability is profit.
Adam heard that from a sustainability expert and it stuck with him. He breaks it down like this:
If a farmer is worried about profits because she spent too much on a new tractor, then she’ll have to find other places to cut spending to make up for it. Perhaps she’ll buy less fertilizer, which will mean her soil won’t be as productive. If her land yields less food than expected, her business makes less money, putting her farm at greater risk.
“One decision can snowball,” Adam says. “One decision that wasn’t sustainable can affect the entire business. Short-term shortcuts can cost in the long term.”
So, for farmers, making smart business decisions is the same as making decisions that are good for their land. The healthier their land, the more it can produce and the more their business can grow.
This is where Adam has to laugh at the misconception of people who think farmers spread large amounts of chemicals like fertilizer and pesticides all over their crops.
“We live in the middle of our field and the last thing we want to do is to make it unhealthy for our kids to be out playing in the field or to eat what we grow,” he says.
Plus, that sort of approach isn’t sustainable from a business or a land perspective. On the business side, chemicals like fertilizers are expensive. On the land side, you don’t want to needlessly spray an area if the soil or plants don’t need it. That would just be wasting resources.
So, how do farmers know what the land needs and when?
Technology plays a vital role on the farm. Just like other businesses, farms benefit from advances in technology. The same programs and services that many business use, like file-sharing services and live video, help them collaborate with others.
There is also highly specialized technology that can help farm operations. Soil sensors, chlorophyll meters, irrigation systems, satellite imagery — these are a few tools that can help farmers capture the big picture of their operation at any given moment, and compile data across years to make more informed decisions.
Adam walked through an example with nitrogen levels in soil. A plant won’t take up more nitrogen from the soil than it needs, so being able to determine precisely how much nitrogen to add to the soil is incredibly helpful. Let’s say that a farmer would normally apply 200 units of nitrogen to a field. If soil sampling shows nitrogen is at good levels, he might only need to apply 175 units, saving 25 units or “reducing input by 12.5 percent,” as Adam puts it. Another year, that farmer might have heavy rainfall that depletes nitrogen and he’d need more than the typical 200 units to provide the same yield. Each reading helps the farmer make a sound decision at that moment and, taken in aggregate, helps the farmer make the best possible decision from year to year.
Another way technology helps is through variable-rate application programs that communicate with his equipment. Adam can input soil data into a program and come up with a specific “prescription” for each area of a field. For example, if part of his field is producing well, he can program his seeder to lay down more seed than in a poor-producing area. That way, Adam invests his seed dollars in areas with a higher expected rate of return.
Advances in technology help farmers make healthy business decisions that will, in turn, be healthy for the land.
Farming is more than a demanding business; it’s a lifestyle. The whole family has to be on board to make it work. When Adam and Kim were dating, he insisted she spend a summer on the farm, so she’d know what she was getting into. As a family, they adjust their schedules to make the farm work. Kim teaches, so just when her schedule lightens up over the summer, Adam’s shifts into high gear with staggered planting and harvesting windows for the various crops they grow. Something as simple as having a child participate in Little League means the whole family has to coordinate to make it happen.
Children are also a big part of sustainability. Adam and Kim have it in the back of their minds that they want to pass along the farm to future generations. But they’re aware not every generation is interested.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’m just a farmer.’ I think that’s done a disservice to kids wanting to become farmers. When I grew up, being a farmer was a point of pride,” Adam says.
People can romanticize farming, but just like running any small business, there’s a lot about farming that’s incredibly difficult. Adam says he thinks it’s worth it. From being his own boss to enjoying quiet moments in the field to incorporating technology and equipment for improved operations — he likes all different aspects of farming.
“You have to be able to find satisfaction in your work,” Adam says. “If I can help my field produce to its full potential while keeping the soil healthy, and make it available for future generations, I get a lot of satisfaction from that."