young crop in field

3 ways farmers can think outside the box

Land Values: Farm managers say these unusual revenue streams stand out on resumes.

By Kent Kraft

Our farm management office regularly receives letters with resumes from farmers I have never met, looking to farm any land I have available for rent. We keep all those letters, but the reality is that of the hundred-plus farm leases I sign every year, each one is with a farmer I’ve met.

Of the dozens of such letters, I honestly cannot remember the names of any of the farmers, other than a couple. But the reason I can remember those? They stood out from the crowd, because they did something out of the box on their farm to increase their income.

As farm managers, we like to see people pursue new routes to success. I heard this phrase somewhere along the way: “Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do.”

What’s inside-the-box thinking? Think raising specialty crops or livestock, getting a seed production contract or a seed dealership, doing some trucking for hire, maybe doing machinery repairs or welding, or looking for custom hire work.

But if you’re thinking outside the box, you’ll find opportunities to provide goods or services in markets that are not already saturated. If it was easy or low-risk, a lot of farmers would already be doing it, right?

If doing something is not easy, then you have to evaluate what special skills, talents or experiences you can bring to the table that will make it succeed. Following are a few things that come to my mind:

Become an organic certifier. There are no Illinois-based organic certifying agencies. There may be more organic farming operations around you than you are aware of, and the growth of organic production will provide someone with some real opportunities. Someone gets paid to certify for the federal government that those acres are organic.

Become a real estate broker. Obtaining a real estate broker license is more difficult than it used to be, but is feasible for someone who can take classes and has good people and math skills. Associating with an existing brokerage firm can provide the necessary education and experience. Beware: It’s not steady income. Getting to know the folks who are selling or buying land — the buyers, sellers and brokers — could bring additional opportunities. When I attend farm real estate broker meetings, I note a lot of gray hair (or no hair). As those folks retire, there will be lots of openings for new people to enter the business. The same is true of farm appraisers.

Sell direct. The current demand for farm-to-table food identification, certified organic food or sustainable agricultural practices could open opportunities for supplying production. One of my previous Illinois farm tenants had a contract to supply Jack Daniels with a specific corn hybrid. The plethora of wineries and microbreweries around the state could open opportunities for growing hops, grapes, barley or other grains. One more consideration: If someone eats or drinks something you grew and they get sick, and your name is on it … hello, Mr. Attorney.

And finally, consider what interests you and what you can develop a passion for. That trumps everything. If what you pursue isn’t something you’re passionate about, you will be unlikely to succeed.

And you will be more likely to find a unique opportunity if you go looking for it, rather than waiting for it to knock on your door. Ask yourself: “If I couldn’t farm, what else would I like to do?” The perhaps now-trite saying is if you really love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life. In my life, it was a wrenching decision back in 1986 to leave farming and start a career in farm management. But it worked out pretty darned well for me.

Kraft is an accredited farm manager with Farmland Solutions, Sherman, Ill. He is a member of the Illinois Society of Professional Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, whose members regularly contribute to this column. Email farm management questions to Carroll Merry at [email protected].

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