Holly and John Spangler
YOUNG PUPS: Once upon a time, when we were young farmers.

Time flies … when you’re having fun

It’s been a solid 20 years since we started farming, which begs the question: What would you do differently if you were starting from scratch today?

What would you do differently if you were starting your farming career today?

I posed that question to my husband, John, the other morning, having been deep in thought over our latest cover story on young farmers and opportunities in 2018.

He didn’t miss a beat: “I would’ve bought every single piece of ground that came up for sale.” Then he laughed. “But I wouldn’t encourage somebody jumping in now to not be conservative.”

That’s the kicker, isn’t it? Hindsight is 20/20 on every single land sale since the dawn of time, but what worked then doesn’t work now. And what works now probably won’t work in 20 more years.

Still, what would you do differently? We missed out on a couple of different cash rent farms. And yet, looking back, if we’d rented them, we’d have been stretched too thin to buy ground that came up shortly after. 

Missed opportunities can open doors.

Cash still king
When we started farming in the late ’90s, corn was sub-$3 and sometimes sub-$2. Illinois farmland was running somewhere around $1,900 to $2,200 per acre. A nice pickup ran $20,000. Cash rents were somewhere around $150, depending on where you were at.

Still, cash is king — then and now. The need to find additional income hasn’t changed. Nearly every young farmer we knew (when we were young farmers) had some kind of off-farm income, or they diversified with livestock, or they had a spouse with a job in town. Or maybe all three. Lenders today say the same thing: Diversify, add income streams, spread risk.

Our friends sold seed, taught ag and worked at FS. They found niches in their livestock businesses and filled them. Cash was king, wherever it came from.

We spent the first 10 years plowing every penny from the farm back into the farm and looking for ways to diversify. Back then we had 50 head of beef cows, slowly adding quality and consistency, and doubling the herd. John used our self-propelled sprayer to custom-spray for the neighbors. He sold livestock equipment. The general theory was that even if everything didn’t pay, something would — like the year he sold the calves and noted that he’d made more custom spraying for two weeks than he did on the entire calf crop. Good times.

And certainly, my generation started farming when things kept getting better. That’s not your story if you’ve started in the past five years. Still, our peers have found the additional income is hard to give up — even when you’re not a young farmer anymore. According to one friend’s banker, “You can’t compete with the people you want to compete with if you don’t have that additional income.”

Family still key
Today or 20 years ago, going home to farm doesn’t work without family — or at the least, a very committed relationship. The vast majority of young people who are farming in Illinois are doing so with family. And if you graduated from college and came straight home to farm, without an off-farm pit stop? That usually only works with large multigenerational operations with a larger pie to divide.

In the end, the folks who’ve farmed well and made it from being young farmers to middle-age farmers to “experienced” farmers all built their operations slowly, with their own money. They were patient. They were relentless with their financial management and their business plans. They found income anywhere they could.

What would you do differently if you were starting your farming career today?

Questions? Email [email protected].


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