Top producers share lessons from the last 30 years
Three decades ago, Marty Klinker and Lon Frahm were just beginning their farming careers. Both were around 20, farming with their fathers and on the cusp of great change.
Fast forward to today and these two farmers are successful, confident and relationship-focused.
Diversity and new farm standards set by Montana’s Marty Klinker have led to his success.
Klinker was named the first-ever Top Producer of the Year in 2000. The Fairfield, Mont., rancher and crop producer earned this honor because of his top-notch business skills and profitable diversified operation.
What’s impressive is that the growth of his operation is his own doing. After graduating from high school in 1981, Klinker left home for Montana State University to study ag business and play basketball for the Bobcats. "My two goals in high school were to play Division 1 basketball and farm," Klinker says.
During his freshman season, his parents’ long-time employee quit. They offered Klinker 20 acres, a house and some leasing options, if he’d return to the farm. "It was a point in my life when I had to make a decision," he says. "My two dreams were in my hands."
Turning Points. After finishing the season, he signed the lease and finished out the rest of his degree by attending fall and winter quarters. Klinker’s parents let him lease their equipment to use on the 20-acre home place and an additional 180 rented acres.
Once back home, it didn’t take long to figure out the father-son partnership wasn’t what either of them needed. "I was learning new ideas in college, but I couldn’t bring them home," Klinker says. He began splitting away to create his own operation. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me, as a farmer, businessman and father," he says.
Klinker knew that as a young farmer, he had to meet or exceed the standards set by established farmers. "It was my responsibility to farm as good as everyone else," he says. "Once you’ve proved that, it’s time to reset the standard."
Klinker says if any of his four kids want to join his operation, he’ll happily get them started, but they have to devise and drive their own business models, and not be satisfied with the status quo. "The elders have to allow youth to run the business," Klinker explains. "They need to drive the train."
In addition to his farm, Klinker owns 4 Seasons Property Management, Inc., a landscaping, maintenance and snow removal business. This business brings a stable income and deepens his portfolio. "Diversification has been my mantra all along, and I’ve always been a contrarian," he says. "‘I can’t do that,’ and ‘Why can’t we do that?’ are the same words, just in a different order."
Seize Opportunities. Frahm, the 2009 Top Producer of the Year, grows row crops in Colby, Kan. His endless dedication to management analysis and strategy earned him the award. Frahm says 30 years ago, he was an overpaid tractor driver with an economics degree from Kansas State University. Just a few years later, Frahm was the boss.
The Platinum Rule helps Lon Frahm recruit and retain the best employees to his Kansas farm.
In 1986, Frahm’s father passed away from a heart attack, leaving him in charge of 6,600 acres at 28 years old.
It wasn’t the promotion he’d been dreaming about. The dire 1980s farm economy required intense management just to survive. "The goal was to just make it to the next year," Frahm says. "If I had my eyes a little further open, I would have realized most of your opportunities come during difficult times."
That shift from survival mode to growth mode came years later. Frahm was in the first class of The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP), which is administered by Texas A&M University. "That was the beginning of seeing things differently," Frahm says. "TEPAP lead me to other continuing education opportunities."
Thinking of himself as an economist, Frahm’s number-focused brain is perfect for the business and investment side of farming. He knows his expertise is not crop production or welding, but that’s not a problem for Frahm.
"You need to be quick to hire expertise you don’t have," he says. "There is nothing you can’t hire or lease." Frahm Farmland employs between 7 and 14 people, depending on the season.
Frahm says the biggest difference from when his father ran the operation to now is it has become completely employee-focused. "Employees have gone from being a commodity to being the most important asset," he explains.
To retain the best employees, Frahm lives by the "Platinum Rule," which is "treat others in the way they want to be treated." He says when you assume everyone wants and values the same thing you do, you will end up frustrated.
Luckily, Frahm was once in the same shoes as his employees. "I remembered everything I didn’t like, and we tried to change those things," he says. These little changes, such as letting employees decide how long they’ll be on the tractor each day, have helped. He has also become more flexible on days off and vacation time, which he knows has helped morale and productivity.
Community Equity. Klinker and Frahm agree that farming will become more relationship-focused in the future. "The new wave of agriculture is networking," Klinker says. He believes the most successful farmers will be those with a strong base of connections.
Frahm says you make your own luck. "Your luck is determined by who you hang out with, what you read, what meetings you go to and your exposure to a larger world, both inside and outside agriculture," he says. His other sage advice is to trust your gut. "The more experience you have, the more you can trust your initial reaction," he says.