Build Bridges Between Generations

Build Bridges Between Generations

Experts share how young farmers can assume leadership roles

Nearly 100 young producers came to Chicago recently to learn about the changing face of agriculture and farm business opportunities ahead. 

Power Hour Noon LogoCommon themes at the 2015 Tomorrow’s Top Producer one-day conference included management of margins and relationships during tight financial times. Attendees also focused on marketing strategy and analysis of technology returns.

Farmers age 35 and under need to be prepared as their parents anticipate retirement, experts advise. As succession plans are initiated and management roles are transferred, young producers must prepare to collaborate with a team of expert advisers and ask the necessary questions to assume leadership roles on their operations.

Producers from 16 states represented their farms at the annual conference, which wrapped up with the announcement of Matt Sims as the 2015 Horizon Award winner. Sims, 35, is a numbers-savvy producer at State Line Farms in eastern Illinois and western Indiana. Read on page 12 about how he has navigated relationships and finance to build a business that has grown 18% annually for several years.

The pages that follow highlight just a few of the conference sessions, speakers and key takeaways.  

By Nate Birt

Prioritize Continuing Education 


As a young producer, Jerry Gulke made it a point to spend 3% of his income on continuing education. During his opening remarks at the conference, the farmer and president of The Gulke Group encouraged young farmers to spend time listening to smart people.

As for markets, Gulke says, the American economy remains robust in spite of changes in presidential administrations.

“Our economy is much better than any one person out there,” he says.

At the same time, there remain questions about the future in light of the strengthening dollar and the plunge in oil prices.  

“We’re up at a point now in the stock market where all the stimulus that we’ve had has done what it’s supposed to do,” Gulke explains. “From here, it’s going to be a lot harder to double our economy.”

As young producers look ahead, Gulke says, consider the following:

  •  Canada will remain a strong competitor in the ag marketplace.
  • “We have a supply problem. We produced a little too much” corn. The same is true of oil. Yet corn demand might be a little better than production in 2015.
  • Operate your grain sales as if you were running an elevator. Storage is critical and will be a “cash cow” eventually.
  • Competitors such as Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina have ramped up corn exports since 2005, but they can easily ramp down. It will be interesting to follow their planting decisions this year. 

Board of Trade Tour

Young farmers toured the Chicago Board of Trade as an extension of Tomorrow’s Top Producer—a historic opportunity since futures pits will close in July. Only option pits will remain for open outcry.

By Nate Birt 

Business Tips From 2015 Tomorrow’s Top Producer Farmer Panel

Keep open lines of communication on multi-generation farms. That’s the advice of three producers who spoke on a panel at this year’s conference. 

“If you get put in a position where you’re buying—or whatever your position or role is in the farm—make sure that it’s clear,” advises Jeremy Weaver, an Indiana producer and 2014 Horizon Award winner. “Make sure that you communicate.”

Illinois producer Joe Zumwalt advises focusing on information rather than on how it might be delivered in a conversation.

“If you can eliminate personality, you can eliminate so much,” explains Zumwalt, a 2014 Top Producer of the Year finalist.

Iowa producer Dave Nelson farms with his father, who worked through the 1980s and consequently has a conservative approach to the operation.

“Me and Dad complement each other very well,” explains Nelson, a 2013 Top Producer of the Year finalist.

Nelson recommends meeting at least once each month. In his operation, the meeting includes key farm management—himself, his wife, his father and his mother. “Talk things out,” Nelson recommends.

Technology And Business Relationships. The producers also talked about prioritizing technology and building relationships with farm workers.

On the technology side, Nelson used a multi-hybrid planter for the first time in 2014 and says it will bring the greatest advantage for soybeans, particularly when it comes to factors such as pH. 

Developing relationships is critical to their operations. Zumwalt recommends being flexible. He is his operation’s only full-time worker, but he works alongside seven part-time team members.

“I want the good people, and the good people are busy,” he says. During harvest, flexibility can be difficult to stay rolling. Yet even part-time employees can have buy-in on farm decisions.

Weaver advises “make sure you’re taking care of the people who take care of you.” Nelson has no full-time farm employees . He recommends thinking not only about salaries that retain workers but also about giving workers time off in the winter to hunt or do other activities they enjoy. Understand what is important to team members and act accordingly.

Also identify someone at the local co-op who has the heart to farm, Nelson continues. Partner with that person, let that person have skin in the game and have them help you farm. 

Producers Dave Nelson of Iowa (center left), Jeremy Weaver of Indiana and Joe Zumwalt of Illinois share business lessons and tips on work-life balance during a panel with Tomorrow’s Top Producer host Sara Schafer. 


Overheard On Twitter At #ttp15

@mattreynolds03: “Learning a lot from many great speakers in Chicago. #ttp15”

@TopProducer360: “Fun fact: Jerry Gulke’s first @topproducermag column published in 1976 and focused on the mini computer. #ttp15”

@topproducermag: “Farmer Joe Zumwalt says he will survive this year by locking in costs and breakeven … but he is waiting to lock in fuel. #ttp15”

@FJLegacyProject: “It’s virtually impossible to have good communication without a third party, says Reg Shandro at #ttp15.”

By Nate Birt

Assess Whether Farm Technology Investments Are Providing Payback

When evaluating technology payback, consider the amount of overlap or skipping you will eliminate by adding a particular tool to your farm. That’s the recommendation of Ohio producer Brian Watkins, who spoke during a breakout session.

To determine return on investment, break out the tasks your team performs on a spreadsheet.

“We want to model the operations that we’re doing,” explains Watkins, who farms in Kenton. Consider the type of application, such as performing tillage or applying fertilizer; evaluate the speed and fuel usage of machines; weigh capital cost; and determine impact on yield.

Autosteer and autoswath alone can result in significant savings simply by reducing operational overlap.

There are several ways to evaluate investments. One is payback period, he says, but this doesn’t take into account the interest cost or cost of capital over time. The second is net present value, which evaluates investment benefits over time.

By Nate Birt


How to Stick in Customers’ Minds

The year 2015 could easily appear threatening given minimal margins, tight case and limited equipment purchases. Yet Dave Nelson, a 2013 Top Producer of the Year finalist and Fort Dodge, Iowa, producer, says it’s also a great time to maximize on-farm branding. 

In other words, it’s time to embrace defensive mode. 

“Offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” Nelson explained during a breakout session.

For farm owners and managers, a defensive strategy involves attention to details that matter. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to build relationships with landlords, make a farm website more robust or produce a regular newsletter for stakeholders. Yet the difference it makes for future profit potential is incalculable. 

“Do things that stick in your customers’ minds,” Nelson advises. Nelson’s farm puts family at the heart of its communications strategy. Its motto is: “Our family doing business with your family.” To that end, Nelson makes a point of including photos of his family at work on the operation in each and every newsletter. Those photos can also be found on his company website. 

That’s not to say farm messaging shouldn’t include news, as well. Nelson has begun testing multi-hybrid planter technology and includes those kinds of details—as well as information on resulting yield advantages—in communications with stakeholders. Tying all of those details together, though, should be an emphasis on real people farming in a responsible way in a local setting.

“What if communication is the difference between breaking even and losing money?” Nelson says.

By Sara Schafer

Tips for Slashing Your Operation’s Clash

Conflict of any kind—whether it’s a silent simmer, knock-down drag-out or aggressive argument—can hinder or even hurt your business. Although conflict is normal in a family business, it should not go untreated, says Reg Shandro, a farm succession consultant with Farmacist Advisory Services based in Lacombe, Alberta. 

“Conflict is a clash of interests, behaviors, wishes or actions that result in an unproductive use of energy,” Shandro explains. 

People tend to want to avoid disagreements, Shandro says, yet conflict can have a positive impact on your team. It can:

  • Bring about change.
  • Identify concerns or issues.
  • Open up communication.
  • Provide faster and better understanding of each party’s position.
  • Create new opportunities.
  • Bring about relief.
  • Change relationships.

To ensure your operation’s conflict creates positive results, you must first admit it exists. “Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right,” he notes. “It is about acknowledging and appreciating the differences.” 

As a rule of thumb, producers should hold off on making assumptions about what someone else is thinking, have an outside source mediate conversations and strive to separate the people from the problem, Shandro advises. 

By Nate Birt


Build a Network Effectively

Networking is a critical skill for success, but people often have misconceptions about the act of meeting people, cautions Andrew McCrea, host of the “American Countryside” radio program, part of Farm Journal Media.

“Networking can be words. It can be talking. But it’s about something deeper,” McCrea explains. In reality, networking is going beyond formalities to learn about another person’s values, interests and purpose. 

Make an effort to commit details to memory so that upon meeting someone for a second time, you’ll be able to draw on key details. McCrea pointed to the acts of focus, repetition and association as central to that process. To gather details that will be stored for future reference, producers must be willing to invest yet another resource.

“There is no substitute for time,” McCrea says. 

Other gestures that can demonstrate care and concern include crafting handwritten thank-you notes and learning about the personality types of those you work with to cater your communication.


Thank You, Sponsors

Without sponsors, this event would not be possible. Sponsors include: Bayer CropScience, Case IH and Conservis. 

For more coverage of the 2015 Tomorrow’s Top Producer conference, including speaker presentations, visit


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