Come Hail or High Water

 
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Risk manager defies weather with irrigation tech, diverse crops

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On a recent spring morning, self-described risk manager Roric Paulman switched into full damage-control mode. A storm the night before dumped hail on his emerging popcorn crop and up to 2.5" of rain within 45 minutes on parts of his roughly 9,000 acres.

“We’re in a jam,” Roric relayed to a dealer over the phone. The Sutherland, Neb., producer found himself dispatching team members to gather parts to build a pump and drain water away from the power panel of a center-pivot irrigation system. He put in a call asking his insurance agent whether he could switch to production hail coverage. 

He moved nimbly from his office phone to his cellphone to his shop nearby to ask questions, give directions and receive status updates. While Roric admits he’s not very good at prioritizing—a fact that drives his wife crazy—he is exceptionally good at tinkering and quickly identifying solutions to problems.

Even with his long to-do list, he didn’t think twice about helping a friend with a flooded cattle feedlot. 

“It’s pretty much wide open in terms of who we look to and who we help,” he explains.

Loss To Leadership. Although the severity of the storm proved unusual, that hands-on approach to management is nothing new for Roric. He owns and operates Paulman Farms with his wife, Debra, near the tan, gently sloping Sandhills of western Nebraska. They have been married for 35 years, 30 of which they’ve spent farming full-time. 

Over that time, Roric has set himself apart via constant networking, a practice that has led him to grow a rich array of crops, participate in cutting-edge research and spearhead statewide water conservation efforts. These are just a few of the qualities that led him to being named a 2015 Top Producer of the Year finalist.

“Roric is a noted leader on ag issues in our state,” says Matthew Williams, president, Gothenburg State Bank and a longtime friend. “He has been involved in water issues and is currently president of the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance. Through his work with this group, water users from different disciplines build a consensus.” 

Yet like the bountiful but fragile Ogallala Aquifer beneath his family’s farm, Roric knows what it feels like both to reap rich harvests and to be depleted. In 1985, he left a budding career with Caterpillar in Omaha to begin farming full-time with his father. Six months later, his dad died, and he looked on as creditors repossessed the land his family had worked so hard to own and preserve.

Yet the Paulmans didn’t give up. 

“We contacted all of the landowners we had been farming for to see if they would stay with us,” Roric recalls. “The options included continuing to rent their land or to custom farm for them. By the grace of God, they all said yes, and that gave us the start we needed. That year was rock bottom for us, but we diligently pursued our passion and grew into the operation that we have today.”   

Under Roric’s leadership, the farm has expanded into a multi-million-dollar venture. This year, he will grow roughly a dozen crops, including corn, wheat, dry beans and popcorn. He’s added chai (as in chai tea) as part of a dryland experiment. They mix changes annually based on relationships he’s formed and opportunities he finds to earn premiums. 

Team Focus. Roric nurtures members of his farm team, ensuring quality in every aspect of his business.

“My goal is to continue to find ways to bring people back into agriculture and to show them it is a viable career going forward in order to feed a growing population,” Roric explains. “Leaving the ground in better condition than I received it for future generations is the legacy I want to leave behind.” 

The farm has three full-time and eight part-time employees. He also has partnered with his son, Zachary, and lead employee, Tony Holm, each of whom farms 1,000 acres to learn the business of farming. 

“They have a vested interest not only in their own but in this operation,” Roric explains. His ability to communicate calmly and his emphasis on knowing breakeven at all times have been helpful, Zachary notes.

“There are a lot of bad things that happen around the farm, from weather to breakdowns to equipment failure. He never gets upset about it,” Zachary points out. 

As an employee for more than 20 years, Holm adds Roric’s guidance has enabled him to do what he loves. 

“My father farmed, but about the time I got really interested in it as a job, my dad had retired from farming,” Holm explains. “Roric’s been the one I’ve worked for and learned from. He’s there for me to bounce questions off of and to help me, and he lets me get my own feet wet, too.”

Local unemployment is just 2%, making it difficult to find and retain good workers. As a result, Roric has an open-door policy and takes a chance on people other employers have rejected because of a drug addiction or background problems. Those employees have gone on to become productive team members. 

“It’s a great place to work,” he says. “We believe in building strong relationships to last a lifetime.” 

From The Ground Up. On average, the region surrounding Paulman Farms sees up to nine hail days each year—the highest rate in the nation. The ever-changing environment is an appropriate foil to Roric, whose foresight has created a safety net of proven business partners and farming practices to offset risk. 

Responsibilities handled by Roric include purchases, grain sales, oversight of truck loads and deliveries, payroll and coordination of repairs. Debra works part-time for the operation and manages the farm’s finances using enterprise analysis. 

The operation has built an edge with innovative crop marketing.

“We focus on quality, especially with our dry beans and popcorn,” Roric explains. “We direct cut dry beans, delivering clean beans to the end user, including a large restaurant chain. We have cleaned, bagged and sold both popcorn and dry beans directly from the farm. To do this, we originate our own freight.” 

Because he farms conventional, specialty and organic crops, Roric pastes a piece of paper with the past five years of crop rotations on his desk. This allows him to cross-check crops before approving application of chemicals or other inputs that could harm neighboring plants. He sells his crops when he can realize a profit and hedges corn and soybeans several years in advance. Crop insurance is a critical part of his marketing plan, and he budgets $70 to $80 per acre for the expense. 

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Zachary Paulman (left) is a farm partner with his parents, Debra and Roric, who are teaching him the skills needed to run the operation in the future.

Conservation With Technology. All of the land farmed by the Paulmans is under irrigation fed largely by groundwater, making conservation a top priority. They use cutting-edge technology to increase yields while managing water use. This includes RTK and variable-rate seeding and fertilizer application. 

The Paulmans partner with leaders across the state to capture data on their farm documenting how much water each crop and field uses. The cutting-edge research led former Gov. Dave Heinemann to appoint Roric to the Governor’s Water Funding Task Force.

“Roric led the team to find sustainable funding to support Nebraska water projects,” recalls D. Chandler Mazour, former manager of Monsanto’s Water Utilization Learning Center. “The result of the work from this team was significant financial appropriations from the Nebraska legislature.” 

His knack for banding people together prompted Roric to seek election as a senator representing Nebraska’s 42nd District this fall. 

Although he didn’t win, he made an impact—Roric lost by just 300 votes out of 10,000 cast. He says he took the high road, refusing to respond to critics even after they pulled data from the Environmental Working Group’s website and used it to portray him as a corporate farmer who operates at the expense of taxpayers. He’s proud of his effort. 

“If you want your community and your state to be a better place,” he points out, “you have to give your time to make that happen.” He recently joined the Top Producer Executive Network (TPEN) to learn from other producers.

Community Leader. Roric and his family have come a long way from the rock bottom days of the ‘80s. 

“Roric has never been one to sit in the back seat,” notes Williams of Gothenburg State Bank. “When given an opportunity to lead, Roric has always accepted the challenge.” 

Part of what makes him so successful is his close connection to all aspects of Paulman Farms. 

“Roric has developed good business plans, learned to use his cashflow and all tools and resources available to him, and has become an above-average marketer,” explains Jen Winder, vice president of commercial and ag banking, Adams Bank & Trust in North Platte, Neb. 

Today, Roric aims to fight for the right thing. He knows there’s still work to be done to ensure American agriculture remains an industry full of opportunities.

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Paulman Farms At A Glance

OPERATION: Paulman Farms spans 9,000 acres in southwest Nebraska. The operation’s mix of more than a dozen crops changes annually. The farm is a state leader in water management. 

FAMILY: Roric and Debra Paulman have four children, three of whom now work off-farm. Roric and son Zachary are full-time farm partners. Debra is a part-time partner and full-time educator. Roric leads day-to-day operations, and Debra handles finances. They have recently begun a succession plan that calls for Zachary to lead the farm in the future.    

COMMUNITY: Service is a key component of Roric’s mission. A snapshot of his roles include the Nebraska Governor’s Water Funding Taskforce, The Nature Conservancy, Great Plains Regional Medical Center, Sutherland Rural Fire Board and the Adams Bank and Trust Regional Advisory Board.

TECHNOLOGY: Rapid adoption of technology is a hallmark of Paulman Farms. Variable-rate systems are used across the operation to reduce waste and maximize inputs. Roric meets with his suppliers to review yield data, ask questions and make plans.

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