One Michigan Couple's Fight Back to the Farm

January 23, 2019 10:26 AM
 
With each tractor or combine pass, pig squeal and kernel placed in the soil, Brian Washburn is thankful for the life he’s created on the farm. It was a life he never expected to experience.

With each tractor or combine pass, pig squeal and kernel placed in the soil, Brian Washburn is thankful for the life he’s created on the farm. It was a life he never expected to experience. His lifelong dream was to farm, but neither his nor his wife’s family had room for him. But with patience and perseverance, he made his dream come true.

Brian grew up “farm adjacent,” as his dad had a job in town. But Brian spent every waking minute he could helping his uncle or grandfather on the family farm in Elsie, Mich. After he graduated from college and found the family farm didn’t have enough work to support more than one family, he turned to construction where he worked for nine years—all the while using vacation days to work on his in-law’s family farm.

“I worked for my wife’s grandparents and uncle for about three months when the neighbor asked me to run his hog farm and help manage the row crop business, too,” Brian recalls.

Elevator

Brian worked for his neighbor for several years until he got a call he’d been preparing for since childhood. His grandpa wanted him to come back to the farm. “My grandpa realized, ‘This farm is going to need someone from the younger generation if we are going to continue our family farm for many, many generations to come,’” Brian says.

That was the foot in the door he needed. Brian worked for his grandfather and with his uncle who had also returned to the farm years earlier. During this time, Brian rented equipment from them to farm the nearly 400 acres he picked up the first two years he was back.

In 2009, the family operation farmed about 2,500 acres. Today Brian and his wife, Michelle, and his uncle have boosted that number to 4,200. But row crops aren’t their only iron in the fire.

Multiple Profit Centers. A diversified business is a good goal for any farmers—especially young farmers says Moe Russell, president of Russell Consulting group in Panora, Iowa. He encourages farmers to identify business opportunities with financial potential and start small.

“The easiest way to diversify a crop operation is to add a livestock building,” Russell says. “It utilizes your labor, and the nutrient value from the animal waste has tremendous value that replaces fertilizer cost but also adds organic matter and improves soil health.”

That’s just what the Washburns did. Five years ago, Michelle’s world was turned upside-down. Book-keeper and investment manager for her family, her husband came to her with a wild idea: Let’s build a 4,800-head hog barn.

Hog barn

This was the start of their venture into hogs and the first domino of dozens that fell, ending with a highly diversified operation. In addition to their initial hog investment they’ve added another 4,800-head hog building and are expanding the row crop operation. Michelle owns and operates a crop insurance company. Brian works in a family-owned seed dealership and they recently bought a small grain elevator. They’re eyeing a second one with better rail options.

“I find a way to make the money work, and he’s the idea guy,” Michelle explains. Finding the capital for each new venture is challenging, but they’re checking off each box to make sure they can make their investment back and then some before signing on any dotted line.

Financial Hurdles. Finding a bank that would give a young couple a loan wasn’t easy—they’d only recently invested in land and hadn’t built up equity. After being turned down by banker after banker, the couple was forced to research other options. With insurance from the Farm Service Agency, they were able to secure a loan through Greenstone Farm Credit Services.

“The amount of money used to really scare me, especially with the pig barn,” Michelle says. “That barn cost is $1.5 million. A $50,000 loan you can pay off by getting a job, but a $1.5 million loan you won’t pay off with a job in your lifetime. Now that we’re further into this I understand how to make it work.”

Computer work

They’re doing just that, and expanding, which means they have an ever-watchful eye on the books. Instead of looking at balance sheets once a quarter or a couple times a year, Michelle and Brian pore over documents for 10 or more hours every month. When it comes to the balance sheet it’s not just about achieving the highest yields or weights—it all comes down to dollars and making real profit.

“We’re not cutting costs, we’re maximizing our profits,” Michelle says. “Yield is where we make our money, so we don’t cut on inputs. We evaluate cost per acre.”

Skilled Team. Another area they refuse to go cheap: labor. You can’t make as much money with unreliable or unskilled help, Brian says.

“While everything we’ve added to our operation has created more work, it’s also allowed us to hire more people,” Brian says. “I think many businesses say, ‘Let’s hire the cheap guy.’ The problem is they’re never as good of operators, and that’s not something I agree with.”

Instead, he finds people who complement his skill set. Because he hires quality employees, he’s found more efficiency because he doesn’t have to “hold anyone’s hand.” Additionally, the Washburns credit their team to saving them money on expenses such as mechanical work. Brian and Michelle are also able to spend more time with their two daughters, Lindsey, 12, and Kyla, 9.

Family

“I don’t have to worry if I need to leave, as these guys are really good at what they do,” Brian says. “For example, we just hired a guy who used to be a mechanic, so I don’t have to take tractors and semis in anymore—he makes up for my weakness in mechanics.”

Ultimately, every decision this family makes boils down to: Will it make them successful? So far, each risk has brought high rewards and something they can grow forward for their children.

“We live an insane life, and we get a lot of comments and criticism about how busy we are,” Michelle says. “Most people work for the weekend; we work for our 40s and 50s when we will be able to slow down—if we want to.” 

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