True Grit

March 2, 2011 01:17 AM
True Grit

Built on the backs of refinery workers and farmers, the little town of Sunray, Texas, has seen boom and bust. The Sunray co-op was once the largest rural grain elevator in the world, servicing farmers across the panhandle with a storage capacity of 7 million bushels. Yet most Texans remember Sunray for the 1957 explosion at Diamond Shamrock refinery, where the town’s entire volunteer fire department lost their lives.

The Crownover family legacy mirrors the history of the town they now call home. On the hardscrabble plains where wind is plentiful and water is precious, Justin Crownover and his mother and business partner, who goes by "K," have shared triumph and tragedy. During the past decade, two family partners have suffered fatal accidents that might have destroyed other families.

True grit, a love of farming and the desire to pass on the family farm to the next generation keep the Crownovers rooted in the area. Today, Lone Star Family Farms grows corn, seed milo, wheat and cotton on 20,000-plus acres of ground where 45 sprinklers might be going at one time.

"There aren’t many farmers left around here, so I guess we’re the crazy ones," says Justin, who tends to be proud and self-deprecating at the same time. The Crownover family is working to change the local dynamic by growing their business to support five families.

As a result of their fortitude and business excellence, Lone Star Family Farms was recognized as a finalist in the 2011 Top Producer of the Year contest, presented by Challenger and cosponsored by Asgrow, Bayer CropScience and SFP.

Hard Homecoming. Many generations of Crownovers have been farmers. Even so, Justin never felt any pressure to farm and even flirted with the possibility of a career at the stock exchange. The month he earned his college degree, land back home became available to rent. Justin took the long road to the windswept town of his youth.

Those early years were lean, with Justin and his father, Johnny, farming seven sections of land totaling 4,480 acres. Land came and went, along with weather disasters and low crop prices. When they lost rental ground to higher bids, Justin worked for no wages, receiving only room and board as his compensation.

"We eventually rented more land but soon ran out of money and credit at the bank," Justin says. "That low point was our wake-up call to get our finances under control."

Times and markets changed and opportunities presented themselves, and Justin and his parents formed a partnership and grew the operation to 19 sections of land. They explored other avenues of creating profit, including growing seed milo, which helped them pay their way out of the carryover note Johnny had held since the mid-1980s. By 1999, they had enough money to buy their first section of land with cash.

Soon, Justin’s brother, Adam, returned home from college and with his wife, Rebecca, formed their own farming operation. The three family units enjoyed farming separately but working together. Justin and his wife, Stephanie, started a family, having two boys, Cole and Connor. Adam and Rebecca had a little girl named Acie. Life was good in the Texas Panhandle.

Outside of town, the train tracks crisscross farmland like scars. In March 2006, disaster struck when Johnny died in a car collision with a train. The death of the family patriarch left a deep hole. In an effort to preserve the family farm, K, Justin, Stephanie, Adam and Rebecca founded Lone Star Family Farms in January 2009, affiliating themselves with FamilyFarms Group out of Brighton, Ill.

"We were so devastated and in need of management direction. The FamilyFarms concept appealed to us," Justin says. As part of FamilyFarms, they receive education, training and implementation guidance on everything from their finances to human resources. The Crownovers became part of a network of farmers across the nation that provided them with shared experience, networking and support.

They had no idea how much that support would be needed. Just months after forming Lone Star Family Farms, tragedy struck again when Adam was killed in an ATV accident. Justin lost his brother and business partner; Rebecca lost her husband and best friend.

"It’s a time I never want to revisit, but it’s a time that forged our family’s resilience and made us determined to make this farm successful," Justin says. A white cross with Johnny’s name tops a hill near Justin’s home. A scholarship fund has been established in memory of Johnny and Adam at Wayland Baptist University.

Since Adam’s death, Rebecca has remained a partner of Lone Star Family Farms and continues to participate in many aspects of the operation, including bookkeeping, public relations, website maintenance, technology implementation and support and human resources.

"My goal is to learn and grow the farm. I’m committed to this farm as a business. It’s my future and my daughter’s future," Rebecca says.

Management Reboot. Years have passed and light shines again on Sunray and the Crownover family. Today, Justin’s goals as a farmer have matured. For him, farming is no longer a job—it’s a passion, the way he most loves to spend his time, energy and creativity. Justin strives for high yields. Lone Star Family Farms averages 256 bu. per acre corn using yield maps to fine-tune plant spacing, drainage, input application rates and soil nutrient availability. Along with RTK, strip tilling and variable rate planting, the farm employs GPS and swath control to avoid overspraying and row commands to avoid overplanting.

Irrigation is key to high yields in this part of Texas, Justin says, but restrictions from local water boards pose a challenge. One of the ways the farm has adjusted to this challenge is to add cotton, which requires less water.

Technology also plays a huge role in irrigation management on the farm’s thousands of crop acres. All of the sprinklers are tied to pivot monitors. If a sprinkler goes down, the farm is electronically notified day or night. Lone Star Family Farms also tracks all irrigation costs and has been able to identify practices that resulted in $100 per acre savings in costs on different farms. Irrigation costs amounted to 20% of gross revenue in 2009.

Using AgriSolutions AgManager software, the Crownovers can track cost per acre of each irrigation pivot, gross cost of utilities, supplies and reports for each pivot.

"We can track commodities at a farm or field level and see which crops are producing the highest revenue per acre," Justin says. "Having up-to-date data in report form has revolutionized our management and decision-making processes."

The farm maintains financial forecasts on a detailed production basis for all of its acres and continually updates a five-year budget plan that drives long-term operational management decisions. The family has adopted a managerial accounting system whereby they are able to track costs and margins not only by crop and field, but by individual farm profit and cost center.

"Our profit centers have generally made us more money every year because as we analyze the data, we can make better and more effective decisions," Justin says.

They also consolidated their entities to ensure the ability to use their financial data for analysis. This past year, the farm employed a senior financial manager to help transition farm financials to audit-quality GAAP-compliant standards to attract more capital.

"The management team is highly motivated to become the best managers possible, and they consistently take classes to enhance their knowledge of farm and business management," says Johnny Schmucker, vice president of Great Plains Ag Credit.

"They explore production and business avenues, such as researching the latest equipment technologies and hedging commodity prices a year or two in advance," Schmucker adds.

High Expectations. Driving past a corn field, Justin stops to talk to one of his irrigation mechanics who is working on a sprinkler. "Our employees are everything to this operation, and they are hard workers," Justin says. "We expect a lot of out of them."

That expectation isn’t nearly as high as what Justin expects from himself. Folks who know him well say he is humble and sincere and that he works hard at building relationships with landowners and people throughout the community.

There is a weight that comes with being the last Crownover man of his generation. Out on the dusty panhandle, there are no secrets to success, just necessary grit and Texas-sized heart.

Growth Spurt

The size and scale of Lone Star Family Farms, along with its growth from 5,000 acres in 2000 to 30 employees and more than 20,000 acres in 2010, is exceptional for the panhandle region, says Johnny Schmucker, who works with the business as vice president of Great Plains Ag Credit.

The Crownovers own about half of their acres and cash-rent the majority of the remaining acres. The family has grown their revenue, after deducting cash rents, by more than 200% from 2005 to 2009 while keeping operating expenses low.

It’s important to note that Sunray, Texas, isn’t central Illinois; it’s tough Texas ground with big opportunities for young, progressive farmers with irrigation tools and management know-how. There are many older landlords in the area looking for good farmers to rent ground to.

Still, the Crownovers’ operating management results are impressive. Most businesses expend approximately 25% of operating profit for interest and another 25% for owner demands. On average, Lone Star Family Farms used only 11% of its operating profit on interest during the past five years. In addition to low interest costs, owner withdrawals have averaged only 4% of the operating profit.

The farm also has increased its assets throughout a five-year period while keeping debt levels low. Justin attributes this to tight operating efficiency and managerial accounting, which allows the business to manage costs based on growing crop centers for each farm or field and specific crop.

Inside Lone Star Family Farms

Farm Specifics: Lone Star Family Farms is a multipartner, multi-entity operation encompassing 20,000-plus acres (half owned, half cashleased).

The farm produces corn, seed milo, wheat and cotton in the Texas Panhandle. Justin farms with his wife, Stephanie; his mother, K; his sister-in-law, Rebecca; an uncle, Donald Crownover, and his wife, Nita, who merged their farming operation in 2010; and Conan Cassidy, who has led their irrigation mechanics for years and was added as a business partner along with his wife, LeeAnn, in 2009.

Environmental Audit: Lone Star Family Farms participates in FamilyFarms Group’s annual third-party environmental audit, conducted by Validus Ventures. This audit examines soil quality and water quality, as well as wildlife and conservation practices.

"Audit findings help us focus our efforts on identification and application of those conservation practices that will improve the quality of the legacy we leave for the next generations," Justin says.

This year, the farm has an energy audit in progress that focuses on facilities and includes crop production.

Employees First: The business has devoted many hours to employee development. "We believe employees have a right to know what is expected of them," Rebecca says of the farm’s 30 full-time employees.

She helped develop a 50-page handbook that has been translated into Spanish for ease of understanding by Hispanic employees. The farm recently had a workers’ compensation auditor visit the farm to do an overall employee safety inspection of all facilities.

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Spell Check

4/9/2014 07:38 AM

  There is another side to this story. Ever since the family farms group came to this community opportunity has steadily decreased. It has become nearly impossible for anyone else to grow their operation. It has become impossible for new operations to get started. They're predatory business practices and creative land-grabbing techniques have spread fear in the community. Very few people would dare to speak out against them for fear of being targeted.

4/9/2014 07:38 AM

  There is another side to this story. Ever since the family farms group came to this community opportunity has steadily decreased. It has become nearly impossible for anyone else to grow their operation. It has become impossible for new operations to get started. They're predatory business practices and creative land-grabbing techniques have spread fear in the community. Very few people would dare to speak out against them for fear of being targeted.


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