The lessons of a total crop loss nearly a decade ago continue to shape the way Illinois producer Joe Zumwalt hones his business for success. Since earning recognition as a 2014 Top Producer of the Year honoree, the Warsaw farmer has completed construction of a new grain facility away from the Mississippi River flood plain that took a swipe at his operation in 2008. He’s also added 500 acres for a total of 1,800 acres he manages as part of a three-family business.
More tiling is in the ground to manage river-bottom moisture.
“We are trying to better manage and get more out of our existing acreage,” says Zumwalt, who farms with his father and uncle. Upgrades to technology and infrastructure on the farm have included investments in grain-handling equipment and machinery fitted with gear that reduces operator fatigue.
“Sometimes, return on investment isn’t in dollars,” Zumwalt says. “It’s in less stress and more efficiency.”
Tactical Transition. In addition to making tangible upgrades, Zumwalt is working closely with his father and uncle, both of whom are in their 70s, to transition acreage and management responsibilities. He and his dad are in the middle of a five-year plan in which 200 acres annually are transferred from father to son. Zumwalt’s dad keeps the income from the grain in the first year as part of the arrangement, gets some income for retirement and can divest a little more profit. He can also upgrade the equipment line, taking advantage of depreciation. “He can end his career with brand-new farming equipment,” Zumwalt explains. “Hopefully, it fits into my operation and I can lease it for three to five years.”
Fine-Tuned Focus. Aggressive adoption of new agronomic practices is helping the operation get more value per acre through added grain production, Zumwalt says. Fungicide applications on soybeans, for example, have been ramped up to two or even three passes over the course of a growing season.
He advises producers seeking to make a mark to develop their temperament. Smart operators in recent years have cut back their cash-rented acres with the knowledge that as balance sheets improve, they will have the opportunity to strike.
“Know when to be aggressive, and know when to be patient,” he says. “There are times for both, and within your own region, the times may be different.”
He values working with family because of the many points of view each team member brings. “There are challenges for us but also great opportunities and great perspectives,” Zumwalt says of the ag industry. “You might go in a direction you might not have anticipated.”