Growth stems from partnerships
Ohio farmer Mark Ruff first attributes his success to good fortune, but look deeper, you’ll see a solid foundation built by partnerships and standard operating procedures (SOP).
In a little more than a decade, Ruff, 40, and his wife, Marcia, have grown their farming operation from 0 to 3,000 acres. Ruff set his sights slightly above the "rule of 7%" and aims for 10% growth a year.
"If you track our growth, it’s been a steady 45 degrees over time," he says. "I’ve strived to grow in a way we can properly manage our growth." Ruff has rented most of this land to concentrate his capital expenses on what it takes to farm it rather than own it.
To secure relationships with landowners, Ruff Farms uses annual communication, face-to-face meetings and best practices.
"If you do a good job, the land will come," Ruff says. Marketing his services to landowners has led to the greatest level of success. "Farmers get pretty ‘cookie cutter,’" Ruff says. "We all use similar equipment, pay competitive rates and grow similar crops. Good service is the key."
"I’ve strived to grow in a way we can properly manage our growth."
Partners First. A large part of his success is his ability to maintain more than two dozen landowner relationships. "Our current land partners are our best advocates," Ruff explains. "I’ve been intentional in fostering these relationships."
Many of his first land partners knew him from the community, but now, he has to show them what the business has become rather than where it started.
In early September, the Ruffs hosted their second annual landowner appreciation dinner. Part of the evening’s program is purely social, and another part is focused on the farm and the business’ future.
Additionally, Ruff sends an annual newsletter updating landowners on the business of the farm, as well as personal family updates. "My goal is to meet with every landowner twice a year and share yield data at their kitchen table," he says. Ruff also shares application data, soil test results, crop health imaging maps, drainage plans and cropping plans.
"While a young farmer might be concerned about a landlord knowing too much and wanting to exert control, often the result might be just the opposite," says Allan Vyhnalek, University of Nebraska Extension educator. "Landlords who know what’s going on and understand current expenses and practices might be more supportive of the renter’s management."
Since 2008, Ruff Farms has done surface drainage improvements, and they have recently expanded their equipment inventory to install systematic tile drainage.
Ruff Farms also adds gravel driveways onto farms that need improved access for machinery. Employees routinely maintain the aesthetic value of the property, including perimeter and waterway mowing and fence row maintenance—this year they cleared 10 miles of fence rows.
"We are working to have an SOP for every frequently repeated on-farm job," Ruff says. "That way, there is no difference in how something is done, no matter who does it. For example, every landowner can expect the same appearance in how perimeters are mowed, no matter which employee mowed their field."
"Our work directly represents what we value," Ruff explains.