North Carolina Farmers Are Opportunity Makers

November 16, 2018 03:00 AM
 
Frank and Alison Howey have grown their diversified operation from 19 acres to 30,500.

“I used to farm where those houses are,” says Frank Howey as he cruises by a perfectly-manicured landscape of high-dollar mini-mansions. “I also used to farm where that golf course is and those tennis courts over there.” 

While the glittering skyscrapers of downtown Charlotte, N.C., can’t be seen from Frank’s rolling fields, they cast an ever-looming shadow on his operation—and future goals. When he bought his first piece of land in the mid-80s, Charlotte’s city limits were 25 miles away. Now the city’s reach is just 12 miles away.

“Union County is one of the fastest growing counties in North Carolina and the rest of the country,” Frank says. “This has been a curse and a blessing.”

No farmer likes to see farmland sprouting houses instead of corn, but rapid urban encroachment hasn’t stopped Frank and his wife, Alison, from investing and expanding their diversified operation. They’ve sold farmland for housing developments and used those substantial profits to buy three or even five times the acres in a different location. This strategy takes guts, agronomic expertise, risk management, hard work, creativity and a focus on the future—all pillars of Frank Howey Family Farms.

“I see bad times as opportunities to be creative and continue to grow, but grow smart,” Frank says. “I’ve bought farms other people didn’t want because it looked rough, but I’ve turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse more than a few times.”

Self-Made Man. From the time he could walk, Frank was his father’s co-pilot on their family farm. At 13, he bought a small greenhouse to grow plants and sell them to his local co-op store. His small venture taught him vital business lessons and let him start socking away cash. At 16, he leased his first 10 acres and grew soybeans, trading labor with his father for use of machinery. At 18, Frank purchased his first farm—19 acres near his home.

“I had $10,000 to put down and then they owner financed the rest,” Frank recalls. 

From the beginning, Frank has stayed on a business-minded path, steadily growing acres and adding new components to the operation during the past three decades. As he started building his own business, he continued partnering with his father, until his father’s sudden death from a massive heart attack in 1995. 

Today, the farm, headquartered in Monroe, N.C., encompasses more than 30,000 mostly-owned acres, which are split 50-50 between North Carolina and South Carolina. Spanning 75 miles, the operation produces corn, soybeans and wheat. It also includes a Red Angus and commercial cattle herd, timber acres and a citrus farm in Florida. Hunting leases, rental properties, a sand mine and nearly 1,000 acres of solar projects in three locations round out this diversified business.

Solar panels
Frank Howey’s operation includes nearly 1,000 acres of solar projects on&nbsp;three different sites. This venture provides an additional revenue stream&nbsp;that Frank can reinvest in his farm operations.&nbsp;<em>Photo: Bob Leverone</em>

Piece By Piece. Growth and diversity of this kind don’t happen by accident. It takes innovative leaders, a faithful focus on financial management, a dedicated team and an open mind. These traits paired with the Howeys’ commitment to their family, local community and the agricultural industry earned Frank and Alison the 2018 Top Producer of the Year Award.

Early on, Frank planned to own the majority of his land portfolio. Fresh out of college, he was a young, determined farmer with few assets. 

“When I was right out of college, I went to a banker to borrow some money to invest in my farm operation,” Frank says. “He looked at my books, which were very meager. He said, ‘I can’t loan you money to buy Campbell’s Soup.’”

This rejection led Frank to find a different lender and creative ways to finance land purchases. As he learned with his first land purchase, seller financing can be a win-win for both the landowner and buyer. He still uses that strategy today. 


“I’ve bought farms other people didn’t want because it looked rough, but I’ve turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse more than a few times.”


As a real estate broker, Frank stays up to date on farmland values and available property. He’s a huge fan of using Section 1031 Tax-Deferred Exchanges for land purchases. Because so much of his land is considered good for residential building sites, he exchanges those acres for other farmland. 

“There are farmers in this area that think it’s a sin to sell an acre,” Frank says. “But that’s what’s made us successful. We’re not so emotionally attached to a piece of land. Although, I was one of the first farmers in the community to place two large tracts of farmland in permanent conservation, so it will be farmed forever.”

Much of the crop and pasture acres Frank buys today isn’t ready to produce high-yielding crops; it’s a fixer-upper opportunity. He’s after both quality and quantity.

“Good, open land is just not available anymore,” Frank says. 

After the 1980s farm crisis, large tracts of land in the South went out of production and into the Conservation Reserve Program, Frank says. As a result, a lot of the land he’s bought has been covered in pine trees since the mid-80s. 

Fixer-Upper King. On average, Frank and his team clear about 1,000 acres of land each year. This includes harvesting the timber, pushing down and burning debris, leveling the land and hand-picking rocks. Earlier this summer, Alison knew the team was clearing a field and took their two children Trey, 16, and Ellie, 9, to join the fun. 

One of the new employees asked Frank, “Mrs. Howey picks up rocks?” Frank’s response: “We wouldn’t ask you do anything we wouldn’t do.”

Frank Howey

With a college degree in agronomy and decades of farming experience, Frank knows the drill to turn this type of property into high-yielding farmland. They apply lime and poultry litter, along with other micronutrients. Frank started no-till planting in 1984 to retain moisture, grow organic matter and increase yields. He also uses grid soil sampling and prescription application for nutrients.

Focus On Profits. This emphasis on efficiency and innovative production practices has allowed Frank to continually add more acres without always having to add to the machinery fleet. He’s always looking for new technology to keep his edge on productivity. Frank is a stickler about machinery maintenance, as the team can’t afford downtime during planting and harvest seasons.

With so many components to his operation, Frank wears many hats. He constantly has to evaluate new opportunities and how those will affect his profitability. To do so, he surrounds himself with a good team, says Ashley Arrington, founder of ag consulting firm Agri Authority and a financial consultant for the farm.

“A lot of times when people try to do so much, they fail,” she says. “But Frank can focus on each element when analyzing for growth.”

Frank’s constant buying and selling of properties put a strain on financing, and he outgrew three different lenders. His current lender helped him consolidate all of his long-term real estate debt with a fixed rate. 

“Now we have known costs rather than rising interest rates that would affect our profitability,” Frank says.

The foundation of Frank’s marketing plan is his financial standing and cost of production. “Frank is an aggressive marketer and knows his profitability,” says Edgar Woods, owner of Palmetto Grain Brokerage in Ridgeland, S.C. “He uses this knowledge to be in the top percentile for row crop futures pricing. Frank’s tremendous growth is thanks to his forward thinking and unparalleled reinvestment in his operation.” 

Frank uses a combination of hedges, futures contracts, hedge-to-arrive contracts, basis contracts and options. Basis bids are traditionally strong in his corner of the world, due to the area’s large concentration of poultry and swine production, as well as flour mills. To be a constant supplier, the farm has 1 million bushels of storage capacity. 

Because the area is also prone to hurricanes during harvest season (this year is a prime example), Frank built a custom high-capacity and high-efficiency grain drying facility. The dryer can remove around 10 points of moisture on 50,000 bu. to 60,000 bu. in 24 hours.

The Right People. To manage his diversified operation, Frank leans on an expert for each area. He says that’s been the biggest mind shift as his operation has grown—being more reliant on others and having less overall control. He relies greatly on his right-hand man, Robbie Ratliff.

The farm team also includes 20 full-time employees plus 14 H2A workers from South Africa. “The H2A program has been a game changer for us,” says Alison, who maintains all the paperwork and inspections required by the program. “We’ve had some of the same guys for over 10 years. They are so dedicated to our farm and family.”

Most employees fill multiple roles; however, some specialize in certain tasks such as hauling grain. “We have to keep the wheels rolling,” Frank says. “Some people have an off-season, we only have a slowdown season.”

Alison and Frank have been married for 18 years (they met on a blind date). They are partners in every sense—always bouncing ideas off each other. While Frank is hands-on with marketing, business strategy, employee management and some field work, Alison heads up a lot of the financial work, including accounts and receivables and taxes for their various businesses.

The Howeys also involve their children in the operation—both the manual and business aspects. “We always tell our kids, ‘Dad and I will make the final decision, but we’re going to talk about it as a family because it impacts all four of us,’” Alison says. “We want their input. We always include them—never exclude them.”


“I tell our kids that hard work is a gift. It is a privilege to grow food to feed the world.”


Parents lay the groundwork for future business involvement while their children are small, according to Craig Aronoff, John Ward and Stephen McClure, leaders of Chicago-based The Family Business Consulting Group. 

“The values taught—hard work, saving, investing, sharing, integrity, persistence, stewardship, resilience, empathy—help foster smooth succession as well as good family relationships,” they write in the book “Family Business Succession.” 

The signals parents send in talking about the business at home instill attitudes in your children that last a lifetime, the authors explain.

Path Forward. As for the future, Frank and Alison are always looking for new ventures and opportunities. Intuition will continue to drive Frank’s decisions. “I have an ability to look at a deal and see what it can be, not what it is today,” he says. “You need to recognize an opportunity and not be afraid of it.”

They are considering some value-added businesses to capitalize on their beef herd. That’s another way they can turn their 1.25 million neighbors in the Charlotte metro area into customers. The Howeys also want to create opportunities for other farmers in their area. They are in the process of founding a new bank with other community members. It will provide ag and other types of loans. “It’s a segment that’s missing in our community,” Frank says.

Regardless of how Frank Howey Family Farms evolves in the future, its leaders will always operate under a few key philosophies: 

  • Outwork everyone else. 
  • Stay away from naysayers.
  • Surround yourself with the right people. 
  • Keep your focus on your family and the future. 

“If you’re really lucky, work doesn’t feel like work,” Alison says. “We work a lot of long hours, and we’re very fortunate in the fact that our kids are able to go with us. I tell our kids that hard work is a gift. It is a privilege to grow food to feed the world.”

Frank agrees. “It’s humbling to think about what we’ve built. People always ask me what’s my favorite thing growing on the farm, and I answer truthfully: our children,” he says. 


A Snapshot of Frank Howey Family Farms

Operation: Frank Howey Family Farms is owned by Frank and Alison Howey. It includes 30,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, as well as pasture and timber, in the Carolinas. All but 4,000 acres are owned by the Howeys. The farm also includes a 1,000-head cowherd.

Business Diversity: “Diversity has been a big part of our success,” Frank says. In addition to their row crop and cattle enterprises, the operation includes nearly 1,000 acres of solar projects, a citrus grove in Florida, hunting leases and rental properties (most of which came with purchased farms). Profits from these other ventures are used to reinvest in the farm operation.

Team: Frank and Alison spend their days focused on different aspects of owning the farm. Frank manages the day-to-day and long-term strategies, and Alison heads up much of the finances and paperwork. They employ 20 full-time team members plus 14 H2A workers from South Africa.

Community: Frank has been a member and officer for numerous commodity and farm groups. They regularly speak to local schools about modern farming. Fifteen years ago, the Howeys built the Farm at Walnut Hills, a covered picnic shelter that gives the public an opportunity to enjoy and connect with farming. Non-profit organizations and local scout troops also enjoy the facility.

Frank Howey

Two Hurricanes Slam Farm With 30" Of Rain

To say Frank and Alison Howey have faced a tough growing season this year is a huge understatement. “We faced a drought and then a flood in the same quarter,” Frank says. 

Following the extremely dry conditions this summer, Hurricane Florence stormed in with 60-mph to 70-mph winds and dumped 22" of rain in mid-September. 

The Howeys and their team had 10 days to prepare for Florence. They worked around the clock to harvest all the corn and soybeans they could, and they moved cattle to higher ground before the downpour began.

“Florence came and stayed—she just wouldn’t leave,” Alison recalls. 

Around a month later, Hurricane Michael stormed up from the South. It had at least been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit their farm. “We got winds of 50 mph to 60 mph and 6" to 7" of rain on already saturated soils,” Frank says.

Soils remained soggy for much of October, pushing back winter wheat planting and further delaying soybean harvest. They’ll continue field cleanup this fall to remove trees, garbage and other debris. In total, the Howeys lost 1,200 acres of soybeans and some pastureland due to flooding. 

While the crop loss is devastating, the Howeys feel fortunate compared to others in the storms’ paths. They are also thankful for their dedicated employees.

“They were so tired, and Frank told several of them to go home and get some sleep, while he kept working,” Alison says. “And they said, ‘No, we won’t leave you.’”

 

Watch a video about Frank Howey Farms at bit.ly/HoweyVideo

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