ROCKWELL CITY, Iowa (DTN) -- When James Hepp was growing up in Rockwell City, Iowa, he discovered his strong interest in agriculture. He handled most of the field plot work for the Rockwell City-Lytton FFA chapter in high school and enjoyed working for local farmers.
Hepp dreamed about farming someday, but figured it wasn't in the cards. His family operates an auto repair shop. His wife, Paige, grew up on a farm near Treynor, Iowa, but her brother-in-law farmed the family's land.
"Farming looked cool, but my family didn't have direct ties to agriculture," said Hepp, 31. "I figured I could get some type of job in agribusiness, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to farm."
All that changed in 2019. Keith Sexton, a local farmer Hepp had worked for part-time as a hired hand, was looking toward retirement. The two had established a good working relationship that evolved into a crop-share arrangement for 1,300 acres of corn, soybeans and cereal rye cover crop seed.
"We had been looking for someone to transition our farm to," said Sexton, 71, who runs his family's century farm with his wife, Barb. The couple's three grown children have various non-farming careers. "When our son Brent, a veterinarian, suggested some names of people who might be good to work with, James and Paige Hepp rose to the top. They are people of integrity, they protect soil health with the conservation practices they use, and they contribute to the community."
The partnership has worked so well the Hepps have the opportunity to farm Sexton's land when he retires. Hepp, who is also an independent crop insurance agent, continues to grow this business as he establishes his farming operation.
"If you're a young farmer trying to get started in ag, networking and connections count," Hepp added.
BEGINNING FARMER TIPS
Hepp, who earned his ag business degree in 2013 from Northwest Missouri State University, has relied on five principles as he pursues his farming dream.
1. Promote clear communication. Through his crop insurance job, Hepp has met many great people, including some who have become his mentors. "By listening carefully to customers' needs, I've been able to help them, plus I've picked up tons of great advice that benefits me on the farm."
2. Adopt a can-do, positive attitude. "When markets go down, it's easy to get negative, and that negativity can spread like a disease," Hepp said. "It's important to focus on a "can-do" spirit, not a "can-not" attitude. I just do the best I can every day, and trust that things will take care of themselves."
3. Collaborate. Hepp learned the importance of working together for a common goal in his family's business. He gained a deeper appreciation for the power of teamwork through his sales internships in college, his role as a 911 dispatcher at the Calhoun County Sheriff's Department, and his volunteer work with the Rockwell City Fire Department, the Calhoun County Farm Bureau (where he serves as president of the board of directors) and other organizations. He's also glad that his wife, Paige, is on Team Hepp, which will soon include their first child in December 2021. "I don't know if I could do all this if Paige weren't so supportive," said Hepp.
4. Adapt. Not many people in Hepp's age bracket are farming today. "Poor prices scared off many who weren't 100% committed," he noted.
"Adaptability has helped me stay involved in production ag." Questioning is also key. "I see so many people just blindly following along without really understanding why they're doing something," Hepp added. "Ask questions so you're clear on the decisions you make."
5. Embrace grit. Persistence and passion define grit, which is reflected in Hepp's love of the land, his focus on conservation, and his goal to build a successful ag career in rural Iowa, without having to move to the city like most of his high school classmates. "I'm confident there will be lots of opportunities to grow my career and my farming operation. The sky's the limit."
LESSONS FROM THE FIELD
There are a fair number of young people who are ambitious and interested in production agriculture, noted Tim Hammerich, an Idaho-based strategic communications consultant, founder of AgGrad, and host of the "Future of Agriculture" podcast. When he asks potential farmers what prevents them from raising food for a living, their answers tend to revolve around lack of money, lack of land, or not having grown up on a farm or ranch.
"The average age of the farmer is now around 60 years old and trending older every year," Hammerich said. "As easy as it would be to blame younger generations and just say 'they're not interested' or 'they don't want to work,' in my experience this is not the case at all."
Hammerich shares tips with young adults to help them overcome the barriers to becoming a first-generation farmer, including working for the farmer they'd like to become. "This is a smart, low-risk, high-reward option," Hammerich continued. "There are major, long-term benefits to working directly with someone who has already accomplished the goals you have for yourself."
These opportunities are harder to find than they were 50 years ago, since the number of farmers have declined as agriculture has evolved.
"This doesn't mean there are no opportunities, though, to be the right-hand person for an existing farmer," said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University (ISU) ag economist who assists with ISU's Beginning Farmer Center. "Building this relationship can help you become the trusted person who can gain more opportunities."
Hammerich encourages first-generation farmers to explore all their options, including specialty-crop or livestock production. "Find a niche that allows you to start smaller, capture more margin, and grow your operation from there."
This allows beginning farmers to build financial resources and gain ownership in an ag business sooner in their career rather than later, Hart added. "Think of yourself as a farm entrepreneur."
In addition, don't overlook resources like ISU's Beginning Farmer Center. "We're not an employment agency, but we're here to help current farmers find the next person to operate their farm when the farmer is ready to step down," Hart said.
The Beginning Farmer Center helps manage expectations as the beginning farmer and existing farmer assess their goals and determine next steps to equitably transfer the farm. "We're looking for quality matches, not quantity," Hart stated.
The process involves much more than the simple sale of a farm. "There's an extremely personal connection when transitioning a farm," Hart noted. "This is more like building a marriage than just selling a business."
If there's no local beginning farmer center, Hart recommends checking into beginning-farmer programs from university Extension services, Farm Bureau or other groups.
"Also, approach your state ag department to see what tax credits and loan programs are available to beginning farmers," he added.
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