Adding diversity on the farm lends stability

A well-known adage of nature is “diversity lends stability.” Many farmers employ this thinking by adding crops or species, and even enterprises to their operations so that they are not relying on one crop, market or pricing structure to be economically viable. Three Kansas farmers shared the strategies they use to keep their farming operations diversified at the recent Kansas Rural Center Farm & Food Conference. Their approaches ranged from organic grains to specialty crops to alternative markets.

Jack Geiger, Brown County farmer, has operated a certified organic mixed grain and livestock farm in northeast Kansas with his family for over 25 years. Adding to his organic farming practices is his understanding of “enterprise analysis”, which he first learned of at a Kansas Rural Center workshop years ago. “Enterprise analysis” refers to looking closely at each part of a farming operation to see if it makes sense financially and environmentally. “If one [operation] is funding another, you may need to re-think what you are doing.” Geiger stated. He keeps careful track of how each enterprise is faring on his farm and deletes those that do not carry their own weight or contribute to the success of the others.

Following his parents’ example, Geiger settled on field-scale organic grain production, mostly food grade, but he also sells organic livestock feed. Geiger does organic seed production on a field scale. Early on, Geiger bought a grain cleaner, knowing that in order to be successful in the organic market, he needed to sell a clean product of the highest quality. “You have one chance to make a first impression. Organic agriculture lives and dies on personal interaction,” Geiger said.

Adding diversity has been a trial and error process for Geiger and his wife, Deborah. “Diversity is great, but you have to be able to manage the diversity,” said Geiger. At one point, they added vegetable crops, but found this too labor intensive in combination with their field crops, so now they grow vegetables only for their family.

An aspect of Geiger’s farm diversity that has lasted is direct market beef. This enterprise is complex and capital intensive, from the calf to selling a box of beef to a customer. “In some ways, it is the most profitable. You get ahead when one enterprise on your farm makes profit in another enterprise. I raise wheat.…a by-product of wheat is straw. I use the wheat straw for bedding, then manure in the straw becomes fertilizer.” This helps keep input costs down and makes for healthier livestock. “If enterprises overlap and give efficiencies to each other, your system works better,” Geiger stated.

Geiger has been able to buy equipment at auctions for good prices to manage his diverse enterprises, but this is becoming harder. Geiger said, “I used to bid against the iron man,” but feels this is no longer the case as there are fewer smaller, older pieces of equipment available to buy. Geiger doesn’t borrow money to plant crops or to finance exploratory ventures. He feels fortunate to be in this position, so he shares what he has learned through his “Geiger Farm” YouTube videos.

The Geiger’s have learned that by increasing the diversity on their farm, they are better able to handle what life throws at them, whether it is weather, equipment breakdowns or other eventualities.

While also stressing farm diversity, Douglas County farmer Scott Thellman relies on a stream of credit and a good relationship with his banker to sustain his specialty crop operation outside of Lawrence, Kansas. This has allowed him to grow his business rapidly. His operation today is 1000 acres and includes 60 acres of vegetables—half grown using conventional methods and half grown organically, hay ground and 100 acres of row crops. Every crop grown has an enterprise budget, which he considers essential for tracking expenses and profits. Even with premium prices for some crops, it is hard to make a profit, so carefully managing rotations and inputs are essential. Thellman sells wholesale produce into Kansas City markets, as well as through a CSA and to chefs in his area.

Thellman is a first generation farmer who started as a laborer on a neighboring farm in 2007. Once he decided to farm himself, he realized one way he could get into farming was hay. He bought old haying equipment, including a $100 small square baler. After studying agriculture at Iowa State University, a neighbor back in Kansas talked him into applying for NRCS EQIP high tunnel cost share. While he really didn’t like the idea, he did it and started out with a 20- by 96-foot high tunnel. Every year since has seen a doubling of the amount of vegetables he grows.

He knows it is hard to find land to rent. He convinced one landowner, who he knew was having trouble making a decent profit, to let him rent his land to grow watermelons. The landowner agreed after he saw the enterprise budget figures Thellman showed him and they sure beat growing corn.

In 2016, Thellman went from 18 acres of vegetables to 50 acres—a big leap—and he lost money due to pest problems. He tightened up his expenses, holding back on equipment purchases and in 2017 profits were much better. Now his pest control is better, having learned some important mistakes to avoid. He and his banker agree that things are much better and he has been able to make a few equipment upgrades recently.

Thellman recommends keeping an open mind and networking with other growers, large and small, organic and conventional. “We’re all in it together,” he says. “I rent a manure spreader from a large farm and get manure from a beef guy to spread on my vegetable fields. They need to get rid of it.”

Thellman’s operation includes a CSA as part of his diversity. “Don’t put your eggs in one basket—one of our large wholesale customers just went bankrupt, but our diverse markets allow us to withstand these setbacks.”

Thellman originally started with a short bus for produce delivery, but hot days presented a challenge on longer trips, so he bought a refrigerator box truck, delivering only four boxes on his first trip. Now he is a broker and transports produce into Kansas City for others, mostly out of necessity to keep the truck filled and paying its way.

Thellman has learned the crops that work for him and relies on other farmers for the crops he doesn’t grow. “I cannot grow tomatoes, so I have someone else grow them.” He pays more than big distributors do and believes it is important to build relationships within the communities he works with. His coolers serve the many growers he networks with, including Amish growers from Jamestown, Missouri. “By brokering, my truck is always full. I have more customers because I can offer more products, which leads to more customers.”

Paula Sims, who farms 80 acres near Newton in central Kansas, direct markets chickens, beef and pork; provides meats and eggs to a CSA; and sells at a Wichita farmers market. She spent time on her grandparent’s farm when she was growing up, but had no first-hand farm experience when she and her husband, who was raised on a farm, moved back to Kansas from the Northwest and decided to buy a farm and raise livestock. She now works on the farm full-time while her husband works off the farm.

Sims started with chickens and then added cows. They bought some Angus and Dexter and eventually settled on the smaller Dexter. The herd is now up to 50 cows, rotationally grazed on mixed species pasture. Pigs are raised on pasture but they are now down to one boar and sow so fencing needs can be addressed. Sims explained, “There were too many, too fast,” and it became difficult to keep them all in the pasture as pigs are notorious escape artists.

Chickens are moved around the pastures in a stock trailer converted to a mobile poultry unit. Sims got the stock trailer at a good price because it had no floorboards, which is just right for chickens. The chickens follow the cows through the paddocks eating insects and breaking up manure. Livestock are kept in a barnyard during the winter and fed hay; manure is composted and then applied to garden fields, so no inputs are purchased off farm.

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The Sims are part of a cooperative CSA where they supply the meats, eggs and fish from a stocked pond. Other farms provide produce, bread, blueberries and honey. Customers receive a box each week and pay on line. “It’s very easy and I love it,” Sims notes.

Meats are also sold directly at the farmers market at 21st and Ridge Road, Wichita. The Sims grow about an acre of vegetables for themselves and to market. “I’m already at the farmers market to sell my meat, so taking vegetables is an added bonus. The time is factored in already. The produce sells really well and we make a lot,” Paula adds. “I love the feedback from customers and answering their questions.” She takes advantage of the three to four thousand people who walk by at the farmers market to do outreach for her direct market sales.

Sims keeps detailed enterprise budgets for each operation, including labor and packaging costs, and is willing to share her templates. She admits farming like she does is a lot of work, but also fulfilling and enjoyable. She is proud to help customers know where their food comes from and encourages visitors. She and her husband now “garden by the moon.” A test plot proved so successful, they are now converting the whole garden to this method, which uses raised beds.

Geiger, Thellman and Sims have developed diverse operations that contribute to their success. Their farms represent a range of size and crops from certified organic grains and livestock, to specialty crops and small scale poultry and meat production. It is the diversity that is key. It helps to survive in uncertain markets, pricing systems and through weather extremes. By sharing their stories, they hope others might be able to avoid some of the pitfalls typical in farming.