Iowa State University's Beginning Farmers Conference Saturday offered students who want to farm a crash-course in making the transition to the real world, with tips on getting low-interest loans from USDA's Farm Service Agency to farm business risk analysis. But planners saved the best for last: a panel of successful beginning farmers who are just a few years out of college.
All talked candidly about the age-old challenge of bringing new ideas back to the older generation.
Dan Gradert, who farms with his family near Sioux Center, Iowa, said it's important to keep in mind that you're just out of college and inexperienced. When suggesting changes, "it might be a good idea and it might be an opportunity to learn something" from older family members.
Gradert, who graduated with a degree in agronomy, began farming early, showing 4-H steers at the county fair and buying a pen of cattle with his younger brother, Josh. The two began feeding cattle and in 2006 were able to buy some land in a neighboring county. They also farm with their parents and other family members.
Alle Buck, who grew up on a central Iowa crops and livestock farm, said she doesn't consider herself successful. For a variety of reasons, her dream of farming at home didn't work out after she graduated in 2011 with a degree in animal science. But she has started a small cow herd of her own and is working with an established cattle farm near Diagonal, Iowa.
"Put on your selling shoes when you're talking to the older generation," she said. "It's their money and their farm you're trying to change, you have to understand that."
John Gilbert, who grew up on a dairy farm near Forest City, said, "The biggest advice is patience, patience."
His parents went through the tough times of the 1980s and didn't encourage him to farm. Gilbert worked in agricultural engineering for a few years after graduating in 2002. After he and his wife, Sarah, joined the operation as its fourth generation of dairy farmers, they are making changes in incremental steps. The farm also raises crops and hogs for Niman Ranch.
"Our passion is providing food to people and that's eventually where we want to take our business, to direct marketing," John said.
An advantage is that John's parents have similar goals, said Sarah, who graduated in 2006 with a degree in dairy science.
David Baker, the farm transition specialist at Iowa State University's Beginning Farmer Center told the group that he considers them all successful.
"I think what you have going for you is begging able to communicate with others," he said. "That's what's going to carry you to success, not whether you have a succession plan."