Bill Beam: The King of Diversification
Is there anything Bill Beam won’t try on his farm?
“I won’t do anything illegal,” he jokes.
The Elverson, Pennsylvania, farmer loves to experiment with new businesses and crops. Beyond his core crops – soybeans, corn, and wheat – he runs a sawdust business, grows non-GMO corn and high-oleic soybeans, and, for the first time this year, he’s trying his hand at hemp.
“We are always looking for opportunities, but it’s not always about the money,” says Beam. “It’s about the challenge and being able to make something new work. That, to me, is just as satisfying as making money.”
While Beam’s success is tied to his willingness to seek out and try new ventures, it’s also because he isn’t afraid of failing. “I’m lucky to be financially stable enough to experiment and realize that sometimes we will fail,” says the 57-year-old farmer. “Just because you fail once, doesn’t mean you have to quit.”
Businesses That Complement Farming
In 1980, shortly after graduating from college, Beam was approached to buy a sawdust business. For $3,000, he could purchase the idea and customer list.
As a recent college grad, Beam said he had to borrow every penny of that $3,000, and he did so against the advice of multiple people. So, why did he do it?
“I rode around with the man I bought the business from and saw what he did and how much he made,” says Beam, who was farming with his father at the time. “I thought, ‘This is for me.’ I saw it as an opportunity to make money and still farm because it’s a flexible job.”
That business has blossomed into an enterprise that produces 200,000 cubic yards of sawdust each year – enough to fill 20,000 dump trucks. Five out of the farm’s eight full-time employees work full time on collecting, packaging, and distributing sawdust. Last year, that amounted to more than $1 million in sawdust sales.
The demand has grown due to Beam’s dust-free transfer system. Custom-fit, airtight trailers allow Beam to pick up sawdust at a mill in the middle of town without dust being an issue. “Sawmills come after us,” says Beam, whose customers also include furniture manufacturers, cabinet makers, and lumber companies. “We provide a service to them by removing it and then sell it to end users, including poultry and dairy farmers, the equine market, to solidify liquid waste and for fuel.”
In addition to its flexibility, Beam saw the sawdust business as a way to stay connected with people outside the farm. “I enjoy people, and I enjoy farming. This was a way to get both things done,” he says.
Lessons Learned Growing Non-GMO Corn
In 2017, while most farmers were selling corn for $3 a bushel, Beam sold a portion of his corn crop for $4.50. The secret? The corn was non-GMO grown for a specialty grocery store.
The grocery store contracts with growers, like Beam, to control the quality of grain used in their products. Beam began growing for the store in 2015, even though his first attempt at non-GMO was not successful.
“Dust was what got us,” he says. “We filled up an older bin with non-GMO corn that had previously had wheat in it. The dust under the floor contaminated the bottom 5,000 bushels of non-GMO corn.” The contamination level was slightly higher than what was allowed, so the corn couldn’t be sold for the non-GMO premium.
“If you’re going to try something like that, don’t be afraid of failure. Try to learn something from it,” says Beam.
To keep contamination levels low, Beam built 50,000 bushels of storage specifically for non-GMO corn. The farm uses separate seed tenders and selects fields for non-GMO corn where there is a lower threat of cross-pollination from neighboring fields.
“I’m lucky because I farm a lot of regions where I have control of everything in the area, so I’m able to isolate without fear of contamination,” says Beam, adding that the average field size across his 4,000 acres is only 16 acres.
As more companies commit to non-GMO, Beam’s customer base has expanded to include poultries and dairies. Yields are comparable to his GMO corn, which yields 170 bushels per acre on average.
While the non-GMO vs. GMO debate can be a bit contentious, Beam says he views the issue as “strictly a business decision. If someone wants to pay extra for me to go to the hassle of growing non-GMO corn, then God bless them.”
Exploring Niche Markets
They are always looking for niches, Beam says. “With us on the East Coast, that gives us some opportunities that not everyone has.” One of those was growing barley for a microbrewery.
The brewery wanted local barley it could malt and was willing to pay a premium for it. The first year everything went smoothly. The next year “was a failure because it didn’t winter well, and we didn’t save any,” says Beam.
Not deterred by failure, the farm planted barley again. This time, the microbrewery had financial issues and was unable to purchase the barley. After finding another customer in a different state, Beam decided that would be his last barley crop.
“You can really flood the market quickly with some of these niche markets. There is too much barley around, so the risk was not worth the reward,” he says.
Another niche market that Beam has tried is sorghum for bird seed.
“We got into that mostly because grain sorghum is something that deer don’t eat. We have fields that are surrounded by woods with whitetail deer, and we can’t grow soybeans there,” says Beam.
The sorghum is sold to packaging companies that blend it and sell bird food.
“It’s a specialty market where we can get a premium over regular corn, and it’s not as expensive, so my risk isn’t as high,” he says. While this has been successful, Beam is debating whether or not to continue, as demand has slowed from his existing buyers.
“When you’re dealing with niche markets with one or two buyers, you are at their mercy,” he explains.
This year, Beam’s newest experiment is hemp.
In Pennsylvania, a limited number of licenses are given to farmers to grow hemp. With a license, you can grow 100 acres, which is what Beam is growing for a buyer in Philadelphia. Cannabidiol (CBD) hemp oil will be extracted from the hemp and used in products like CBD capsules and oil.
“It will be an adventure,” says Beam, about the uncertainties of growing this new crop. However, there’s enough money in hemp to entice Beam to try it. While he declined to say the rate, Beam will receive a flat fee per acre for the hemp.
What’s next? “We are experimenting with the idea of us buying or renting ground in another state,” says Beam, adding that some of these ideas come from his son, Matthew, or his other employees.
“We have a really good team of open-minded people. I think everybody realizes if you stay the same, you’re on the decline.”