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Farmers for the Future: Communication keys their success

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Like father and mother, like son. In and out of the field, Jeff and Jean Martin and their son, Doug, have a lot in common -- communication skills being the most important.

"I call Dad at 4:30 a.m. to talk over the day's plan," Doug Martin, 33, says. "We bounce ideas off of one another. We stay flexible and get along real well."

Doug and wife Erin, along with Jeff and Jean, operate the sixth-generation Martin farm in Logan County, Illinois. Jeff and Jean moved to the 400-acre family farm in 1976. In addition to their own land, the Martins rent 5,000 acres from 20 separate landowners in four counties.

Jeff and Doug split the rented acres, machinery, expenses, and workload. They attribute their success to hard work and solid communication.

"We make joint marketing decisions but remain responsible for individual acres," Doug says. "Dad deals with his landlords, and I deal with mine. Land prices have been so expensive, it is tough to own land. We are expanding our own farm, but it's tough to add equipment and try to buy $7,000-per-acre land. We own one combine and rent another."

While making variable rental agreements (both cash rent and crop share), the Martins have relied on communication to guide them.

"When dealing with landlords, communication is huge. That's what has led us to our expansion," Jeff says. "We assess individual landlords' situations and treat them the way they should be treated.

Also, education is the second key to success. We try to go to as many educational seminars throughout the year that we can. From seed to marketing to Extension seminars, this helps teach that communication and education can help you expand and stay profitable."

Jeff, who has a degree in agriculture credit and finance from the University of Illinois, and Jean have kept a business focus while guiding their operation through the era of sky-high rent rates and input costs.

"Because farming has switched from being a way of life to a business, being on the same page with your family, landlords, and lenders is very important," Jeff says. "Growing a crop is what I enjoy; marketing is a necessity."

Up until the last three years, the Martins have priced their crop through cash sales only. Now they have set up an account for hedging.

"We wish we would have had that hedge account when corn reached the $7 area," Jeff says. "When you get to those price levels, you need to lock in. We should have had two years' worth of crops sold. I just see this type of price volatility continuing. We want to be ready for it."

The Martins say they have learned an important marketing tip from one of their biggest landlords. "If the price offers profitability, that landlord sells," Jeff says. "Hitting the top of the market is not the goal. It's helped me not be so greedy."

Like his father, Doug believes in keeping the lines of communication active with all the people in the farm operation. "We are competing with mega-farmer renters who blow through the area, write the highest cash-rent check, and don't take any stock in the local community," Jeff says. "They are in it to make money one out of every 4 years.

"On the other hand," he continues, "we offer a fair return on cash renting agreements. We're not always the highest cash rent offer, but we sell ourselves in the quality of our work. In maintaining communication with our landlords, we build trust in our owner and renter relationship. It's worked well. We have been picking up more and more acres each year, expanding our operation. In the past few years, owners have started coming to us."

Like father and mother, like son. In and out of the field, Jeff and Jean Martin and their son, Doug, have a lot in common -- communication skills being the most important.

To help keep their various landlords informed, the Martins have created their own Web site for the farm, Martinfamilyfarms.org.

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