Farmers for the Future: Launching young farmers

Remember the 1995 movie, "Mr. Holland's Opus?" Its end showed scores of former students who reaped lifetime lessons taught by a humble music teacher.

Well, Roger and Monie Thompson have created a similar "opus" -- a top career achievement that one accomplishes -- of young southwestern Ohio farmers. The Springfield, Ohio, producers have helped start 22 young farmers since the 1980s. It's their way of passing on the help they received from folks early in their farming career.

"Everyone helps everyone," says Roger.

They team with young farmers who have lots of desire and talent but little capital and little or no land. Some are relatives, some aren't.

Here's how it works. Roger scours the area in a process he calls "bird-dogging" to find a farm that fits the young farmer. Once found, Roger negotiates a selling price and buys it with a separate line of bank credit he has and rents it to the young farmer.

Meanwhile, the farmer applies for a beginning farmer loan from the Farm Service Agency (FSA). This enables beginning young farmers to finance a land purchase for just 5% down with a federally guaranteed low-interest-rate loan.

His farmers soon graduate to commercial lenders for the rest of the loan life, but the program enables farmers to finance a land purchase.

It's harder than it sounds.

"The worst thing about FSA loans is you have to fill out all the paperwork to buy land," says Bryan Thompson, a grandson who Roger has helped with land purchase.

The process takes anywhere from four to 18 months. During the loan process, the farmer rents the land from the Thompsons and then buys it upon the loan approval.

Since the Thompsons have already bought the farm, though, the farm purchase is secure. "You have to strike while the iron is hot," says Roger.

The farms he bird-dogs are good ones, but not the class A-1 farms.

"We don't go out and bid on prime farmland," says Jeff Gordin, a Cedarville, Ohio, farmer who has been helped with land purchases by the Thompsons. "It's the stuff that goes under the radar."

Once a land purchase is completed, Roger continues to shepherd the farmers. "He's a mentor, a motivator," says Jeff.

The Thompsons aren't done yet, either. They continue to help young folks like Rob Hamman. Rob is a partner in a family drainage business in Mount Sterling, Ohio, but he would like to gain a foothold in farming with a land purchase.

Ditto for grandson Dave Vallery, who's now renting 140 acres from the Thompsons. 

Humble start

Roger came from humble beginnings. The youngest of 11 children, he was 5 years old when his father left the home. Eventually, Roger started farming 125 acres from his mother with whom he lived. "Of those, 75 were crop acres and 27 lousy cows," jokes Monie, who married Roger in 1955. "I knew him as a poor boy, but I loved him anyway."

Roger nixed the cows, as he found his passion was crop farming. He was ahead of his time in using practices like basic exchange, soil testing, cash rent, and shifting away from rotations including row crops and small grains to just corn and soybeans.

At age 38, he still hadn't bought land. But Roger, who owns around 1,750 acres today, teamed up with folks who knew how to do it.

"As a young farmer, I served on the local soil conservation committee," he says. "Lots of older farmers took me under their wings."

At age 38, Roger was positioned to start buying land with a 175-acre purchase. He continued to follow a a strategy he practices today; that is, buying undervalued farms and building them up. Over time, he was in a position to start helping young farmers get in the business.

One of those farmers, Jim Clem, also from Springfield, met the Thompsons while doing a farm internship for them in 1978. "He was a young guy who liked to farm," remembers Roger.

"It was a struggle," says Jim of his farming start-up. He also worked off the farm along with his wife, Mary, as he rented land early on in his farming career.

When a 167-acre farm came up for sale in 1993, though, Jim was able to move with the Thompsons' help.

"It was an estate purchase where the owner had passed away," Jim says. "It needed some TLC, but we bought it at a $75-per-acre (annual) cost when it cost $90 per acre to rent it."

The purchase gave Jim a base on which to build the 1,900-acre farm he today operates with his son, Brian.

There have been a couple cases that haven't worked out, but most do.

"I've never gotten stuck with a farm," says Roger. That's because they rigorously screen the young farmers with whom they work.

Following are a few of the key attributes the Thompsons look for:

  • Be honest. "Never, never, never, never lie," says Roger.
  • Be willing to change. "If you don't change, someone else will," he says.
  • Network, network, network. "Talk to everybody," he says. "Get to know everybody. Be friends with everybody. "Learn from those who are smarter than you." Roger says older friends helped him early in his farming career. One friend in a group he calls the "three wise men" is 90-year-old Warren Long of Charleston, Ohio. Early on, Roger shadowed this successful farmer and adopted some of Warren's time-tested farming practices.
  • View long-term opportunities. Sometimes, winters spent scraping snow for potential landlords helps pave relationships that may someday result in a land-buying opportunity, he notes.
  • Be decisive.  "A lot of people can't pull the trigger on things," says Roger. "If you can make a profit on $2.50-per-bushel corn, don't wait for $4 corn. In some years, $2.50 may be as good as it gets."
  • Be supportive of your spouse. They can provide both economic and emotional support.
  • Buy land first, then machinery. "You can always get someone to do things like spraying, so concentrate first on buying land," says Roger.

Farming is worth it


The Thompsons have been in a unique position not only to view their own success in farming, but also to see the success of those they've helped.

"You are not promised a bed of roses," says Monie. "Good things can happen to you, but it doesn't come easy. When you look back at all the work, you'll wonder how you survived it. You'll be better for it, for the rewards are there."

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