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Avoid start-up pitfalls

A panel of relatively young but grizzled veterans of agriculture shared tips on everything from managing debt to avoiding divisions within agriculture at the New Century Farmer Conference in Johnston, Iowa, recently.

The panelists fielded questions from young farmers and ranchers who were chosen to attend a weeklong session on getting started and building careers in production agriculture.

“Learn as much as you can before you spend any money,” advised Kevin Boyle, who with his wife and two business partners started growing grapes near Des Moines, Iowa, eight years ago. He is now an owner of Covered Bridges Winery.

Other winemakers discouraged him from expanding too fast, he said, and he's glad he listened to their advice.

Denise Scarbourough, who with her husband, Mark, farms in northwest Indiana, also works as a loan officer for a Farm Credit System lender. Her best advice was, “Be conservative during the good times and cautious during the bad years.”

The Scarbouroughs have been married nine years and, at first, both also worked off the farm. They'd love to expand to 2,000 acres, Denise said, but with larger farms in the area, competing for land is difficult.

They have been cautious about borrowing. “Basically we lived on one income and saved the second,” Denise said. That helped when Mark gave up his construction job to farm full time.

Matt Rush is executive vice president of the New Mexico Farms and Livestock Bureau in addition to having a speaking career. But his greatest dream is running a cattle operation and farming, which he has also been able to pursue.

“If every job paid you $2 an hour, what would you do?” he asked. “That question will help you find the career you love, something you'll do well.”

Rush also shared the financial conservatism of the other panelists, saying the best advice he ever got was this adage: Most people buy things they can't afford to impress people they don't like.

Daren Williams, executive director for communications with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, had ideas for improving agriculture's image. His best advice was, “Don't screw up. If you've got something happening on your place that you wouldn't be comfortable showing to a TV camera, fix it.”

In an age when nearly everyone can shoot images and videos with a phone, it will be virtually impossible to prevent public exposure of agriculture.

Both Rush and Williams agreed that the number of people involved in agriculture is so small that the industry can't afford internal divisions.

Williams said the industry should avoid advertising that criticizes one form of food production over another.

Rush said the New Mexico Farm Bureau has reached out to the state's organic producers. They and other major ag groups in the state have started an advertising campaign to educate consumers on the state's farm and ranch production.

The New Century Farmer Conference was sponsored by DuPont Pioneer, Case IH, CSX Corporation, and Farm Credit, as a special project of the National FFA Foundation. Successful Farming magazine served as a media partner.

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