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Starting from scratch

Nick Echard grew up in town, but he loved helping his grandparents and uncles on their farms. During high school, he worked for local livestock farmers.

He dreamed of farming, but he felt it was out of his reach. He held onto the hope of owning his grandparents' 220 acres near Farmersburg, Iowa.

Discouraged after one semester of ag courses at community college, he recalled that his uncle's top farm expense was machinery repair. He decided to earn a degree in ag mechanics.

After two years of working as a mechanic, he bought his grandparents' farm in 2000. “I found a banker who would go along with my dream,” Nick says.

He rented out the farm for the next three years and began custom-feeding 1,500 hogs a year on an outside lot. He earned another associate degree in electromechanical technology and worked in nearby Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. “I still wasn't sure I'd ever farm,” Nick says. “I didn't have the equipment or equity.”

In 2003, he secured a loan to build two confinement buildings and bought another 80 acres. He quit his job. “It was a gamble,” he says.

Meanwhile, across the Mississippi River, Amy had earned an associate degree in sales and marketing, and she was working as an executive assistant in Madison, Wisconsin. Her farm experience was limited to visiting her grandparents' dairy farm. Then she met Nick.

On their first date, “he took me to see his new hog building,” Amy says.

“I figured if she came back after our first date, it might work out,” Nick says.

They married in 2005. “As I got to know him, I realized he had a good head on his shoulders and was serious about making a commitment,” she says.

The Echards have three children: Jessica, 16; Keagan, 3; and Ty, 2.

Amy had a steep learning curve. “I thought farming was manual labor, but I saw that growing good crops wasn't enough,” she says. “Proper management is essential. So I began learning more.”

Today, Amy does accounts receivable, record keeping, payroll, mapping, and DOT reports. She regularly monitors markets. “I call Nick when I sell crops or buy inputs,” she says. “Sometimes we have to negotiate with each other.”

Their operation has grown to 1,350 acres; 400 acres are owned. Their closest farm is 8 miles away.

In 2005, they bought a semi. By 2006, they acquired three more and started an over-the-road trucking business. In 2007, they upgraded and purchased a fifth semi. “2008 markets and fuel prices made us drill down on the numbers, but we updated two semis last fall,” Amy says.

They custom finish 6,000 hogs and feed 9,000 nursery pigs annually. They employ five full-time and three part-time workers. “Most drive truck,” Nick says. “One also works on machinery and helps with chores. We do 70% of our own mechanic work.”

Together, Amy and Nick apply 4,000 to 5,000 acres of anhydrous annually for the co-op, using Ag Leader GPS. “Amy downloads discs to prepare maps to give to the co-op for exact application and billing,” Nick says.

In 2007, Amy and Nick purchased shares of another 100 acres, built a drying system, and carried out a dream of raising cattle. They now have a 50-head cow-calf operation. “I've always loved livestock,” Nick says. “I'd rather be raising livestock than driving a tractor.”

Here are two key best management practices they're implementing:

• Education. “We've grown pretty fast. But to be here for the long haul, we're surrounding ourselves with a team of trusted employees and professionals to advise us on growing wisely,” Amy says. “Education is a priority to stay on top of the industry. Good businesses budget time away from the farm for education and for staying current with technology.”

• Communication. The Echards and one employee meet weekly to improve communication. “We talk about what's going on, who's responsible for what, and we make a follow-up plan,” she says. 

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