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Soy Roy: What's Next for Farming?

Three weeks ago, I came home from Commodity Classic in San Antonio all fired up about the future of farming. The trade show was the largest in the history of that event and full of new and innovative equipment. The hope is that these innovations will help farmers to be more profitable and under less stress. I pondered what I had seen at the show, while driving home in one of the worst ice storms in Texas history. Having passed the normal retirement age eight years ago, I have to wonder what my place will be in the future of agriculture. More than that, I wonder how the new technologies will fit into the farming picture in the years ahead.

There is a lot of talk in the popular press about the issue of succession and who will take over the land when my generation fades away. It is not happening as fast as some experts thought it would. Many of those who passed their 65th birthday have continued to be active farmers. In my case, I cut the size of my operation by 80%. This was done solely by eliminating all of the rented land that I have no financial interest in.  I discovered that my profitability stayed about the same because I no longer had interest to pay and machinery to replace. At the same time, my stress level went down dramatically because I no longer needed to manage to satisfy landowners. I always got along with my landlords, but catering to their needs was in the back of my mind.

In some ways, I was fortunate that I did not have a lot of owned land because it made selection of a farmer to take over my land relatively easy. The decision to quit farming completely has not been made yet, but at my age I dare not push my luck and try to keep going too long. There are some factors that will be a part of turning over the operation when the time comes. First on the list will be the fact that the lease will be based on shares. I could write a dissertation on why I do not like cash rents.  Suffice it to say that landowners leave a lot of money on the table when crop prices and/or yields escalate quickly. Some retired farmers worry about management decisions with share rents. In my case, I have a wife and two daughters who are quite capable of managing a rental farm. They will have the opportunity to do so when I am out of the picture.

Included in the lease on my farm will be the requirement that the land be farmed no-till. The last time I planted with tillage was in 1991. I have seen the conservation and yield advantages of no-till. I also have seen it as a way to reduce input costs. I intend to take advantage of that experience when I retire.

I continue to watch the trend to larger and larger farms.  I wonder how big a farm can get before management becomes too large to manage profitably. A recent article on a publication based in Iowa suggested that farmers might want to keep a 12-row planter to plant the corners and odd-shape fields where a 24-row planter will no longer fit. The article also observed that farmers with 24-row and larger planters no longer maintain conservation structures. In my area, a 12-row planter is still considered big. I know of only one 24-row planter in my county. Ignoring conservation structures, when planting and harvesting, can easily do $1,000 in damage per acre to the land in a very short time. Certainly, maintaining structures will be a major part of any lease I sign.

I hope that the technology I saw at San Antonio will be used to grow crops in small fields more precisely and not just larger acres faster. As of 2013, I have not seen this to be the case. I hate to think that when farmers of my generation hang it up for the last time, all of the progress made by my father starting in the 1940s will be lost. It does not have to be that way, but I fear that it will happen if the direction farming is going today continues into the future.

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