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Avoiding pitfalls, from debt to divisions

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, Friday.

They fielded questions from young farmers and ranchers 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 and is now an owner of Covered Bridges Winery. "Just listen to people who've been there before you."

Other wine makers 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: "Be conservative during the good times and cautious during the bad years."

The couple has 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, that's difficult.

"So we're trying to do more on our own acres," Mark said. Besides raising corn and soybeans, he's double cropping beans after winter wheat. And he's raising cucumbers.

The couple has 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 the saying, "Most people buy things they can't afford to impress people they don't like."

"I get up every day and just thank God for what I've got," he said.

Daren Williams, Executive Director for Communications with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, fielded questions about improving agriculture's image with the general public.

His best advice: "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 he dislikes advertising that criticizes one form of food production over another and thinks the industry should avoid that.

Rush said the New Mexico Farm Bureau has recently 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.

"Even the organic growers say people have no clue where their food comes from," Rush told  

"We want to preach to the choir, but we've got the choir," he said. "We've got to start communicating with the urban market."

The conference is sponsored by DuPont Pioneer, Case IH; CSX Corporation, and Farm Credit, as a special project of the National FFA Foundation. Successful Farming magazine is a media partner of the conference.

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