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Try to do better with what you have, advises long-time farmer

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"Smarter, faster, bigger, better" are watchwords in agriculture, but is bigger always better?

“Smarter, faster, better,” or some variation thereof, is a common cadence among those who preach the gospel of how to succeed in business. And, in farming, you might add “bigger” to that list.

I’ve interviewed many farmers over the years who talk about having to grow to survive and they’re not exaggerating, especially the younger guys who are struggling to establish themselves. Whether by necessity or by choice, expansion seems to be the name of the game in commercial agriculture.

And then there are farmers like this year’s Peanut Profitability Award winner for the lower Southeast. Owen Yoder, who farms in central Alabama, has resisted the urge to grow his operation, or at the very least he keeps it to a scale that he can largely maintain himself.

At just below 1,000 acres, Yoder considers his operation a small one, as he does most all of his own field work and depends on friends during the busiest times. “I’d rather cut back on my acres and do things right than to spread myself out and take on more than I can handle,” he says.

A key to efficiency for Yoder is that he runs older equipment and does his own machine maintenance.

This philosophy doesn’t work for everyone, but our recent story about Yoder’s modest farm struck a chord with some of our readers, including retired farmer Rodney Hess of Minnesota. With his permission, here are Hess’s remarks:

“I loved the article you wrote about Owen Yoder and his record setting peanut yields. Mr. Yoder is my kind of guy, always striving to do better with the land he has rather than trying to farm the entire countryside, like many farmers nowadays.

“I farmed here in Minnesota for 40 years before I retired, and I never tried to beat all the neighbors out of a new piece of land that went up for rent. My motto is, ‘Always try to do better with what you have, and do not feel stressed out about farming more that you can handle.’ I did not care to have new machinery either, always fixing what I owned, and never hiring anything done, except spreading and spraying by our local fertilizer dealer. My brother continues to farm our home farm.

“Some farmers just like to have new machinery, so they can go to the morning coffee shop and brag about how many acres they operate. I worked for the Farm Service Agency in our local county for those same 40 years, before I retired in 2004. I could not believe how stressed out some farmers were, every spring and fall, struggling to get their crops planted or harvested. I always took off time to plant and harvest every year, using my vacation time. Some of those really big farmers would not sleep for days and would come into our office, barely able to keep their eyes open. That is not a way to enjoy life.

“Now, none of those guys are very healthy, some even dying quite young. My father farmed all his life, starting out with horses and a walking plow, plus being a dairy farmer. He also had a few sows, some Black Angus calves, and Mom always had her 300 chickens for grocery money. Dad lived to be 94 years of age.

“Now my brother has a four-wheel drive, a seven bottom plow, and a 12-row John Deere planter for our 550 acres. He grows corn, soybeans, some wheat, plus alfalfa and grass hay for sale to other dairy, beef, horse, sheep and even one Christmas tree farmer, for his reindeer.

“Tell Mr. Yoder to keep up the great work. There are many Yoder families in our county, too.”

Farming is certainly not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition, and what works for one farmer doesn’t necessarily work for another. But Hess’s words might be food for thought for those growers who are conflicted over the need to expand versus quality-of-life issues.

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