Brothers Charles and Dennis Allen, who have farmed as much as 10,000 acres in eastern North Carolina, near Plymouth, literally made something out of nothing. Now, they are about to get a well-earned reward.
Charles, the older brother, started on the 80-acre family farm in 1970. A few years later Dennis joined him, and it was evident they needed to expand.
In 2008, they owned over 5,000 acres, but farmed 8,000 acres. How they farmed so many acres with two brothers, one son (Charles' son) and one full time employee is a testament to their creativity, not to mention their dedication to working long days, hours and weeks.
By the time Roundup Ready crops and no-till farming came into vogue the Allen brothers were literally working themselves to death. “We never had a day off, and a typical day's work started around 4:00 in the morning and ended whenever we finished, usually late in the evening,” Charles says.
“By the time no-till and Roundup Ready came, our operation had grown bigger than we ever expected it would grow. No-till was a natural for us, from a production standpoint and just physically surviving,” he adds.
They started with no-till soybeans back in the 1970s and have since gone all no-till on what they call a 50-50 rotation. They follow wheat with soybeans on half their acreage and plant corn on the other half.
Rather than cut back on their work schedule, the Allen brothers added more acreage — and more acreage, up to 10,000 acres at their peak. “We did some creative things to help us get by, but a farming operation of that size still required more hours than we could put in to do it the way we wanted to do it,” Charles says.
No-till allowed them to cut back on their labor, eliminate large pieces of equipment and reduce diesel fuel usage dramatically. However, they found they needed labor at critical points in the planting and harvesting of their grain crops. They developed a program in which they worked with retired people in the community.
Their part-time workers, mostly retired Weyerhaeuser workers liked the idea of being part of the farming operation in a way that didn't adversely affect their retirement. “Their work ethic fitted ours really well. They enjoyed coming to the farm and working a few weeks out of the year, and after a few years, we had a well-trained, highly productive and dependable labor force,” Charles says.
Still 10,000 acres proved to be a little too much, so they scaled back to 8,000 acres. Then a wonderful thing happened — all their hard work and dedication to the land paid off in a big way.
“We made the decision one day we wanted more out of life than working all day every day, so we just put out the word that a 4,100 acre block of land we own was up for sale. We didn't go to a real estate agent or marketing group — we just threw it out there to test the water,” Charles says.
“The original interest came from a hunting group in New Jersey. They wanted to buy our land and pay us to farm it. It wasn't exactly what we wanted to do, but the price of the land they were talking about was more than we ever thought it would be worth, so we were seriously thinking about selling the land,” he adds.
“The New Jersey group wanted us to develop some of the land for hunting. We are both avid hunters, so that fit well. Some of the land would still be farmed, which could have been okay, too, but most of all, we just couldn't quite get a handle on exactly what they wanted to do. So, it just wasn't quite what we were looking for, Dennis says.
Then, serendipity happened.
PCS, a phosphate mining company, needed to expand their mining operation in a neighboring county. The long story short is that the mining company had to buy four acres of farmland for every acre they took out of production.
“We knew the farmers who farmed the land being taken out of production — they are good farmers and they really needed productive land. Our 4,100 acre block of land is cleared, it's been no-tilled for many years, all fenced and gated, which was perfect for these farmers.
“By the time they got into the negotiations, we were pretty far along in negotiations with the out-of-state group. The farm group asked what it would take to buy the land, we came back with a high number, and they essentially said — sold,” Charles says.
“These folks are really good farmers, and it's comforting to know the land we worked so hard to clear and develop will continue in production. Of course, we won't have any say so as to how it will be used, but at least we know who will be farming it, and we know these are good farmers.”
It looked like a win/win situation to us, Dennis says. “We kept enough land to continue in farming and to help Charles' son and our long-time employee stay in farming. That meant a lot to us,” he adds.
“We were not exactly ready to get out of farming, and we won't entirely, but you can't afford to pass up those kinds of opportunities when they come along,” Charles stresses.
Though they are now multi-millionaires, they won't stop farming. “We plan to farm about 2,000 acres in 2009. My son, and our long-time employee will do most of the farming, but we will still be involved. If we decide to do something else on a particular day or week, we now have that option,” Dennis says with a grin that implies the brothers will still be significantly involved in the farming operation.
“Dennis and I saw this land when it was covered with trees, and we made it into a productive farm,” Charles says. Productive may be an understatement, considering the Allen brothers averaged 181 bushels of corn per acre on over 4,000 acres last year.
“You don't want someone to buy it and come in and do something totally stupid with it. But, if you sell it, you don't have much say so over what happens to the land. We feel like, this way, we get the best of both worlds.
“I'm not sure when it will hit me that we don't have to work anymore, if we don't want to do so. The money is nice, but I remember thinking back in the summer, when I was planting soybeans — this is the last time I'll ever plant a crop on this land. Despite the financial security selling the land brings, it's still hard to let go,” Charles explains.
“The folks who are buying our land are in their 30s and 40s, and they have children who want to get involved in their family's farming operation. So, it is just a good deal for all of us involved,” Dennis adds.
“My son wants to farm and going this way, we will be debt free, have all the equipment he needs, plenty of land on which to make a living. Like I told him, you don't have to farm the whole world and be in a position where you have to be here every day at 4:00 in the morning and work all day, every day — this is a better way,” Charles concludes.