When Jason Hodges finished planting his first crop of cotton last May he immediately left home in Emporia, Va., to return to Virginia Tech to pick up his degree in agriculture and applied economics.

Hodges didn’t know much about growing cotton, but he did know how to sell it. He did both well enough in 2008 to double the size of his farming operation in 2009.

To start farming in a chaotic year like 2008 — and expand in THE year of uncertainty in 2009 — left some wondering whether this bright young man had totally lost his mind.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me I’m crazy, but I have a plan I think will work. I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I’d be a farmer, but I love it — wouldn’t change a thing,” the 23 year old Virginian says.

To raise the capital to get into farming is a chore in today’s world. To plant, harvest and sell over 400 acres of cotton on your own is truly amazing.

Hodges didn’t exactly get into farming and produce a crop on his own — far from it, he says. Among the most supportive has been his father, Mark Hodges who owns and operates Mid-Atlantic Cotton Gin in Emporia, Va.

Mark Hodges doesn’t just own and operate a cotton gin — he owns and operates one of the best gins in the country, picking up Southeastern Ginner of the Year honors at the recent Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association meeting in Destin, Fla., back in January.

When it comes to business prowess it appears the proverbial apple didn’t fall far from the tree in Jason’s case.

“My father has been a great supporter of my farming venture. I work at the gin, but I don’t have any financial interest in his business operation. Likewise, he doesn’t have any financial interest in my farming operation. Still, I couldn’t have done what I’ve done with my farming operation without my father,” Jason says.

Jason worked at the gin during high school and in the summers during his studies at Virginia Tech. He says he never thought much about coming back home to work at the gin. And farming, well that, he says, he never thought about at all.

At Virginia Tech, Hodges majored in agricultural economics and business. He specialized in commodity trading. He says it was his fascination with the marketing side of farming that sparked his interest in farming when serendipity stepped in to give him that option.

“The information I gained at Virginia Tech is invaluable. In fact, I simply could not have started my farming business without that knowledge.

“If I learned one thing in college, it’s that farming is all about managing your risks. I feel like I know how to market cotton, and I’m learning how to grow it,” Hodges says.

Good genes for business and college training aside, Hodges venture into the farming world came about more by serendipity than careful planning.

A local farmer and family friend, Eddie Partridge, a customer at Mid-Atlantic Gin, mentioned wanting to get out of farming, but didn’t really want to just walk away. From that initial conversation sprang an idea in Jason Hodges.

Subsequently, Hodges and Partridge had several conversations and Jason started doing some research on financing a farming operation. He came upon a USDA/FSA program that would guarantee a high percentage of first farmers and ranchers loans.

Hodges fit perfectly into the FSA (Farm Services Agency) program. In general, to obtain an FSA farm ownership loan, a beginning farmer must not be able to get credit elsewhere; must have participated in the business operations of a farm for not less than 3 years but no more than 10 years; must agree to participate in borrower training; must not already own farmland in excess of 30 percent of the average farm size in the county; and must provide substantial day-to-day labor and management.

An applicant for an operating loan must also not be able to get credit elsewhere; cannot have operated for more than 10 years; must agree to participate in borrower training; must provide substantial day-to-day labor and management; and must have sufficient education and/or experience in managing and operating a farm.

Hodges worked with several financial institutions as part of his work with the gin. With the FSA program guarantee on 90 percent of any loan he could get for his farming operation, Hodges was able to get the money he needed to start farming.

“The program was a big part in being able to get farming. I’m 23 years old and have no real assets, so without that guarantee no one was going to loan me enough money to grow 420 acres of cotton. Being able to do it on my own without tying up other people’s money was important to me, too,” Hodges says.

Using his business savvy, the young Virginian raised the capital he needed to finance his 400 acres of cotton, bought the basic equipment he needed and made arrangements to contract other production work he needed. Maintaining his job during the slow time at the gin, Jason became a farmer.

Partridge, who grew about a thousand acres of cotton and grain crops in nearby Drewryville, Va., maintained part of his farming operation and leased part to Jason.

“I couldn’t have grown a cotton crop without Eddie’s help. Not only did he make the land and equipment available to me, but he was generous in sharing his farming knowledge and experience,” Hodges says.

The business venture worked well enough for Jason to take over another 400 acres of land from Partridge. Growing 800 acres of cotton in a year when cotton prices have hovered in the 45 cents per pound range has created some challenges, but Hodges is confident he can make it work.

Another key component in Jason Hodges entry into the Virginia farming world was Suffolk, Va., crop consultant Wendell Cooper. He is on contract with Mid-Atlantic Gin to help growers with their cotton crop. Being both an employee and a customer of the gin gave Jason access to Cooper’s expertise in growing cotton.

“Jason is a bright young man, and he picked up the production end of cotton quickly. He didn’t set any records his first year, but he produced a good crop. He did an outstanding job of marketing his cotton, which really helped him have a good first year in farming,” Cooper says.

Growing up in the cotton ginning business did provide Hodges with some basic, but critical, information about cotton production. For one, he studied the varieties of cotton that came into the gin, which helped him make decisions on what to plant.

Once the crop was planted, he says he got a lot of help and support from area farmers. The biggest problem he had with his first crop of cotton were all weather related. Drought was the major problem, which contributed to his biggest production problem — when to apply Pix and how much to apply.

“Extremely dry weather hurt all the cotton growers in our area of the state,” he says. However, thanks to generous help and support from a number of farmers, plus Wendell Cooper, he says growing his first crop of cotton went much smoother than he expected.

Before his first cotton crop was picked, most of it was sold. He took a bases contract for as much of his crop as he could get with Mid Atlantic Gin when prices were good. When prices dropped, he took equity in the rest of his crop, which was better for him to take the equity than to redeem it and sell it in a declining market.

“Nobody’s great at marketing and hedging risk in today’s economy, but I am confident I can do it well enough to be successful. I can learn to grow cotton the right way, and I feel like the training I have gives me a head start on knowing how to market the right way,” Hodges concludes.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com