Hard work and partnership make this first-generation farming couple’s operation work.
Often farmers come from families that have at least one person who was raised in commercial agriculture. But not Ben and Lauren Neale. Ben’s dad did have a small, hobby farm growing up, but was a full-time engineer by trade. Lauren didn’t step foot on a farm until she was in college. Their lack of traditional agriculture background is part of what makes this first-generation farming couple work.
While Ben didn’t grow up on a a commercial operation, he was still influenced by farmers – both in real life and pop culture. “The friends and relationships that had the most impact on my life were farmers. They clearly enjoyed what they did and I was always struck by their values and work ethic,” says Ben. “As a kid, we always had John Wayne movies on more than regular television. Everything I watched and everyone I was surrounded by just made me into someone who wanted to work with cattle.”
Lauren found her way to the farm after accepting an internship at the Montana Stockgrowers Association in college. She studied journalism and anthropology in school and felt she stumbled across her calling when she first stepped onto a ranch. “I realized just how important farming is – it is literally the foundation of everything that every person is able to do on this planet. Agriculture needed a voice and I wanted to be one of them.” And become a voice for agriculture she did – she currently works full-time as the director of communications for the Tennesee Cattlemen’s Association.
First generation farming is not for the faint of heart. Cattle farming, in particular, can be challenging because of the large overhead costs required to start out. With a non-existent background in agriculture, the financing needed shocked Lauren. “I had no idea how much money you have to spend to make a profit on a farm. It makes you appreciate what you have even more. You have to constantly problem solve.”
As with any venture, money is only part of the equation. Cattle farming is a complicated business that encompasses animal welfare, constant market fluctuations and sharp business acumen. Before becoming a full-time farmer, Ben worked as a herdsman and eventually a cattle manager. He knew the business inside and out from an operational standpoint, but the men around him encouraged him to pursue an advanced degree. Like many individuals in agriculture, the men Ben worked with recognized a formal education as one of the best tools in a modern farmer’s toolkit.
“Everyone I talked to at the time kept telling me they regretted not going out on their own when they were young, but now they were too old,” says Ben. “It really put a drive in me to figure out how to have my own operation as a first generation farmer. I ended up going back to school to get a master’s in agricultural operations and management, and worked to get an MBA.”
“Ben just knows his stuff,” says Lauren. “ He knows how to get a cow into a trailer with ease. He knows how to mend a fence with very few tools. I am amazed to watch him work.”
Lauren knows her stuff, too. The Neales quickly recognized that a key area for growth on their farm was not just wholesaling their cattle, but also exploring retail opportunities. Selling direct to consumers means creating a public presence for the family, which is where Lauren comes in. While Ben takes on the traditional operations-focused role on the farm, Lauren wields her skills as a communicator to get the Neale family into the minds of the public at large, including social media, email and the farm’s website.
“Lauren handles all of the interaction that lets people know what we do. This year we did a lot more freezer beef—we’re trying to do more at farmers markets. She handles all of that,” says Ben. “I jokingly tell people that if you call us, you’re probably going to talk to me, but if you reach out electronically, you’re probably going to talk to her.”
Expanding into the future
Part of the reason the Neales recently explored retail options is because they prioritize diversification and growth on their operation. The beef market is notoriously unpredictable – especially in recent years. The couple sees expanding their farm’s offerings as one of their best risk management tools. After Lauren fell in love with two bottle-fed lambs, the couple decided to add a flock of sheep to their roster. Later on, they added a couple bee hives to help expand their farmers market offerings. Most recently, they purchased a beef processing facility.
“The goal is to create multiple entities in our farm brand,” says Lauren. “We will have cattle to sell, a place to harvest them and nutritional services.”
If that seems like a big dream for a young farming couple, it is. And the Neales aren’t afraid of aiming high. As first generation farmers, they are used to tackling things from new angles and doing things their own way – no matter what anybody says.
“One of the best pieces of advice I received was to never take advice from someone who is in a position I wouldn’t want to be in. That advice has always served me well,” says Ben. “There are a lot of people who may tell you ‘There’s no way to do that.’ But what they really mean is there is no way to do it the way they did. There are always options out there, you just have to dig in and find a way.”