A young farmer in Indiana tackles the status quo of production agriculture
For Jess Daily, being a successful farmer comes down to two things: creativity and thoroughness. Luckily, farming is the kind of business where those two things go hand-in-hand.
“I was born in 1988. So I didn’t work through the eighties,” says Jess. “But I remember someone I know saying ‘Guys still made money in the eighties.’ They just had to be a lot more creative.”
Jess, a current Farm Credit Mid-America customer, takes that to heart. He graduated from Purdue University in 2011 — right when corn prices were at their peak. During his senior year, he started growing corn and beans, and he got his commercial pesticide application license to help provide a livable income. But after he graduated, instead of becoming a full-time farmer, he found himself focusing on diversifying his operation in to other segments of production agriculture. While being a farmer was near and dear to his heart, he wanted a bigger challenge.
A couple of years ago, Jess and his brother-in-law merged their efforts to focus on a chemical and fertilizer retail application business. In addition to the company’s exponential expansion, the corn and bean operation has grown its acreage by 25 percent. Sometimes success means being open to and creating opportunities.
Aiming for stable, not a grand slam
Some might see Jess’ current business model as a slam dunk, but he doesn’t necessarily view his business approach that way. “Instead of putting all the eggs in one basket, we’re chasing after a more stable approach,” says Jess.
To Jess, stable means strategic planning and creative experimentation. Diversity has been top of mind lately, given the state of the current ag economy. Jess, like many farmers, is realizing that doing things the exact same way as his grandfather did can be an expensive habit. “We just can’t do the same thing we’ve done and hope to make money. We’ve got to take control of it.”
Jess and his brother-in-law focus on spreading out risk with a diverse crop plan year over year, not just growing the traditional corn and soybeans. Since weather can be one of the largest unknown factors when it comes to farming, they are beginning to experiment with companion cropping systems as a way to beat unpredictable seasonal weather shifts.
“I wear out my office whiteboard in the winter,” says Jess. “I try to overlap things and figure out how to make these cropping seasons come together. We’re trying to maximize diversity and inputs.”
Another key component of their operational strategy is understanding how to differentiate themselves from their neighbors. If every neighbor is using the same university recommendations and buying the same fertilizer, how can a farmer truly differentiate him- or herself?
“My big challenge is always to tackle the status quo of agronomy and production itself,” says Jess. “Every farmer wants to grow more yield. But with more yield comes questions about equipment and drying capacity. A whole line of expenses can come with more yield.”
Jess takes his time to understand all angles. “We start basically from the ground and follow that all the way through to understand where this takes us to market and the infrastructure we need to make it work. Our basic question year over year is, what crop mix can we grow with the least capital cost to get it to market?”
“At the end of the day, we’re growing a commodity,” says Jess. “The lowest-cost producer wins year in year out.”
Growing a business, not just crops
Growing up, Jess felt isolated at times. Out of his peers in school, he was one of the few actively helping his parents on the farm. Luckily, college was a key opportunity to connect with people just like him: people who grew up on the family farm and just plain loved the work.
In addition to finding his fit, Jess also inadvertently found a peer network. “There is a substantial amount of people I talk to every day,” he says. “Guys will get into tough situations and they’ll call for advice. We’re pretty open with each other. People are nearby, but not so close you feel like you have to keep any struggles in because it’s your neighbor a mile down the road.”
His network is just another way to expand his knowledge and understanding of his farm. More importantly, he has a group of farmers at his fingertips who think just like him: Farming is a business, first and foremost. “The six most expensive words in business are, ‘We’ve always done it that way,’” says Jess. “A plus B doesn’t always equal C. Just because you put this product on that plant doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want every time. Always know the numbers and understand the business.”