Oak Grove, Louisiana
Cullen Kovac brings fresh ideas to the board room of Louisiana Land Bank.
When the Louisiana Land Bank Board of Directors needed to fill an unexpired term on their board last year, they didn't look for a seasoned veteran of farm organizations. Rather, they chose a 29-year-old cattle producer from Oak Grove, Louisiana.
Cullen Kovac was half the age of some of the existing directors when he was appointed in February 2012, but what he lacked in boardroom experience, he made up for in enthusiasm.
"We were looking for someone who was educated, had plenty of drive, and was interested in helping us reach out to young farmers to extend the necessary financing they might be lacking," explains Land Bank Board Chairman Dr. Ernest Girouard. "Cullen was aggressive in bettering his leadership skills and his knowledge of cattle farming."
"Plus he already had a good understanding of Farm Credit, having participated in the Farm Credit Young Leaders Program in 2010."
Cullen's family arrived in northeastern Louisiana in 1927, when his grandfather George Kovac emigrated from Croatia to West Carroll Parish, working first in the timber industry and then purchasing 400 acres and starting a farm and raising cattle. His father, Mike, continued to keep a couple hundred head of cattle, even while working as director of the Livestock Brand Commission in Baton Rouge, where Cullen was born.
Cullen was 10 when his family moved back to the farm. Working alongside his dad, he became active in 4-H and FFA, and showed beef cattle all the way to the national level. Thus, it wasn't surprising when he chose to major in animal science at Louisiana State University.
Midway through his college education, Cullen interned at the Henry C. Hitch Feedlot in Oklahoma. The experience motivated him to take out a Farm Service Agency loan and purchase 175 cows while still in school. During the week, he would attend classes, and on the weekends, he would head home to tend his herd.
Three years after graduation, Cullen and his father formed Kovac Cattle Company and started raising a composite of the Gelbvieh, Red Angus and Brahman breeds. Today, the Kovacs have four full-time employees who help them produce cattle and hay on 5,200 acres of owned and leased land. They finish the feeders in the Hitch feedlot and retain ownership or sell directly, depending on the market, and keep some of the heifers as replacements.
Cullen is also a strong soil conservation advocate and works to make his operation more sustainable and resilient to the changing climate. According to Lee Overby, a soil conservation technician with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Kovacs manage their place more efficiently than many producers do.
"You can't just throw 80 cows on 80 acres and expect them to do well. The Kovacs use sound conservation practices that utilize rotational grazing and irrigation," he says.
Partnering With the Farm Credit
For operating funds, Kovac Cattle Company relies on Louisiana Land Bank.
"They're a genuine partner," Cullen says. "I have always been a fan of the cooperative system."
As a cow-calf and stocker operator, he says he never knows when he will find an opportunity to make a large cattle purchase.
"When I do, I just log on to the association's Ag Banking Online and make a draw," he explains. "When I sell, I do the same thing, but transfer the funds back to my loan. It's a real simple system."
Cullen and his wife, Sarah Beth, an assistant high school principal, also have several pasture and farm real estate loans with Louisiana Land Bank.
The parents of two children, Will, four, and Callie, two, they are both involved in agricultural organizations, with Sarah Beth serving on the Louisiana Farm Bureau's Ag in the Classroom Committee.
"I'm a big believer in teaching kids about agriculture," she says. "These children need to know where their food comes from."
A Can-Do Attitude
Girouard, the board chairman, says that a young person can offer fresh ideas and a can-do attitude to a co-op board.
"A busy young farmer will make time for it if they see the need," Girouard says. He now views Cullen as a "seasoned member" who is always prepared for meetings.
"He brings a new perspective that has proven to be extremely valuable in evaluating the direction the bank should consider," Girouard says. "Cullen's commitment to the responsibilities of a board member contributes to the standards of our bank, which include honesty, integrity, impartiality and conduct."
But it's Cullen's commitment to agriculture and to the next generation that motivates him to represent his fellow stockholders on the Land Bank board.
"Yes, I love farming," he reflects. "When I'm out here, driving around, I think, 'Yeah, this is pretty cool.' My son, Will, just started pre-kindergarten. The other day, he asked me, 'Why can't I just stay with you and go to farmer's school?' I think that's pretty cool, too."