Johnston County, North Carolina
Innovation in agriculture is a full-circle, progressive vision for Brandon Batten – one that preserves and protects the past, embraces and capitalizes on the present and prepares continually for change and the future.
As the 2017 Innovative Young Farmer of the Year Award recipient from The Farm Credit Associations of North Carolina, Brandon Batten partners in operating Triple B Farms – 600 acres in Johnston County where well-tended, sculpted, six-generation land yields flue-cured tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat and Bermuda hay. Along the backside of a flatter tract and beyond a carved-out pond laced with tall softwoods and surrounded by harder ones, his family – including Father Doug and Uncle Charlie — keeps roughly 40 head of Angus-mix beef cattle.
“They don’t like me much,” Brandon joked looking out at the cattle just a few feet from his door during a recent truck tour on the farm with James Conley, their loan officer from Ag Carolina Farm Credit, his wife, Jessica, and their son Camden.
The half-ton animals brought back fast and fond memories for Brandon, whose grandfather loved to care for the cows, especially in his heyday. He passed away in 2011. He would bring them oatmeal cookies – Brandon recalled — until one day an overzealous heifer took to the hood of his grandfather’s pickup to get hers early. That sort of ended cookie time, Brandon chuckled, driving away and spotting out a couple of irrigation issues and noting a likely dry water hole if temps get too high and rain is short.
In that one exchange, everything that Brandon has on his plate to keep the 30-plus-year-old operation he has known thriving was before him – his heritage, his daily problems to solve and his legacy. And, in all that, the ambitious 31-year-old sees his role to link everything, coming up with better and more efficient ways of farming even if it means conversions of equipment or accounting systems, learning any leadership skills he can to better communicate with the many different types of people he must deal with daily and being an advocate for agriculture and today’s farmer to make sure what is happening on the ground is translated correctly with insight in the boardroom.
All His Life
“All my life I’ve wanted to be in agriculture,” he said. “Growing up on the farm, there was always something to do. Today, I like the challenges. I like the challenge of being a profitable farm in 2017. I like the challenges that face all farmers. … Not to romanticize it, but I enjoy watching a seed grow, from planting it to harvesting it and then watching it grow and be right there.”
He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, holding a bachelor’s degree in biological and agricultural engineering and a master’s degree in agricultural engineering. He serves on the North Carolina Farm Bureau Farm Labor State Advisory Committee. As the 2017 Innovative Young Farmer of the Year Award recipient from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum, Brandon was recognized for embracing the challenges of modern agriculture through creative thinking, technology and adaptability.
His perspective on agriculture changed a great deal during his college years, he said. An internship at Phillip Morris, in particular, molded his attitudes toward success.
“What I took away from that helped me see things completely different. While I was still working in farming, I got to see the corporate structure and how decisions are made that impact farmers a great deal.
“In corporate, they are concerned about shareholders and customers – and they should be, absolutely – but there is a farmer’s story to be told too,” he said.
It was then he realized the value and necessity of a communication link between big agriculture and decision-makers, whether corporate or political.
“You have to be an influence. If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will do it, and they will probably get it wrong,” he said. “Most of the people making the laws I follow, and even the consumers, have no idea what farming involves. … Most people don’t think about where their food comes from; it is just there, in this country anyway - safe food. Everywhere you want it, it's in abundance, on every street corner, in every direction.”
What Tomorrow Brings
A self-proclaimed “techie,” Brandon has added auto-steer tractors to increase field efficiency, designed a retrofit for older tobacco barns to better control curing pace, transitioned to a cloud-based record-keeping system and incorporated drones into field research to collect data that has multiple cost-saving implications, still untapped, he said.
He holds field tests and demonstrations often.
“If we are not diversifying and not growing then we are dying,” he said, reflecting on words of his grandfather. This means going into unchartered territory with nontraditional crops such as canola, industrial hemp and pesticide residue clean tobacco. And, yes, even organic tobacco; it already has a European market, he said.
Youth defines him in a world where there are few farmers and even fewer young farmers. He sees his place in a global market and watches economic news from all corners to make decisions. Being an advocate for farming and being vocal is important, he said. It is one path he knows he will carve out in years ahead.
“We are so few in number now, we have to be unified, and we have to be pulling in the same direction,” he said. “I believe there is a place for all types of agriculture. The story of American agriculture is we are feeding the world. I am going to tell it.”