Tyson Knight, 30, never considered a career other than farming. Clay Graves, 40, taught public school and coached for five years before taking advantage of an opportunity to come back to the farm. Clay’s nephew, Troy McGann, 23, hopes to launch a farming career this year.
The three represent Texas High Plains young people who want to build careers in agriculture. McGann may face the longest odds.
“I may be the oldest of the area’s young farmers,” Graves says. Despite opportunities and land coming available, he argues that coming in with no equity, little or no equipment, and scant, if any, credit history, poses a big hurdle. “It’s nearly impossible to start from dead zero,” he says.
The entry impediments have gotten stiffer in recent years.
“It’s hard for a young farmer to get started. Just 12 years ago, when I came back to the farm, dad helped with equity at the bank. It’s harder to do that now. A beginning farmer has to sign his own note.”
Graves’ dad, Gordon, retired in 2014 and is trying to help McGann get started by making some equipment available and helping secure access to a few acres.
The boost came with some caveats. “I told him I would help him after he showed me a college degree,” Gordon said.
McGann grins as he relates how he tried to circumvent that requirement. “I was planning on getting a two-year degree in diesel mechanics at a community college,” he said. His uncle disabused him of that notion.
“I said he had to show me a four-year degree,” Gordon said. McGann has just fulfilled his side of the bargain, and will plant cotton this spring near his kinfolks Lamb County acreage.
Knight started farming on his own at 18, and says he never really considered another career. “I’m making my 12th crop this year,” he says. “I started in 2006 and never wanted to do anything other than farm. But I did start a small trucking company. I’ve always enjoyed trucks.
“My grandfather farmed, my dad farmed—still does—and that’s what I know.”
He, his dad and uncle will all plant cotton this spring near Abernathy, Texas.
OPPORTUNITIES IN AG
Despite some hard times in recent years, Graves insists that agriculture offers opportunities to young men and women. “There is a future in agriculture here,” he says. “Agriculture is important, and is essential to national security.”
He adds that competing in an international marketplace with countries like China or Brazil, countries that do not have the same regulatory agencies in place or wages as high as those offered in the United States, is hard.
He also recognizes another potential problem for West Texas agriculture. A lot of older farmers are beginning to retire, leaving more acreage available for someone else to pick up and manage. “A lot are going to retire in the next three to five years, and we don’t have enough young farmers to take on all those acres.”
He’s picked up another 1,500 acres this year, and expects the added acreage will stretch his management.
“I already spend very little time on a tractor seat,” he says.
Like Knight, he will concentrate on cotton in 2017, and will add new herbicide technology to keep production as simple as possible. “I do expect to see more pest problems than usual because of a mild and moist winter.”
Graves adds that a Master Marketer program he took several years ago helped him focus on the importance of watching markets. “We have production down pretty well,” he says. “Marketing is the next place we have to look for a profit. We have to take advantage of every opportunity.”
Currently, he uses the PCCA pool to sell all his cotton. “I put every acre into PCCA,” he says.
Graves and Knight are both using new herbicide technology and planting 100 percent cotton this year. Graves will plant XtendFlex cotton and Knight will plant Enlist varieties. It’s an attempt to get a handle on resistant and hard-to-manage weeds.
“I’ve spent a lot of money on weed wipers and hoe hands over the last few years,” Knight says.
GOOD DRYLAND COTTON
They are concerned, too, about water availability. Knight irrigates about half his acreage, but says dryland acreage did well last year. Some of his irrigated land suffered injury from blight or wilt. “We lost as much as 50 percent in some fields,” he says, “and some of that was on our best water. Some of our row water fields did as well as our pivots.”
Grades were mostly good, 54 cents to 55 cents in the loan.
Graves also had some wilt or blight injury.
But he says his dryland crop in 2016 was “the best I ever made.” Yields ranged from just more than a bale per acre to more than 1100 pounds.
Weather was spotty for Knight and Graves, starting off wet and then turning dry in late June. August and September saw more rain, and then what Graves calls “a miracle October, hot and clear conditions, matured the crop.
“We had a good dryland crop and at 70 cents a pound, we needed it because 2014 and 2015 were hard.”
Knight and Graves say resistant weeds began to get bad in 2014. They paid a lot for hoe labor and still had weeds.
The issues with diseases, markets, weeds, water availability, and production costs pose significant challenges for young farmers trying to build equity and make a good living from farming the High Plains. But with cotton prices looking better this year, and new technology coming along to improve efficiency, agriculture offers opportunity. And with a little help, younger farmers like McGann will begin to carve out some space of their own to continue the tradition and the legacy.