Most farmers typically don’t think of themselves in terms of titans of industry, desk jockeys in expensive suits or highly compensated corporate bigwigs.
But the acronym CEO—for chief executive officer—certainly fits most farmers. They run complex, often highly leveraged businesses and frequently make million dollar decisions that could put those businesses at risk.
“CEO is a term that seems to convey a higher level of leadership,” says Bruce Frasier, president of Dixondale Farms in Carizzo Springs, Texas. “I’m just the boss,” he said, during a panel discussion on “How Today’s Farmer CEOs are Reshaping Modern Ag,” part of the recent Bayer CropScience Ag Issues Forum in San Antonio, Texas.
The annual forum precedes the Commodity Classic, an event that attracts grain and soybean producers and the industries that support them from across the country.
Jeremy Jack, a partner in the Silent Shade Planting Company, Belzoni, Mississippi, and Chad Leman, co-owner of Leman Farms, Eureka, Illinois, joined Frazier on the panel and discussed the opportunities and possible pitfalls facing modern farmer-CEOs.
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Jack said the term CEO fits what he does, but his responsibilities go beyond management. “I consider myself a CEO but I’m also a general and a soldier,” he said. “We have 30 employees, but there is nothing on the farm I can’t do; nothing I can’t learn how to do. But I can’t do it all.”
He depends a lot on his wife, who he considers the human resources and public relations expert. His mother and sister also play crucial roles in the family operation. “My sister handles the marketing and she does a better job than I could,” he said.
Leman says he can make million dollar decisions in his operation. “If we want to change tomorrow, we can. It’s up to me whether it’s a good call or not.”
The three commented on some of the positive changes they’ve made to keep up with fluctuating markets and other pressures.
Frasier runs Dixondale farms, which produces approximately 70 percent of the onion plants grown in the United States, as well as cantaloupes. He changed the way he markets produce. “We are now a price giver,” he said. “We changed the business model and go direct to consumer.”
That change, he said, resulted in “five times the amount of sales. Find your niche,” he advised. “Think about what you do.” He said social media helps identify new customers.
Jack has turned the family cotton, rice, corn, soybean and wheat operation into a model of environmental stewardship. “We do show and tell,” he said. Conservation and sustainability are “part of everything we do.” That includes re-using irrigation water, which they collect in reservoirs and put back into the system. “We test water for nutrients as it comes off the field,” he said.
Technology improves Silent Shade efficiency. Fewer workers and fewer trips across the fields mean time and energy savings.
Observation also pays off. He said an employee noted that he was losing a lot of time and burning a lot of fuel with a tractor running while the spray tank was filling. “Idling was wasting time and money,” Jack said. By changing to a more efficient pump, they cut idling time by 75 percent.
Jack received the Bayer CropScience Young Sustainable Farmer Award in 2013. “We now have a demonstration farm,” he said. “School kids follow us on social media.” Silent Shade uses web cams to record what goes on at the farm.
Communication, he said, is a critical part of what a farm manager, CEO, needs to do. “We see a lot about agriculture (in the media) that’s not true. If we don’t tell our story, someone else will.”
Leman said labor is one of his big issues. “We have a lot of trouble finding labor.” He’s the third generation raising corn, soybeans and hogs on Leman Farms, Inc. It’s especially difficult to find employees for the hog operation. “No one wants to work with livestock,” he said.
Technology helps. “Technology frees us up to do what we need to do, which is not sitting on a tractor. The next generation of farm labor will have to be tech savvy,” he said. “Finding the talent will be difficult. The image of a farm is still antiquated. Urban kids don’t understand the potential of a farm career.”
Frasier said labor has not been a problem. He pays above going rate but contends that migrant labor is critical. “We need immigration reform,” he said. “Without reform, we get amnesty. That’s what we have now. And I really don’t want a government big enough to round up 12 million undocumented persons and send them across the border.”
He said a guest worker program would help. “Some workers are now coming in illegally because they can’t get in legally.”
Jack said good labor is hard to find in Mississippi. “We use the H2-A program.” He’s pragmatic about immigration. “My parents came from Canada,” he said.
Leman said about 95 percent of his labor force is Hispanic. “They are the only ones willing to do the work.”
Regulation poses challenges for all three. Requirements to use larger gestation pens, Leman said, will reduce profit. He was pressured by his buyer to put in the larger pens, which will mean an additional $3 per pig additional cost or 1.5 fewer pigs per sow per year. He asked the buyer if the change would mean he could get more for his hogs. “I will not get paid more,” he said.
Frazier said he grew up in a regulatory environment. “I think I’m able to accept it a little easier than my predecessors. But if the Department of Labor visits my farm, they will stay until they find something wrong.”
He said farmers and ranchers need to be watchful for new Clean Water Act regulations that “will define ‘Waters of the United States.’ We have to be ready.”
Jack agreed that farmers have to stay up on regulations. “We record everything we do—seed, fertilizer, nitrogen rates, and irrigation. We analyze all the data. We spend a lot of time with it.”
They talked about preparation for the future.
“I worry about the future of agriculture,” Frazier said. “Where is the talent coming from? That’s one reason we need immigration reform. No one wants to raise kids to be farm workers, but we need a younger generation. Farmers are getting older and farming is at the bottom of the hierarchy of jobs.” He has two children who live in Austin who are interested in the farm, just not living on it. “They want to manage it from Austin.”
Jack said he’s tackled an issue no one wants to consider. “Three years ago we went through a series of what ifs. For instance, what if someone dies? Who is next in place to take over? We now have a succession strategy.”
Leman said his four daughters could step in. “The rules have changed and I have no concerns about one or two of my daughters taking over. Our job today is mostly mental.”
They also discussed challenges they’ve already tackled or that lie ahead.
“We’ve changed production practices that make us more efficient,” Jack said. “Regulations will bring more challenges and I’m concerned about the public perception of what we do. We know about food; we have to go to the Internet or Facebook to tell our stories.”
Leman agrees that regulations, such as the requirement to make gestation pens larger, pose problems. “I also wonder what the consumer is willing to pay for,” he said. But he also appreciates the independence he has to make decisions and take responsibility for the outcome—good or bad.
Frazier said the biggest challenge he sees is succession. “Who will take over? It may not be family.”
But in the meantime, he’s content and expressed what he believes his fellow panelists and most people in agriculture feel. “Every day I work with people who truly love what they are doing and take pride in their work.”