So You Want My Job: Farmer

by Brett on July 15, 2009 · 28 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

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Farming is not only a manly job, it is arguably the first stepping stone towards advanced society.  When men put down spears and picked up plows, it allowed communities to stop wandering. At the turn of the century, 39% of Americans  worked in agriculture; today, less than 2% do. But while farming is a vastly different industry today, the qualities that made men successful back then are still helping them now.

For this week’s “So You Want My Job,” AoM reader Paul Leonard interviewed Brian Bradley, a life-long farmer and family man.  Mr. Bradley farms 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans in Indiana. Thanks both to Paul for doing the interview and Mr. Bradley for taking part in our series.

1. Tell us a little about yourself.  (Where are you from?  How old are you?  Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.)

I was born and raised on the farm in Montgomery County, Indiana.  I live half a mile down the road from where I grew up in a farmhouse built in 1865 that’s been in the family for five generations.  I’m 40 years old and have been farming for as long as I can remember.

My job involves being part agronomist, economist, banker, mechanic, entrepreneur and common laborer.  Planting and harvesting are only a fraction of what goes into farming every year.  The role that makes a farmer succeed or fail is much more on the business side of things.

2.  Why did you want to be a farmer?  When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I don’t ever remember thinking this isn’t what I wanted to do.  My dad was a farmer, he still helps me everyday, and I grew up helping him from as young as I could be useful.  There are a few other jobs I’ve had, mostly recently, working in a steel mill, but I never enjoyed any of them like farming.

3.  What is a typical day like for you?

What time of year is it?  That’s part of what I like about farming, the schedule is constantly changing, and so you never get bored doing the same thing too long.  In the spring most days are spent getting equipment ready for planting.  When the weather is right we’re in the field planting and drilling seed from sun-up to sundown.  After that we go back and spray for weeds, fertilize and spray for weeds again.  In between those periods we cut and bail hay to feed the cattle during winter.  In late summer, we get equipment ready for harvest and usually take some vacation time.  Then, when it’s time to harvest, we’re in the fields to sundown again.  The winter tends to be the slowest time, but there’s still lots of work hauling the corn and beans to elevators, taking care of the business side of things, getting finances and seed in order for next spring and having a little fun on the snowmobile too.

4.  What’s the best part of the job?

It’s great being your own boss, being able to take time for family events, and having a flexible schedule.  But there’s something special about the tradition of it as well.  Farming is such a time-honored tradition, and it gets in your blood. There’s something very fulfilling and profound about it.

5.  What’s the worst part of the job?

(long pause…)  There’s not much about it that I don’t like.  That being said, it’s not much fun wading through the red-tape associated with government programs.  And most farmers essentially get paid once a year, so it can be difficult to plan and budget a year in advance.  It gets tougher every year to find ground to farm, but if you don’t grow you will eventually collapse.

6.  What is the biggest misconception that people have about farming?

I’ve always been surrounded by the farming life, so I’m not sure what people’s conceptions about farming are.  But a lot of people are surprised at how complicated farming has become.  There’s so much more to it than putting a seed in the ground and then picking the produce several months later.  There’s a huge economics side to it; we’re constantly watching the markets trying to get the best price for our product and finding the lowest prices for seed, fertilizer and equipment.  Tractors have GPS-guided driving systems now, and many varieties of seeds are bio-engineered.  Fertilizers, soil types and weed-killers require an understanding of chemistry. The industry is constantly changing.  My grandfather would be clueless about a lot of the farming practices we use today.

I suppose some folks have the image of farmers as being country-bumpkins in overall-bibs and straw hats chewing tobacco…well, the tobacco part isn’t too far off.  But most farmers these days are college educated and spend as much time doing business in an office as they do bouncing up and down a field in a tractor.  I know some farmers who haven’t driven a tractor in years.

7. What is the work/family/life balance like?

When my kids were babies, I had a car seat installed in the combine and they’d sit with me for hours on end while I harvested.  During planting and harvest time, farmers are exclusively focused on the task at hand unless the weather turns bad.  Other than those 4 weeks of the year it’s a pretty laid-back schedule.  There’s always something that needs to be done, but I can always find time for a cup of coffee or a friendly poker game in town.

8.  Can a man with zero farming experience decide one day to become a farmer?  If it is possible, how would he go about making that happen?

It’s pretty tough, but with enough capitol anything is possible.  If he were a young man I’d recommend going to college to study agro-business.  If he’s further along in life, I’d say go buy 1,000 acres of land and rent it out.  Then ask the farmer you’re renting to if you can shadow them for a couple growing seasons.  There’s really no way to learn it except by doing it.  I have a friend that started out in his early 20′s with no knowledge or experience.  He got hired on as a farm hand and started buying and renting land when he could.  He’s a successful farmer today, 20 years later, but it was tough.

(Side note: an acre of tillable land in our area sells for around $4,500 today.  So 1,000 acres will set you back 4.5 million dollars.  A new combine runs around $300,000, and you’ll also need at least one good tractor, a planter, a plow, disk, sprayer, fertilizer a couple grain trucks and other miscellaneous equipment.)

If that isn’t possible, there are lots of jobs in industries related to farming.  Lots of people work for co-ops and elevators and businesses that sell to and buy from farmers.  It’s not the same kind of work, but we all tend to have a similar perspective on life.

9. Small farmers are a dying breed, gobbled up by giant agribusinesses.  There are lots of challenges facing small farmers today.  What are some of those challenges?  What are the prospects for the future of this profession?

For the last 30 years it’s been about vertical integration.  Farmers used to grow a little corn, a little hay, some oats, beans, raise some pigs, cows and have a nice big vegetable garden.  Today the name of the game is specialization.  In our area everyone grows corn and soybeans and that’s all they grow.  That trend will continue.  The economies of scale will continue to ramp up as seed, fertilizer and equipment gets more expensive.  Each farmer will have to farm more and more acres to make the same profit.  The plus side is that everybody’s got to eat.  Ethanol may or may not continue to play a large role in farming depending on what happens with corn-based fuel.  Biotech will continue to improve yields and prevent loss due to insects, disease and drought.  Overall I’d say the picture looks bright for everyone in the farming industry.

10. Any other advice, tips or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Farming is as much a mentality or lifestyle as it is a profession.  Most farmers that I know have faced numerous setbacks, but they are really good at problem-solving.  It may not be the best, prettiest, safest or most effective solution, but at the end of the day they are incredibly resourceful or they don’t survive.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bob Iger July 16, 2009 at 4:48 am

I liked this article, especially because I spent one year of my life on a farm. Nevertheless, my experiences were a bit different because it was a livestock farm. As far as I can tell, managing a livestock farm differs from a strictly agricultural job.

2 Michael N July 16, 2009 at 8:06 am

Interesting read. The idea of subsistence framing has always appealed to my desires of self-sufficiency. Would anyone know the viability of such a pursuit in today’s consumerist society, and perhaps what costs would need to be considered?

(side note: I’ve regrettably never farmed a day in my life.)

3 Scott S. July 16, 2009 at 9:03 am

This read is near and dear to my heart. I grew up on a farm, and loved much of the lifestyle he discusses here. Unfortunately I didn’t have much of the farming instinct, and it was not financially viable for me. It was hard work, and there were some lean times, but it made me a better man. Now the farm is just a hobby for my father, and I wish my son would get to experience all the farm activities I did growing up, but I am not sure that is going to be a possibility. Make sure you thank a farmer for what they do out there.

4 Kevin M July 16, 2009 at 9:48 am

If I had one job I could do for a day, it would be a farmer. That being said, this gentleman seems to contradict himself a little. He says it’s hard to budget and plan ahead, but yet talks about GPS guided tractors, bio-engineering, etc. To me that says “unneeded expense”. $300k for a combine? How can you possibly make money with expenses like that? I think I’d rather fire up a horse and plow than plunk down that kind of cash.

I’d like to think the trends he mentioned will be reversed in the future so we go back to more small, local farmers generating quality products instead of a corporate owned farm mass producing everything. Maybe I’m too idealistic.

5 Jason Y July 16, 2009 at 10:41 am

Given supply and demand of farmers, farming is one of those jobs you should do only if you love it.

6 Paul L. July 16, 2009 at 10:44 am

Good question Kevin, I’m the guy that interviewed Brian for this article. And you’re right, the costs involved do seem overwhelming, but they are actually all worth it. Combines are incredibly expensive, but I should probably have added that many farmers buy used equipment and will fix and maintain their own equipment for years to come.

As for GPS and bio-engineered seed, they actually end up adding enough to the total harvest that they are not luxuries but smart buys. 50 years ago a farmer might get 60 bushels of corn from an acre and now with fertilizer and bio-engineered seed they can get over 200 bushels in a good year. So while the cost is great, the harvest is worth it.

GPS is interesting too, until last week I thought it was just a luxury also, but the reason for it is that it allows the tractors to plant exact rows with no overlap. If a human guides the tractor it will sway slightly left or right either overlapping seed in rows or leaving too large of spaces in between rows. If you do that on every pass across 2,000 acres of land it adds up to a lot of extra waste.

Hope that helps.

7 Aaron July 16, 2009 at 10:52 am

My parents are farmers and my wife and I are working in that direction. One thing I’d disagree with him on: *Yesterday* the name of the game was specialization, making money by selling large volumes of a single crop or two at a low price, with a lot of help from subsidies. People are starting to recognize the limits and problems with that model. The innovative thinkers today are looking at diversification and direct sales to the customer, selling smaller amounts at higher prices with a focus on quality, local connections, and humane and sustainable farming practices.

You can’t make a living on hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans without accepting government subsidies. Everyone else takes them, which keeps the market price below cost, so you just can’t do it. However, you can have an orchard and run sheep and chickens in it, and make a living on some combination of fruit, wool, mutton, eggs, and poultry, without needing a government check. That kind of stacking also allows you to produce more than one product at a time from the same acre of land, which is helpful with land prices still very high. You don’t need a million dollars worth of equipment, either.

8 Nubclub July 16, 2009 at 10:58 am

I’m into lawn and landscape and that’s just this side of farming. I can honestly say that it is the kind of profession that offers enough variety on a daily scale that it is never a dull moment. If there is one, it’s not for long. Diggin’ in the dirt and gettin’ just a grubby as the biggest hog to the farm is a blast. It’s the kind of profession that is the opposite of the rest of the world. The cleaner you are, the less you have done. That shows you haven’t accomplished too much, you’re not workin’.

9 Sims July 16, 2009 at 11:29 am

Thanks for the interview.
There is something to be said about working with your hands vs sitting behind a desk. Myabe thats a bit romantized, but I believe that there is some truth to it.
And finally, all farmers have my respect- lets face it…no farmers no food. You can get any more important than that.

10 Terry July 16, 2009 at 12:13 pm

I would say that the fellow interviewed and, indeed most folks who would call themselves farmers today, really aren’t involved in farming so much as they are industrialized agriculture.

I agree with Aaron that the prudent path is diversification. Increased costs for fuel and fertilizer are going to dictate it. One also has to be concerned for the long-term health of their soil. Deep plowing and chemical fertilizers give a short term return but at the cost of topsoil and fertility loss.

That said, I admire the farming life and appreciate your article.

11 Wildwood July 16, 2009 at 1:01 pm

This was an article that hits real close to home, literally. I live in Boone County (directly East of Montgomery County Indiana) and was born and raised on a small farm in western Boone county (I still live on a family farm but we rent the ground to a local farmer). I now work in Indy but my ultimate dream job would be working as a farmer. I get the “itch” every spring and fall. It may sound strange to some city folk but there is nothing like the smell of freshly tilled earth in the spring or the smell of corn and beans being harvested. I hope to someday retire early from my job and go work for a local farmer part time.

12 Logan July 16, 2009 at 1:11 pm

These days there’s a lot of misinformation on the subject of food and farming stemming from new yorkers, hit-and-run journalists, and activists. Everybody’s who’s skimmed a Michael Pollan column seems be and expert in farming and conservation technique.

Thanks Paul L. for the interview, you seemed to hit all of the critical questions without venturing into the fashionable ag topics.

PS. My father is a western Nebraska cattle rancher. Email me if you’d like for me to arrange an interview or more info.

13 J.D. Meier July 16, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Well, I don’t actually want the job, but I do want to ride the tractor.

At first I thought I wanted the rooster for a wake up call, but then I realized they always go off at the crack of dawn.

That said, there is something compelling about seeing the fruits of your labor, right before your eyes.

14 Kevin M July 16, 2009 at 2:53 pm

@Paul L – I appreciate the follow-up. Good interview by the way.

I think Terry and Aaron have good points though – farming is ripe for change – pun intended.

15 Erin July 16, 2009 at 4:15 pm

I think Logan makes a good point in mentioning that there is a huge difference between Mr. Bradley’s farm, and the farms that a lot of us ‘coasters envision after reading those Michael Pollan articles, and chatting up our local farmers at the weekly/bi-weekly markets. Perhaps someone should do an interview with a diversified CSA farmer or homesteader so that all of us that want that type of job (with chickens and cows and a vegetable patch and a field of wheat and a herd of kids who have to chip in to get the chores done) have a better idea of what that job entails.

16 Dan Smith July 16, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I grew up on a farm, like some of the other commenters on this post, but we never had anything like what he’s talking about. We farmed with a tractor made in 1946 and for part of my childhood, we didn’t even have a cab on the combine. Thankfully, that changed fairly early on!

Since I don’t know much about the larger farms, or agribusiness, I can’t comment too much on whether or not the gentleman is right or wrong on some of the things he says, but I do want to comment on one thing about getting into farming. My recommendation would be to buy something substantially smaller than 1000 acres to rent out as buying so much is an investment that could very well kill the novice if things don’t go right. It’s just my thoughts though. Go with what you know!

17 Robyn July 16, 2009 at 6:53 pm

i grew up on a farm and still live on the same farm I grew up on. That being said, I don’t farm. I rent the land to someone else. I do live in Indiana, the same state where this interviewed man lives and I would say that his life is very typical of the farmers today I know in Indiana. However, farming, be it livestock or crops or both, differs in all parts of the world. And it can be anything you want it to be. You want to do subsistence farming – then it is going to be a different approach than agribusiness. There are lots of people who do that today, only it is being termed “homesteading”. If you do a web search you will find lots of info on it.

18 KCnChester July 17, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Yep this sounds just like most of the farming operations in the area that my father’s family is from in Virginia. Most grow cotton, peanuts, soy beans and tobacco. I can especially appreciate the comments about finding land to farm and room for the business to grow. It seems like more and more farm land here now has a sub-division on it. There’s no way to support a family on just a few hundred acres. All of the career farmers I know have some of their own land and take all of the rented land they can get too.
I love spending time around my uncle’s farm and had this been a career option for me it definitely would have been my choice. It sounds like Mr. Bradley has a very rewarding life.

19 Benjamin Wilson July 21, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Reading the article, I was glad another farmer was presenting the job accurately. Reading the comments, I see a lot of people blowing smoke about things they don’t know much about! Lawn care is NOT anywhere close to the same as farming, and it also seems a lot of people have a very romantic vision of the “small subsistence farmer, working his small acreage with a horse and plow so he can have enough grain for bread and a little left over to sell.” Sorry folks, but agribusiness is all there is these days. Big companies have forced previously small farmers to “Get big or get out.” That’s why you have to have so much land, combines, etc. I literally laughed out loud at the horse/plow comment. Unless you can grow on a level that will compete with company farms, you don’t have any hope of breaking even, much less making money. You could never do that with horses/plows instead of combines nowadays.Face it folks, farming is BUSINESS. It’s not a romantic thing to dabble in.

20 Christatos Aristad July 23, 2009 at 3:57 pm

American farming sounds very different from the family farm in Greece. Or maybe the two farms are just worlds apart.

21 Greg July 24, 2009 at 1:31 pm

With respect to the various comments on the necessity and/or benefits of farming as the agribusiness it has become, I would recommend seeing the movie Food, Inc. for some perspective. And for those that believe that agribusiness is the only path to successful farming you might take a look at http://www.polyfacefarms.com/ as an example of an approach that will become more pervasive as people become more aware of the dangers inherent with industrialized farming.

22 Todd G July 27, 2009 at 11:00 am

A good read and what I believe is a correct perspective. I spent my formative years working on dairy farms and went to ag school as well. It was a great life to be involved in and I took away many life lessons and a very strong work ethic. As Brian stated in the interview, and i will paraphrase, you need to love it and embrace it; the successful farmers do.

I finally left because I lacked the capital to get started in what is a very capital intensive industry. And because of the volatilty of the markets for the various products it was extremely diificult to lay out even a conservative business plan that the banks would accept.

All that being said, it was a great life, my wife and kids are constantly amazed by the experiences that I can share with them and the skills and knowledge that I learned, and I would not change that for the world.

23 sirostap July 27, 2009 at 4:08 pm

It was hard work, and there were some lean times, but it made me a better man

24 Mitriy August 18, 2009 at 10:23 am

Interesting read. The idea of subsistence framing has always appealed to my desires of self-sufficiency. Would anyone know the viability of such a pursuit in today’s consumerist society, and perhaps what costs would need to be considered?

25 jody dyess October 19, 2009 at 10:53 pm

cool article, i just started reading AoM and i love it. I am a young(29) year old dairy farmer i am fifth generation dairy farmer and i have owned my own farm for 6yrs i have been married for 8yrs and i have 3 kids. I agree that farming is a tough way of life, 2009 has been the worst year for the dairy business since the great depression however the challenges are all part of being a man, thats why i love this site because it encourages the strenuous life and as farmers thats what its all about. My cows have to be milked twice a day 365 days a years there are no days off with dairyfarming, However i do have family and employees that help. I have a college degree and when i left high school i never palned on farming for a living but the farther i got away from the land the more i realized how priveledged i was to grow up they way i did and all of the heritage and pride i had in providing food for a hungry world. I also feel blessed to be able to raise my kids the way i was raised and to spend time with my wife any time i want to(btw I actually do enjoy spending time with my wife), i am the only one left in my family to carry on the tradition of being a farmer, and I am humbled by the lifestyles of the men in my family that they have lived in order to provide for me and my family the opportunity to live like a man!

26 Craig January 3, 2010 at 2:45 am

I enjoyed this read. I was not fortunate enough to grow up on a farm, and at 40 years old I think the sun may have already set on my dream of becoming a farmer. The main reason is highlighted in this story- it’s too expensive, and I am too late to the game. I am not rich, and the mere idea of raising $4.5 million in capital for the land alone is ludicrous. I don’t, however, believe that the model of “grow or die” in the context of acreage is sustainable. I also see bioengineering as a threat to heirloom crops, as well as the environment and human health. All of this Round-Up ready corn from Monsanto, and other products will be proven unsafe down the road, IMO. I do believe in subsistence farming, and that’s my goal at this point. I’d like these corporate welfare queen agribusinesses to be a page in the history book before I die.

27 Yeoman April 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Man, I do want this guys job.

In fact, I own cattle now. But what I really want to do is abandon my job as a litigator (lawyer) and just raise cattle. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.

Sigh. . . it’s something feels more remote to me every day.

28 Kevin June 6, 2013 at 10:36 am

Coming from a farm family (my parents and brother still farm, hiring only part-time help during peak times) I can say with certainty that “firing up a horse” as one post stated is not viable on a large scale. There will always be exceptions to the rule—niche marketers with specialized markets of end users—but the vast majority of farms will require large capital expenditures.

Some activists promote a return to farming practices from bygone eras. Some of those practices, however, were discontinued for excellent reasons. Plowing, for example, is an aggressive form of tillage that commonly leads to increased soil erosion. Other “modern practices” (a vague term I am reluctant to use) such as chemical application have also reduced the need for mechanical tillage and therefore improved soil conservation. I understand chemical application and genetic modification of plants and animals are controversial topics; I don’t mean for the thread on this excellent article to devolve into a discussion of those issues. I merely wanted to present some of the practical reasons for the practices of the modern crop production industry.

Finally, a word of caution: production methods will vary greatly by geography. What works near Crawfordsville, Indiana, may be totally different from what works near Canaan, Connecticut, or Chico, California. When studying ag-related topics, it is important to remember the local factors at play.

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