Farming by numbers

SHREVE, Ohio – Hal Tate painstakingly records his progress on the thin blue lines of a handheld notebook.

“1978-130,” reads the first entry. Translation: In 1978, the year Tate bought his farm, he planted, harvested, sweated over and praised God for 130 acres.

“2004-5,040,” reads the last entry. Translation: In 2004, Tate plans to plant, harvest, sweat over and praise God for 5,040 acres.

All 26 years are there. Year, followed by acres, written in pencil, but now a permanent chapter in Tate Farms’ history.

“You’ve gotta know where you’ve been to know where you’re going,” he says.

Tate’s been a lot of places. He’s been a banker, he’s been a father, grandfather, pig farmer, grain farmer.

He’s going a lot of places, too. Mainly up. Up in acreage, up in equipment, up in satisfaction, up in pride. And up in years, which is why his sons, Bruce and Russ, are taking increasingly important roles on the family grain farm that sprawls across Holmes and Wayne counties.

Going in order. Tate grew up on his father’s farm and, like many country boys, knew he wanted to be a farmer.

But other plans came first.

“I knew how to farm since I was 10, but I didn’t know how to manage a farm,” Tate said.

After high school, he joined the Marines, enrolled in college and took finance and tax classes.

Soon he was in a suit and tie, talking about commercial lending at Old Phoenix Bank in Medina, Ohio.

“I gave it 100 percent for 15 years and by that time I was ready to get on with my life.”

And it was about that time when a woman who owned the place next to his parents’ farm called to say she was selling.

Tate and his wife, Nancee, bought it, and Tate went from number crunching behind a desk in winter 1977 to sitting on a tractor planting in spring 1978.

Decisions. It was March, it was time to start and Tate had waited for this a long time. He used his tight budget to splurge on used equipment and rented his parents’ land, too.

“After that first year we saw we were going to starve to death,” Tate said.

Tate looked at the numbers and knew he’d have to get bigger, and quick.

He rented all the land he could, and within 10 years he was planting almost 1,000 acres.

The first five years he also raised hogs, but it didn’t take long to put that money into farmland instead.

“One night I sat down and penciled the hogs out. We either had to get bigger or get out. I chose to get out.”

Penciling things out, poring over books – this came natural to money-minded Tate, and it’s what keeps him on the track to growth.

Bank’s blessing. That banking background is a blessing now that the Tates farm 5,040 acres, custom farm another 1,000 acres and raise 90 head of beef.

Tate started off out in the field but as his sons have gotten more involved, banking is his full-time job again. Banking on the farm, that is.

“Farming has changed a lot in the last 20 years,” he said. “It’s becoming more business oriented, and management is the most important area now. To be successful, you need to manage, manage, manage.”

Managing is Tate’s specialty.

In fact, he says his sons are already better farmers than him. At 34 and 27, Bruce and Russ leave the banking end to their father.

But they agree with their father’s financial sense.

“Pretty much everything comes down to dollars and cents,” Bruce said. And this is the reason for getting a new John Deere combine every year, and trading the 16-row planter and 36-foot grain drill every three years.

With just the three Tate men and three employees, they can’t afford down time fixing equipment and waiting on parts. It just makes more sense to spend money on bigger equipment, they say.

Adding custom work and leasing equipment to other farmers also helps.

“Anything to bring in a few more dollars at the end of the year,” Bruce said.

Full-time finance. The farm has grown so big, the finances are almost a full-time job now. Planning business management, selling grain and figuring yields keep Tate out of the fields.

Even though long days alone with a tractor used to be his favorite part of farming, he has no complaints.

“We’re a ‘we’ farm. You don’t hear us saying, ‘I did this,'” Tate said.

“We all work together. We have no secrets. We make decisions as a group.”

Each has his specialty: Bruce with corn, Russ with beans, and Tate with taxes, of course.

Tate is slowly working his sons into the books and paperwork and calculations of farming. And over the next five years, he hopes to play less of a role.

Someday, maybe in another 26 years, it will be Bruce and Russ with the handheld notebooks in their Chevys’ glove compartments.

But what the pencil markings will say next to 2030 is a number even Tate doesn’t know.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at


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