Young farmers share knowledge at Ohio dairy grazing conference

Ivan Troyer (left) Nathan Goodell, Vernon Yoder and Aaron Helmick spoke at the dairy grazing conference Jan. 23 in Dalton.

DALTON, Ohio — At the North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing Conference Jan. 23 in Dalton, four young dairy farmers in their 20s and 30s talked about what it takes to get started and get established in farming.

The farmers were Ivan Troyer of Wayne County; Vernon Yoder of Greenville, Pa.; Aaron Helmick of Greenville, W. Va.; and Nathan Goodell of Mantua, Ohio. Here is what they were asked, and their advice.

How do you decide whether to use existing facilities or build new?

Consider the cost differences, whether the existing facility can be made efficient, and what the returns will be if you build new.

In Helmick’s case, most of the ground is rented, so if they build new facilities on that ground, there’s a risk of eventually losing those facilities.

Goodell said he and his family considers their vision for the farm, their current resources, and then tries to work within their means.

Troyer, whose 65-acre farm is surrounded by 11 adjoining landowners, does not have a lot of room to expand, so he decided to use older facilities.“It would be nice to have new, but I’d say financially, a lot of times it’s better to go with the old if there’s not too much construction (and) things to fix,” he said. How do you decide whether to rent or buy land?

Troyer said in his area, renting is the preferred option because land values are $10,000-$12,000 an acre — cost prohibitive for many young farmers.

Yoder said the ideal situation would be to rent for at least three to five years, to build some collateral, then consider buying. He moved to Greenville, Pa., along with about a half-dozen other farm families in 2006. Yoder’s family bought an 84-acre farm for a reasonable price, and they were able to rent additional ground for $25-$35 an acre.

Over time, those rent prices doubled and tripled, he said, but have still remained lower than elsewhere.

Helmick said if he were younger and just starting out, he’d probably find someone else’s farm to work on for a few years, while gaining experience, equity and then go rent his own farm.

But over everything else, Helmick said, it’s important to remember, “there’s no cookie cutter approach to starting up.”

How do you handle record keeping?

Each farmer said records are important, and they review them regularly.  For some, it’s bi-monthly, at tax season or before any major purchases.

“If you do not manage what you are doing, there will be nothing there to do with,” Helmick said.

Yoder and Goodell said records help them compare one month to another, and one year to another.

Do you have a mentor?

Helmick said young farmers “should surround themselves with as (many) people as they can find and from all walks of life. Just because you’re a grazier doesn’t mean your mentor has to be limited to being a grazier as well,” he said.

Yoder said having a mentor helps farmers avoid making the same mistake, and they have someone to ask for help.

Troyer said he “wouldn’t start (farming) without one.”In return, Troyer said young farmers should remember to be a mentor themselves. “If you get a chance to go help somebody, go do it,” he said.

What factors do you consider before making decisions and who do you involve?

Each farmer said he talks it over with his family and with all parties involved. Troyer said he tries to think of the acronym FFA. No, he doesn’t mean Future Farmers of America. Troyer’s “FFA” stands for “Financial, Family friendly, and Advice.”

The financials need considered for obvious reasons, while the “family friendly” part helps ensure the decision will benefit the family and the time they spend together.

The “advice” part involves mentors and friends, who can share their own experiences.When it comes to deciding which cattle to buy, Yoder recommends buying good cows — not just the cheapest.

“If you’re looking to buy cows, be very selective,” he said. “Don’t buy anything that will not build a herd.”

How can a young farmer start farming with little or no equity?

Yoder said the Amish church and the different Amish communities can make a big difference.  When the church invests in its youth, it’s also investing in their future, he explained.

Hard work and starting at the bottom is another answer. Helmick said nothing has ever come easy for him or his wife, but they worked hard and built themselves up.

“It’s not bad enough to itch for something — you’ve got to scratch for it,” he said.If you don’t have equity, Helmick said “get it.” Young farmers can start by working for other farmers, starting small, etc. until they’re ready to branch out.

How do you balance farming with family time?

First, they try to do things on the farm that involve the family and that are enjoyable. But there are times when “you need to go fishing,” Helmick said, and “that will pay bigger rewards and dividends.”

Yoder said he tries to keep things in perspective. First, it’s religion and God, and then providing for his family.

“What God called me to do is be a provider physically and spiritually and that’s a challenge,” Yoder said.

In terms of perspective, he often thinks: “If Christ comes back tonight we won’t have to do it (farm work) tomorrow, but the family time will matter.”

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