Saturday, May 1, 2010

Future still bright for agriculture

(Heather Gessner, Tracey Renelt, Jim Krantz)

In South Dakota, agriculture has always been a major industry. And that is no different in Kingsbury, Lake, McCook and Miner counties.
“Agriculture is a major part of our community,” said Jim Krantz, Miner County Extension Service Educator. “Miner County is a lot like South Dakota. Ag is a big driver.”
In McCook County, Extension Educator Heather Gessner said a large share of the income is on the farm. “We have farm wives working in town to pay health insurance for the family and the farm pays most of the rest,” she said. “The agriculture field is a huge part of most of the businesses in McCook County. They relate to fuel, seed and feed, welding repair, and equipment sales; all directly tied to the farming industry.”
In Kingsbury County, agriculture is still the number one industry. “We have a lot of industrial-type businesses, but agriculture brings in the most dollars,” said Extension Service Agent Tracey Renelt. “It is a major source of income. There are so many businesses that play off of the four major cities along Highway 14.”
Paul O. Johnson, who is a SDSU Extension Educator/Agronomy, said Lake County is a very highly productive agriculture county.
Lake County is 19th in cash crop sales and ranks 20th in total receipts. The largest crop is corn with more than 120,000 acres followed by soybeans at 100,000 acres, and a distant third is alfalfa with 12,000 acres.
“Farming is a good occupation that gives a lot of flexibility and independence that a lot of jobs don’t give,” said Johnson, who works in South 3 Field Education Unit that includes Kingsbury, Lake, Miner, McCook, Brookings and Moody counties. “It is not a job that is easy to get into without some family ties to help get started.”
While agriculture is a main source of income for many, it is also a challenging industry for producers.
One of the major challenges is the weather.
For example, in Kingsbury County, there was a major challenge of getting the crops out last fall because of the weather. The corn was wet and the farmers did have a hard time getting the crop harvested, according to Renelt.
She estimates that four percent of the crop was left in the field last fall and is being harvested now this spring.
“That is a fair amount of acres that had to get harvested before the fields can get planted in the spring,” Renelt said.
There is also the challenge of growing crops on uneven ground that goes from potholes to hilltops with everything in between, according to Johnson. “It is harder to farm on this rolling terrain then like the James River Valley,” he said.
Once crops are planted, then comes the challenge of getting the crops to market to ensure the farmer can cover costs and make a profit, or hopefully break even. There are also concerns about how to pass on the family farm to a younger generation with the various state planning and tax laws.
“With the price of crop ground and equipment, getting started in the business is very expensive,” Gessner said. “In general people do want to help young producers and will do what they can to get started, while at the same time watching out for their retirement needs”
Maintaining a profitable living on the farm is always a challenge.
Renelt said the input costs fluctuate and farmers have to be able to try and manage those input costs, be it fertilizer, chemical, fuel, equipment or rent. “Cash rent has jumped quite a bit in the last few years,” Renelt said. “Farmers have to be able to turn around and market the crop at a profit.”
Another challenge that producers face is the increased number of acres it takes to make a living. With that increased acreage means hiring other employees to help. This means the farmers are becoming managers, Renelt said. “That is something that is not always a skill everyone is trained to do,” she said.
Miner County is much like the state of South Dakota. On the western side of the county, it is a little drier as there is less rain, while the eastern side of the county is more crop intensive, has a little more rainfall and is a little more productive. This provides a challenge to producers in western Miner County.
Krantz said improvements in seed technology and pesticides that control weeds in grass and crops have helped. “That’s allowed some of our less productive land, where we receive less rainfall to be competitive,” Krantz said. “That has leveled the playing field a bit. We don’t have anything but plants we want out there utilizing the moisture.”
The way farmers use technology to produce crops and livestock is probably the biggest change over the years.
“It is so scientific,” Krantz said. “We can map a field out and we can use variable rates of fertilizer. We have equipment that applies less and more when needed. We have equipment and technology allowing us to put fertilizer and plant nutrients where they need to be. Through technology we can predict how much nitrogen we need and through soil testing we know how much is already available. We know from past crops how much they will contribute. There is very little guess work anymore.”
Renelt agrees that technology has changed the farming industry over the past 20 years. “We didn’t have Round Up Ready crops. We didn’t have GPS systems. We didn’t have tracking monitors, precision planting and grid mapping in the field,” she said. “There is a lot of technology and computers at the top of the list to help manage crops and livestock daily cash flow, inputs and record keeping.”
Despite the increased technology, some are worried about losing farmers. However, in Miner County, the attrition rate is not as great as it was 5-10 years ago, Krantz said. “Miner County is fortunate to have farmer-son and family operations. We’re fortunate we do have some youth coming back.”
Krantz said farming has always been important to this community. “Today, people have started to recognize the amount of talent and management it takes to be successful in farming,” he said. “Young people coming in know their margins are so narrow and their investments so high they just have to do it right. They have to market.”
The way producers market crops and livestock is also changing. “A lot of it is done before the crop hits the ground or a pig or a calf hits the ground. They have already been sold. That’s a major thing,” Krantz said. “Crop insurance programs have changed and are huge management tools for crop and livestock producers. Crop insurance is really advantageous for producers because they can insure crops at various level. Producers have a revenue package that can insure every acre for so many dollars worth of income.”
In McCook County, Gessner said there is a transition from a diversified livestock and crop operation to strictly cash crop operation. Ethanol plants, regional elevators and just the plain fact that producers just don’t want feed livestock in cold weather are some of the reasons for this change.
“Producers are not raising corn to feed the cows, they are raising corn to sell,” she said.
Renelt said that like any business, farmers have to learn to adapt and apply what they can use. “Those that are surviving are adapting. They are taking this technology and using it for the benefit to produce crops and livestock more efficiently to feed the world,” she said. “They are not lagging behind. They are trying to incorporate the latest things into their operation that will make them more profitable because it is challenging. Everyday they face hurdles and they have to be ready for those hurdles if they are going to be around tomorrow.”
And then there are the changes that have been occurring over the past 30 years involving tillage on the farm and the size of the farm, said Johnson.
All believe the future is bright for agriculture.
“The future for farming is great,” Johnson said. “Everyone still needs to eat and South Dakota is becoming a larger player in the market all the time.”
Krantz said producers are extremely efficient and are only going to get better. “We know how to use selection tools and the data we have generated all these years to make our animals and crops more efficient. We have young people who want to come back and be involved in the operation.”
In McCook County, Gessner said there are options for young producers. “Larger operators are hiring young adults so they can get practical experience; maybe build up some cash and then maybe they can buy an operation as they become available,” she said. “With our location to ethanol plants and other markets, basis can be ‘fairer’ to producers. We can work with different pricing opportunities. Currently, zoning and public perception is pretty favorable to livestock so if someone wants to increase their operation we can help with that also.”
Renelt said there is so much opportunity out there. “You have to take a look at the big picture. We don’t just deal in the local market, it is a global economy,” she said. “We have producers in Kingsbury County that market products globally. If they are able to do things like that they are going to be around tomorrow. Not only are we feeding people locally, we are feeding people in this state, the nation and the world. If they can adapt, and find the right niche that puts them ahead of the game, they will be around.”

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