American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
Andrew Miller's father was the first man to inspire him to farm. The Texas growers who virtually adopted him after his father's sudden death during Andrew's junior year at Texas A&M University came second. That goodwill transformed a greenhorn with no land into an accomplished 11,000-acre Odem, Texas, farmer and custom operator by the time he turned 30.
Farming today without a land base or inheritance is no small feat. Nearly all new farm entrants return to established operations or get a boost by a parent's co-signature on loans, lenders say. Andrew's success is a tribute both to a young man's desire and to those who offered a stranger the same opportunity they would a son.
"Land rentals are a cut-throat thing, with owners mostly renting to the highest bidder," says Larry Bickham, 77, one of two senior farmers who hired Andrew as a farm manager out of college in 2005 and later partnered with their promising employee.
Bickham has seen every disaster and economic cycle in 60 farming seasons, he says, paying his own dues with too many years of 30-cent cotton and too few at $1. Farming within a stone's throw of the Gulf of Mexico also means weather can be as perilous as three years of epic drought or a sudden hurricane that swamps a bumper crop days before harvest.
"It's tough for a young person to get a start here without help. I really don't think it's possible," Bickham says.
Andrew's career could have turned out much differently. His father, David, instilled him with the love of farming early. Relatives recall how the boy could carry adult conversations on farming before he was 8.
By the time Andrew was in his teens, David had designed a learning laboratory– When Andrew was a freshman in high school, his father helped him buy a John Deere 4230 tractor. The young Andrew farmed 30 acres on his own, just to get the knack of production and marketing. By his sophomore year he owned a combine 50-50 with his father. Later he bought a cotton stripper and earned a half interest in harvesting crops on the family farm. Then, disaster struck. Andrew's father suffered a fatal heart attack during a Christmas holiday.
"We were all devastated by the loss and the realization that Andy's dreams were dashed," a family member says.
With Andrew still in college, his father's rental ground was picked up by others. His mother rented their owned farmland to a family friend and liquidated the farm equipment. That left Andrew temporarily landless, but he soon relied on a succession of people who took him under their wing. His grandfathers both pitched in to help with chores. One morning he recalls getting up early to feed cattle by 7 a.m. and finding both of his grandfathers already on the job mending fences. One had to travel 60 miles to beat him to work.,p>"I knew they'd do anything to help me succeed," he says.
But it was Bickham and his longtime farming partner, Stanley Webb, who gave Andrew his big break once he graduated college. In their prime, Bickham and Webb farmed 8,000 to 10,000 acres together and had earned a reputation as progressive operators. By their late 60s, they wanted to slow down physically and needed young blood to help them manage the new technology permeating agriculture. Bickham's son, Brad, ran his own independent and successful operation; he couldn't take on the daily management of a second. They were willing to pay a farm manager well to keep him interested.
In Andrew they discovered not only a trustworthy worker who could accurately calibrate seed depth on a planter, but an accomplished computer analyst with a penchant for precision farming and a command of finance. He calls himself a "spreadsheet nerd," but it didn't hurt that Andrew's wife, Stacy, was a statistician by training. Until recently, she worked off-farm and in her spare time helped automate much of the farm's recordkeeping. (She now works full-time in the farm business and is the mother of three children.)
"Technology passed me up. I was lucky to have a calculator most of my farming career, not computers," Bickham says. In contrast, Andrew analyzes every facet of the business, always laying out projections in black and white.
Using precision application also paid off. Andrew was able to cut the cost of a $25-per-acre cotton fungicide to about $5, Bickham notes. Using a skip-row system cuts inputs without affecting yield, helping Andrew stay extremely low-cost compared to conventional producers or even to growers in the Mississippi Delta.
Bickham and Webb not only admired Andrew's technology expertise, they also admired how he handled people, including farmhands much older than himself.
Gradually, Andrew built his own enterprise, borrowing his employers' tractor at no cost to farm his first 300 rented acres. Webb and Andrew also bought 370 acres of land together in 2006. "Stanley said we'd be buying at the top, but little did we know," Andrew chuckles. Commodity prices and land values soared the next several years.
By 2009, the threesome formed a new business arrangement, with Andrew running a custom farming business that would plant, tend and harvest their crops, as well as serve other customers who wanted a turnkey farming service. The partners with cropland supplied the inputs. With a bigger land base, Andrew can afford the latest technology on their fields but relies on the secure income of custom rates to buffer his risks. Today he serves five farm customers, mostly older individuals who don't want to be involved in the physical work of farming. One is Webb's widow, Sylvia, who continued to farm after Stanley died of cancer in 2012.
"I have one customer with 300 acres, but through the relationship he gets all the technology and profitability of an 11,000-acre farmer. And the streamlining made me more efficient in equipment purchases and input buying," Andrew says.
Andrew and his clients also improved their marketing by selling crops together. "When you come together as a group, it gives you strength in numbers. There's quite a bit of buying or selling power with volume," he says. "It's like a cooperative, but I own 100% and it's my customers who benefit."
Without a father's counsel on major decisions, Andrew has sought out sounding boards both locally and far afield. After attending Texas A&M's The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers, he formed a peer group with other ambitious farm operators. They come from Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington state and meet twice a year to share strategies and constructively critique each other's operation. It's broadened his perspective beyond Texas and introduced him to new ideas and technologies, says family friend Darrell Lawhon.
Looking ahead, Andrew sees potential challenges in the farm economy but hopes to avoid disasters. "Our weather volatility kept rents from going crazy here, but we still play in the markets with Midwesterners," he says. The price of new tractors has tripled since 2006, and seed costs have doubled, he notes. "I'm budgeting without government subsidies, but it's doable. We can farm our way through it–we just won't have the margins of the last six years."
He's already worked through some "shock" scenarios, such as what would happen if a drought knocked yields in half, but he'd still need to incur a harvest cost. Crop insurance won't help as much this year as in the past, since price guarantees cover far fewer dollars per acre. He plans to insure in enterprise units instead of individual fields. That cuts the premiums by about two-thirds, allowing him to afford 75% coverage.
During hard times, lenders need confidence that young operators have the management skills to weather agriculture's cycles. "I try to be as profitable as possible, to prove my character, to be transparent," he says. "I want the bank to know what's going on, to be an open book."
With characteristic modesty, Andrew thinks his career path–first as a farm manager and later as a custom operator–could be a blueprint for other young farmers with motivation but little land. It's a lesson he's passing on to Bickham's grandson, who now works for Andrew.
"If you want to farm, there's plenty of acres around, especially given the aging farm population," Andrew says. You just need drive, ambition, education–and established operators who recognize a young man's promise.