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.
The person who inspires Braden Gibson generally trails a few feet behind him -- four feet and sturdy, with blonde hair topped with a cowboy hat and a feather. Cutler Gibson is 8 and healthy, a growing young man who will consume a large, predawn breakfast at the Big Country Cafe, in Dumas, Texas. He is quiet, watches his dad closely and knows his way around a horse.
Cutler was born two months early weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces. "He was just as big as my two hands together," Braden says. "He spent two months fighting for his life. He's a constant reminder that life may not always be easy."
Fifth-generation Braden sees the future of Gibson Farms in sixth-generation Cutler. "It was never pressed upon me that I had to farm and ranch. It's just something I've always loved," Braden, 39, says. "The key is making this work for the next generation," Cutler and his little sister, 1-year-old Kaitlyn.
"I want [Cutler and Kaitlyn] to play, to have a good time. I want to instill in them a good work ethic, to be problem-solvers," he says. "Whether my children choose to come back and have a life in agriculture or not is up to them. But, we can make those big decisions later."
Gibson Farms is 100 years old with family roots back to Missouri. The business is owned by Braden, his parents, Lee and Paula, and his brother, Brett. Braden is married to Audrey Gibson, one-time teacher and full-time manager of the family's 22-year-old Nature's Way Compost business.
The operation does business on either side of the Texas Panhandle. "Those 120 miles [between farms] have a whole lot of differences," Braden says. The elevation drops 1,000 feet from the western Panhandle to the east. The east is a bit wetter, the west a bit cooler. The soil type changes 12 times across Gibson Farms. There is a noticeable lack of trees. "We live in a place where you can say, 'Turn left at the tree,' and you'll say, 'Which tree?' And I'll say, 'You'll know,'" Braden says.
Asking Braden about a good day: "Problem. Solution. In the same day." You have to appreciate his brevity.
The east portion of the farm is cotton country. Gibson Farms tends 2,400 acres of cotton, 1,300 acres of irrigated corn and sorghum, and a few hundred acres each of irrigated and dryland wheat. Irrigated cotton fields can produce 2.5 to 4 bales to the acre. Corn yields average 200 to 250 bushels per acre. Irrigated wheat produces 80 to 100 bushels per acre and 20 to 40 bushels dryland. The cotton is a newcomer. "Cotton has turned into a good fit for our farm," he says. Nature's Way turns out 200,000 tons of compost per year from nine feedlots. The product is sold to crop farmers within a 200-mile radius of the Gibson operation.
About 30% of Gibson land is devoted to cattle. It's a commercial Angus-cross cow/calf operation with about 1,000 pairs and from zero to 2,000 feeders, depending on the market. Braden grazes cattle on irrigated circles of mixed grasses -- the grasses rotated beneficially with cotton. The grass cover keeps the blowing sand deadly to cotton under control. On the 120-acre circles, grass mix is planted in two directions to push up the grazing volume. "We can run pretty big numbers of cattle on it, about 1,200 pounds per acre." A cow/calf unit would need to have 35 acres of native pasture to support themselves. "It's not your typical western cattle environment. But, I'm pretty proud of this," he says.
Braden has a favorite phone app, the one showing the 30 soil-moisture probes he monitors. "Some people look at Facebook; I'm watching those probes," he quips. "I'm monitoring where we need to be; not overwater or underwatering, just where we need to be."
Braden is a lifelong learner. He earned his bachelor's degree from Texas Tech and completed The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP), Master Marketer Program at Texas A&M and the Texas Farm Bureau's AgLead program. He is a member of Elevate Ag, a peer networking group. "When I heard about it, I kind of giggled, 'Why do I need a peer group?'" Then he saw value in being part of a diversified group. "Our problems are not the same, but they are the same," he says. "We can share ideas because we are not competitors. I always walk away from the group with something that broadens my skills."