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.
On a winter's day you may find Jessie Hobbs III walking his fields. They are not short walks. He follows rows of stubble up and down the hills and draws of north Alabama's Limestone County and on up to the edge of the Elk River north into Tennessee.
Hobbs is a 35-year-old Auburn (Alabama) University graduate in a family with loyalties leaning to that other state school, the University of Alabama. You have to live in the Heart of Dixie, as one unofficial state motto claims, to understand what that does to familial relations during football season; a dozen Saturday afternoons paired in some twist of tragic timing with the annual strains of fall harvest.
But with that Auburn degree in hand, he fulfilled a promise to his retired-teacher mother, Sue, to graduate from college before coming back to farm.
Hobbs is immediately friendly, a fourth-generation farmer with a smile on his face and a story on his lips, rolling out the particulars with well-timed wit. How do he and his father farm together? "We start every morning with an arm wrestle," he replies.
It is a wry character that may well be important in some of the work Hobbs does off the farm. An elected member of the Elkmont Town Council for 10 years–"I don't get paid anything but a cussing twice a month"–he is also the Alabama Soybean and Corn Association president, heads the Alabama Farmers Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers, and is a member of the Southern States county board.
"We think it's important to let your voice be heard," he says of the community work he and his wife, Amanda, perform. "You're not doing your part if you're not active."
Hobbs and Amanda, a schoolteacher, are raising four children–two girls and twin boys–all under 7 years of age. He will tell you there is nothing better than walking through the door at the end of the day than to have Curtis and Corder wrap themselves around his legs, to have Caroline in his arms or to have his daughter, Sarah Bess press a school paper into his hands.
He works for those moments. "I want to give each of them the opportunity to farm if they want to," Hobbs says. "They are going to learn the importance of hard work, diligence and integrity."
That's partially why he walks the fields in winter. Farming more than 3,300 acres–50-50 with his father and a bushelful of landlords–Hobbs tunes his eyes to the ground searching for answers in soils that fell short of his production expectations. In those underperformers, he believes, are the keys to a successful future.
"The difference between a good farm and not is about this much rain," he says, holding his thumb and index fingers about half an inch apart. "I look for the small things."
Hobbs samples his soils on 5-acre grids. He and his father apply poultry litter and add a starter (10-10-0-5) for corn with the planter. They employ cover crops to manage soil fertility and weed populations. They deploy no-till to control erosion and decrease equipment costs.
The farm produces some good corn yields. Jessie's father, Howard Hobbs Jr., grew a 2009 state winner in the National Corn Growers Association Yield Contest of 244.8 bushels in the no-till/strip-till, nonirrigated category. Jessie earned second place in that same category with a measured yield of 204.7 bushels to the acre.
"We are constantly trying to fine-tune our systems. We used to farm by the field; now we farm by the acre," he says. Still, Hobbs deals with a couple of realities on his farm–one old, one new.
First, the old. That would be the soils he works. They are red Alabama clays and loams. Listening to an Iowa farmer talk about his black soils during a gathering in Chicago, Hobbs throws his head back and laughs. "Just give me 20 acres of that. Just give me 20 acres."
His are productive soils, albeit a bit stubborn from time to time. Which is good because his No. 2 reality is cotton, or more precisely, what happened to cotton. Until the price reversal of recent months, King Cotton had been dethroned all across the South, the luster of its crown tarnished by markets wanting to pay only 50 cents to the pound.
Hobbs Farms had to do something different. The market changed and the farm had to change with it. And it did.
"We're blessed to have been able to have adapted to the market when the market changed," Hobbs says. A cotton farm has been transformed into a grain operation.
There is still cotton, but also more corn for poultry markets, soybeans and wheat (that also yielded 3,000 bales of wheat straw for the contractor and decorator markets). Hobbs Farms has been producing pumpkins since the 1990s and cutting some hay for a market that is beginning to tilt toward horses.
In 2010, the farm produced for the first time a crop of sunflowers grown for oil. The farm also includes custom fertilizer and spraying businesses.
"With our farm we are trying to create a sustainable system that is resilient, resistant and renewable," Jessie says. "With 70 to 80% of the crop, we keep [doing] what brought us. But with the rest of the production, we try other things–new seed technologies, new chemicals, new practices and new crops. We'll give it a whirl."
Hobbs and his father are contemplating the addition of poultry houses, have made an investment in a now-stalled ethanol project and are part of an effort to bring an oil crusher to the area.
It's that "look down the road" farming and marketing strategy that is bringing a new addition to the farm–grain bins. Hobbs is erecting 60,000 bushels worth of grain storage, hoping they are a game changer.
"The bins show things are changing," Hobbs says. "I keep 10 trucks and trailers running during harvest. But they may sit in line at the elevator for six or seven hours."
With on-farm storage and advice from a recently-hired grain marketing firm, Hobbs looks forward to capturing prices beyond local harvest markets.
"We realized we needed a better understanding of the appropriate marketing tools available," he says. "We know marketing decisions should be based on long-term investments."
So Jessie H. Hobbs III has planted his flag in Elkmont, Ala. "My grandfather told me that once you get dirt under your fingernails, you never get it out," he says. That is true of the red dirt that Hobbs farms.
"I love to farm. I love to drive tractors," he adds. "But I hope to leave that dirt better than when I got it."
His children are counting on it.