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.
As we bounce along roads cut through cotton fields with Josh Krohn and his daughter, Kenley, and hear his story, the Jimmy Buffett song "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes" simply refuses to quit echoing in our minds: "It's these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes/Nothing remains quite the same/With all of our running and all of our cunning/If we couldn't laugh we would all go insane."
This Midwesterner's life is now firmly anchored in the soil of a diversified crop and livestock farm near Lamesa, Texas. Josh admits to being very happy here–sleep-deprived but happy.
It's quite a distance from the soybean fields of northern Indiana to the windy south Plains of Texas. Yet this is a trip young Josh made for good 12 years ago.
Josh was 20 years old in 1998 when he traveled for what he thought would be a temporary move from Winamac, Ind., to Lubbock, Texas. He had completed junior college in Indiana and was offered a scholarship to judge livestock for Texas Tech University while pursuing a degree in agricultural education. He earned that degree. But Josh never taught a day of school. He did, however, take over a productive farm. It is growing steadily.
"I want to be retired when I'm 50," this 34-year-old responds, only half-jokingly, to a question about his plans for the future. "No, my long-term goal is to steadily increase this operation's value as opportunities present themselves. I'm trying to build my net worth as much as possible, so when ground becomes available, I can buy it without getting too much in debt. Then, if Kenley and, hopefully, my other children want to come back to the farm, great, we'll be in a good position for that to happen. If not, I'd like to retire and have a nice life."
Donald and Jeanna Love presented Josh the opportunity for this life. Donald had hired him as a Texas Tech student to work with his show pigs. When Josh graduated from Tech in 2000, he briefly returned to Indiana, discovered there wasn't a future for him on the family farm and returned to Texas as quickly as he could. Love put him to work permanently.
Josh began managing Love's 120-sow show-pig operation, and then the men began building a herd of cattle, using artificial insemination and embryo transfer to produce and sell show calves. Josh also began working with Love's farming operation and took over part of it in 2009, raising mainly cotton. In 2010, he took control of 1,000 acres of farmland as well as the show-pig operation, slightly expanded now to 130 sows. He has taken on more responsibility to the point where the Loves have been able to retire. Josh manages the hogs, 2,000 acres of pasture and 1,000 acres of crops. He also custom-bales hay for neighbors.
The relationship between Love and Josh has moved from mentor-student to landlord-tenant. Crops are crop-shared, and Josh cash-leases pasture from another farmer. He has purchased all livestock with his savings and by applying annual bonuses toward equity.
Diversification and niche markets have kept Josh going during a withering two-year drought that has drained the profits out of cotton, even overwhelming the drip-irrigated portion of his crop.
"We'll do as much business with custom hay baling as with our hogs or cotton in 2012," he estimated this past summer. With no grass for cattle, Josh recently sold all but seven of his 100 donor cows. He hated to see them go because he and his mentor had spent so much time and effort building the herd. But the cattle brought a high price on a strong market, money he has socked away for the future. Josh has also banked the genetics.
"We kept 150 embryos frozen from our donor cows, so when the pastures come back and it's economically feasible, we can be right back in the cattle business," Josh says. "We'll buy recipient cows and have the same quality of calf crop that year."
Market targeting and timing are everything for Josh. For example, he bales all of his alfalfa into small bales to serve a large horse market in West Texas. He times farrowing of his pigs and the calving to coincide with local, regional and national stock shows.
"This provides more brand recognition and exposure on a large scale, which is free marketing, especially when I'm not able to physically be at a show," he says.
Josh steers new customers to his operations with online sales–two pig sales with partners in 2012–advertisements in industry publications and a web site.
His fiance, Bridgette King, who is a banker in Lubbock, handles the online sales and advertising in coordination with Encore Visions, of Haskell, Texas. Josh generally speaks of his farm and Bridgette in the same breath. He credits her with financial management, Internet marketing savvy and other key aspects of keeping this complicated business functioning.
Even with his hands full on the farm, Josh has made time to carve out a place in his community. He serves on the board of the Dawson County Livestock Association and assists local chapters of the Future Farmers of America. "We'll make time to do anything we can to help children in agriculture," he says.
Josh is also active with the Texas Pork Producers, for whom he has judged shows, as well as the National Swine Registry and the American Angus Association.
It's often said that great things are seldom accomplished alone, and Josh is no exception to the rule. He credits his grandfather in Indiana for giving him a strong work ethic and love for the land. He describes Donald and Jeanna Love as a second set of parents who gave him his Texas start. Donald taught him the business side of livestock and farming, and helped him get established in the Lamesa area. Close friends and neighbors P.J. and Michelle Bessire, a veterinarian, help him with the hogs. Dr. Bo Brock, who owns the clinic in Lamesa where Dr. Bessire works, is a widely known equine veterinarian who also partners occasionally with Josh in the swine business. "He moonlights as a pretty good pig farmer," Josh says with a smile.
Kenley, affectionately called Peanut, age 4, is clearly the apple of her dad's eye. They are constant companions. Josh has built Kenley a playhouse just a few steps from one of the houses. This gives her a place to play with dolls and stuffed animals while her dad tends to sows and delivers pigs.
Sometimes Kenley is also in the hog houses with her dad, preparing, he is certain, for a bright future of showing livestock. She even owns her own small herd of Durocs, earning the income from sales.
Kenley is one of the main reasons–perhaps the main reason–her dad has chosen the life of a farmer over the more regular hours of a teacher or other profession.
"That's what is great about what I do for a living," Josh says. "If I had a real job, she would be in day care, but she's always with me when it's my turn to have her."