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.
Kevin Renfroe, 32, never thought twice about doing anything else but farming. From his youngest days, he followed his father and grandfather everywhere around the family's Huntingdon, Tenn., operation–asking questions, learning and asking more questions. Kevin earned an agri-business degree from Murray State University and was the only one of five grandsons who heard the call to come back to the family corn, cotton and soybean operation.
He once sold Charter Cable subscriptions while in college. His supervisor was his sister, Renea Sageser. "She fired me in less than a month," Kevin shrugs with a bit of a smile. "I was going to come back to the farm." A career in cable was not in the cards.
Born in 1982, in the early days of the Farm Crisis, Kevin was the last of David and Vicki Renfroe's three children. Those were pretty lean days for the farm. Dad struggled to keep the farm running, ending its cattle and hog enterprises in the process. Mom worked three jobs.
Those years did teach the Renfroe children about financial accountability. "Our parents instilled in us a strong work ethic," recalls Kevin's oldest sister, Kim Kee. "If you wanted something, it took good ol' honest work to obtain it." When the sisters and Kevin wanted a pool, their dad offered to plant sweet corn to raise money for it. But the three of them would have to pick the corn. They sold it for 10 cents an ear, $1.20 for a baker's dozen. Sweet corn money built that pool, and that first crop became a summertime business for the siblings lasting through their high school years.
"I will never forget the look on Renea's and Kevin's faces when dad told them they would be picking that corn by hand, not by combine," Kim says.
Kevin was a solid high school athlete. He was a two-way player on the gridiron and nominated for Tennessee's Mr. Football honors his senior year as a linebacker. He was an all-district third baseman for three years. Dedication to the next play or the next inning pays dividends for Renfroe Farms.
"I am self-motivated," Kevin says. "No matter how good I become at something, I always feel I can do better. That drives me to push myself."
"He is one of the hardest workers I know," Kim agrees. "He is intelligent, loyal, persistent and determined. The most important skill he brings to the farm is tenacity." And, Kim adds, his strong faith.
"God has placed me in a position with the responsibility to be a good steward of what He has given to me," Kevin says. "We know that all we have is His, and He has chosen to entrust it to us for only a short time."
Renfroe Farms, headquartered in Carroll County, in northwest Tennessee, has gown many times over in the years since its inception by Kevin's grandfather and grandmother, Garvin and Virginia Renfroe. The farm was 150 acres in the days after World War II. Renfroe Farms is 5,500 acres today and operates in two counties. It is producing 1,100-pound cotton per acre, 250-bushel irrigated white corn for a premium, an occasional contract of non-GMO corn for export and 60-bushel soybeans. Cotton has been the income backbone for Renfroe Farms.
The land is rolling with clay-topped hills and bottoms with deep soils. Small creeks meander through patches of trees and grass. The tougher soils are seeded with a winter cover crop. Kevin is reintroducing quail to the farm, releasing 1,000 birds per year.
The partnership is held by Kevin, his father, David, Kevin's uncle, Don, and his sister Kim. Managed, steady growth–not always by adding land–has been Kevin's objective. "If we can't grow the farm by adding land, then we will by production," he says. Growth by production shows a perceptive understanding of Carroll County. It is a competitive region. Two-thirds of the county's 178,000 acres produce row crops. Of the 732 farms in the county, many are family operations. Land sales are rare.
Growth by efficient production is key to the Renfroe Farms' success. Kevin has been instrumental in its move to GPS, Real-Time Kinematic auto-steering and variable-rate technologies. "I want to make the best of every opportunity to grow," Kevin says.
The largest investments made by Renfroe Farms under Kevin's guidance are two–irrigation and grain storage.
The farm installed its first center pivot in 2009. Today, 900 acres are irrigated. Kevin's goal is to have one-third of the farm's row crops irrigated. "We are never more than seven days away from drought," Kevin says. He has begun to run nutrients out to the crops through the pivots to boost production efficiency.
Four years ago, the farm added a 375,000-bushel granary to replace small bins scattered across the farm. It was a large investment that weighed heavily on the then 27-year-old farmer. But that build is paying returns.
"We built it to capitalize on basis levels in our area," Kevin says. "With the dryer, we can get the corn out of the field earlier, dry it down and capitalize on the premium." Instead of delivering corn at 18% moisture and paying heavy penalties, the Renfroes deliver white corn to ADM at 14% to capture the value of the basis.
"I look at return, how quickly it pays back," Kevin says. "Irrigation will get us through the dry years. Storage lets us earn premiums [in the market]. These are things that improve the bottom line and extend our longevity."
Kevin is already giving serious thought to passing on the Renfroe farming name. He wants to ensure that his children–he is newly married to the former Ashley Whitworth–and Kim's three children have a farm to work if that's the career they want.
"I think the future is bright for our children," he says. "There will be challenges. Technology is changing so fast that we can hardly keep up with it. But they will have so much more."