Kickin’ Up The Dirt with Will Jones
An intimate conversation with farmers from across the country
Talk about agriculture has reached a deafening roar — whether it’s ag tech and precision farming, the consolidation of the industry, or the impact of climate change on our fields.
Yet farmers themselves are often missing from these conversations. Ag tech startups abound, but few of their employees have actual experience farming. Policy makers argue for agriculture and food legislation without having set foot on a farm.
We’re ready to hear what farmers have to say. That’s why we’re running Kicking Up The Dirt, a Q&A series that gives farmers a platform to speak about the changing world of agriculture.
In this installment, we hear from Will Jones, a third-generation farmer from Sioux Rapids, Iowa. He farms 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and has about 150 cows.
Will spent his childhood on the family farm alongside his father, Curt. As he remembers it, when he was about 8 years old he started getting serious responsibilities on the farm, such as raking hay (which required driving a tractor). While attending Iowa State University, he started renting farmland from his neighbors in 2007. He married Iowa State Representative Megan Hess (now Megan Jones) in 2014. They live with their son, Anchor, just a few miles from where Will grew up.
What advice would you give to a young farmer that is just starting out today?
I would say it’s all about making the cash flow and not getting sucked into thinking you need shiny equipment and expensive inputs. Keep the bottom line in mind all the time. I’m probably the only farmer in my area that doesn’t have a new pickup. It’s just stuff like that. You gotta make it work before it can work for you.
What are your thoughts on precision agriculture?
We use prescription seeding and prescription nitrogen, and I think they’re fantastic because we’ve managed to improve our yields and reduce our costs.
At the same time though, last year we used variable-rate seeding and got all of our harvest data together. I ran it through a statistical program to find out if when we increased seed, we increased yield — but found almost no difference.
It turns out that our yield at 28,000 seeds per acre was nearly the same as when we planted 36,000 seeds per acre . . . we could have planted 28K everywhere, and we probably would have been fine and saved money. But maybe that’s just the year; it’s hard to gauge from a single result. But it definitely makes you that much more conscious of how everybody’s pushing their agenda in farming. And sometimes you’ve got to make sure the things they’re pushing are actually working for you.
What are the things that you’re worried about when it comes to agriculture and the future of your farm? What are the most pressing things that you think about on a day-to-day basis?
Well, if there’s anything about farming that worries me, it’s that farmers are so good at producing a product. We’ve always been able to out-pace demands. This year was a prime example of that. I subscribe to WeatherTrends360, and those guys will tell you that there was never a record corn yield when there was above-average temperatures. And here we are, looking at a record corn yield with above-average temperatures after what was, for the most part, average rainfall.
And when we can do that, it makes you wonder what would it actually take to set us back and give us some better prices. We’re either going to have to produce a lot more a lot cheaper, or farming is just not going to be profitable.
People think we are going to starve the planet because we can’t produce enough food, but farmers are increasing production at twice the rate of population growth worldwide. It’s just staggering how much we produce. As long as anybody’s been paying attention, we’ve been that good at fulfilling demands, and prices can’t stay high when supply outpaces demand.
You worry about consolidation, as an industry. You hear about big mega-mergers between big companies, and all the local grain elevators are merging together. You wonder where you fit in, where you can still be viable. For a single family, we’re a decent-sized farm, but to the big guys, we’re nothing. We’re absolutely nothing. That’s what keeps you up at night: how do you exist in a world that continues to get bigger, and can you get bigger fast enough to stay with it? Or is it something that will outpace your ability to grow?
Is it a lack of choice or the worry of just getting pushed out that is your primary concern with all the consolidation in the market?
If all of the sudden there’s only one place within 30 miles that can take your grain at harvest, they’re going to charge whatever they want to charge for storage. You’re going to haul to them, you’re going to pay it, and you’re going to take whatever price they offer once the grain’s there. Whereas if there’s more competition, they have to offer a fair price.
It’s kind of interesting that in the seed world, we thought years ago that everything was going to become Monsanto, and all these companies would be consolidated into only a few brands. But now I deal with more seed companies than I even knew existed when I was in high school. It’s interesting to see how that’s played out, but you wonder if that’s possible on the other side of it, or whether you’ll get stuck.
Right now we’ve got one of the only independent elevators that I know of anywhere, just a mile away from the center of our farm, and we do all kinds of business with them because they facilitate the storage and trucking to get it to final market. It’s conveniently priced over doing it ourselves. If they get pushed out, though, then we’ll need to have the resources to handle it or suffer the consequences.
Hopefully some of these things do get big enough that they aren’t allowed. At some point, if all these companies join together, then there’s going to be problems. We see at least some pushback with Precision Planting and Deere not being allowed to merge.
I worry that cattle will go the way of hogs. There used to be a lot of independent hog farmers, but now most are growing for someone on contract, which essentially means they do hog chores for the company that owns and processes the pigs. I feed some cattle for a local company who have gotten a small group of investors together, but we don’t get paid by the investors. We get paid by one of the elevators that finances all the cattle. So we’re completely disconnected from everybody else in the venture.
So I worry about it, but we still have our cow-calf herd, and the calves still get sold locally at auction, and we get relatively good prices. Just the fact that we’re still farming now tells me there’s probably still some hope for the future.
What are you most excited about in the coming year for agriculture? Why are you still excited about being a farmer?
Well, I’m excited because I think next year is going to be better than this year. I know more than I did. You ever think about all the stupid things you did as a kid and wish that you weren’t the person that did those things? That’s how I feel all the time, like, “Oh, if we just knew last year what we know this year.”
For example, we tried cover crops last year. This year we seeded rye on 100% of our acres to utilize what we learned last year. Cover crops did wonders for weed suppression and improving soil health. And I wish 18 months ago I could have foreseen how this was going to work out.
It’s exciting because you know that the next level of production and the next achievement is just around the corner. Since I started farming, there hasn’t been one year where I didn’t think the next year could be even better.
Next year, we’ll probably be even more successful, even if we don’t produce more than we ever have before, just because we’re utilizing everything to its fullest and wasting less resources. It’s always exciting to innovate, and it’s always exciting to push it to the next level, so I’m always looking forward to working in a new season.
— Will Jones
Kickin’ Up The Dirt is a weekly Q & A series focused on sharing authentic perspectives and insights from American farmers. If you or a farmer you know would like to be interviewed for this series, please email us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear your story.