Kickin’ Up The Dirt with Monty Henderson
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 — farming has struck a chord with the mainstream.
Yet farmers themselves are often missing from those conversations. Ag tech startups abound, but few of their employees have actual experience farming. Policy makers argue for agriculture and food legislation without having ever set foot on a farm.
It’s time farmers had a voice in the discussion. It’s time they had a say in the conversations that impact their livelihood in very real ways. That’s why we’re pleased to introduce Kicking Up The Dirt, a series that gives farmers a platform to speak about the changing world of agriculture. If you or a farmer you know would like to be interviewed for The Dirt, shoot us an email at email@example.com.
Our first interview is with Monty Henderson, the founder and operator of M&K Henderson Family Farm, a grain farm in Sharpsville, Indiana. Monty has been farming for over 35 years.
The M&K farm began when Monty’s great-grandfather Jonas E. Hawkins, inherited 40 acres from his father in 1882. Over time, the farm grew and was handed down through several generations. After graduating from Purdue University with a B.S. in Ag Economics, Monty married Kandi Barcus and together, they assumed the role as farm operators. They are the “M&K” of the M&K Henderson Family Farm.
What’s your history with farming? When did you start?
As a fourth-generation farmer, both sets of my grandparents were actively involved in agriculture. I have great-grandparents on both my maternal and paternal sides who were early settlers in our county. They came here to farm the freshly converted swamplands of Tipton County, Indiana. As a high school and college student, I always planned on returning home to the farm. I liked the independent lifestyle of farming, in great part because that’s all I was really exposed to growing up. My parents raised crops and had livestock, but were totally out of the animal side when I started farming after college officially in 1981.
I often have worked another job to help support my family and the farm operation. That employment has improved me as a farmer.
My son is self-employed in the Ag industry and adds much appreciated value to our operation. My daughter is in her first full-time Ag job, being a fresh college graduate, and is off to a promising start with a wonderful company. Her experience also adds value.
Later in life, I attended graduate school, which really impacted my thought processes. I have a fantastic partner in life, my bride of 35 years, who has supported our family farm each day in many ways.
What’s changing in your industry today?
Some things haven’t changed much on the farm. Family, risk, weather and markets are consistently inconsistent.
But so much else changed that I think even we farmers sometimes forget that great grandpa and grandma grew food mainly for their family sustenance first, and sold the rest for the few things they needed beyond that.
Ag today is full of specialists. Not many of us today grow more than three or four types of crops or raise more than one basic livestock group. My family goes to town to get nearly everything. Besides, I’m not in the mood very often to eat feed grains. We see the same on the Agri-Business side as these folks specialize to serve the specialists. This has greatly changed the dynamics of local farm economics and our rural communities as a whole.
What is the top issue for you in agriculture and farming today, especially going into this November’s election. What are you worried about? Hopeful for?
A top issue for agriculture that worries me today is the lack of knowledge that the average US citizen has about where their food comes from and all the misconceptions and fallacies that come along with this misunderstanding.
Politically, I fear it may lead to over-regulation and policies that will hurt our Ag economy. The Ag sector is not as politically powerful as it once was and many, many people have no idea how good we have it in the United States (with our cheap food policy and valuable export trade).
The Ag community is starting to reach out to educate the citizenry and we have to roll this ball forward faster. We have to rid ourselves of many of our own misconstrued thoughts that “city folks” are somehow stupid because they don’t know about the reality of their food supplies. These people are our customers and we need to value them. They have legitimate concerns, whether real or perceived, and we have to answer their questions and satisfy their needs or we may pay a terrible price in the form of over-regulation and detrimental export policies.
What is your relationship to farm data? How do you use field maps, machine data, and other field data on a day-to-day basis?
I’ll admit that I’ve been somewhat slow to buy into electronic farm data technology. For a while, a yield map really just told me what I thought I already knew as I operated the combine, but it’s much more precise and instant now and starts the thought train quicker. Overlay the yield map with soil testing and application equipment and now we can write better agronomic prescriptions for each acre of land, which I’ve been a proponent of for a long time.
We’re planning on using a drone service next year to scout the health of our fields and I think that will be a great aid in making very precise applications of valuable inputs that will result in immediate economic impacts.
Treating only the 13 acres out of the 80 that need it makes so much economic, agronomic and environmental sense.
There has been a lot of talk about who owns and controls the field data being collected by your machinery and your precision ag tools. What is your stance on the data ownership issue?
I’ll also admit that I haven’t thought very much about data ownership until this year, as I’ve began to study the issue more. I think most farmers aged 55+ don’t care too much (perhaps because the technology itself can somewhat overwhelm many of us and we naturally trust our providers / suppliers of the data source).
It’s possible that some of the younger farmers aren’t concerned because big farm data is becoming a naturalized, automatic component in modern agriculture. I can see the day — not too far off — when we have to report our electronic data to the government and they may regulate the farm operation in this way. Is that something we want? Will that information benefit or hinder us as a farm community?
In the private sector, cell phone apps, auto manufacturers and implement manufacturers are seemingly positioning themselves to record everything we do and everywhere we go. All the data that originates from their product / service that we as consumers pay for is being positioned to sell (even more) stuff to us.
On one hand, “smart devices” may help us better interpret the data we are accumulating into solid decision-making tools. On the other hand, we may have a lot of sensitive data exposed to private and perhaps even public sources that we’d rather not have viewed.
Paint a picture of the Ag Tech industry in the next decade. What changes?
In the next dozen years, I see the Ag Tech industry really taking hold. Autonomous machinery is practically a given. There are a lot of details to work out, just like autonomous trucks on our highways. Eventually those details are sure to be resolved. This should decrease the need for on-farm labor, but will increase the need for technicians and the support industry to maintain the technology and equipment.
What advice would you give young farmers just starting out?
I enjoy interacting with young people. We hosted a class of fifth graders from a private Indianapolis school a few weeks ago. It’s very satisfying to watch them learn about real science and agriculture. When they see that we aren’t the stereotypical farmer dressed in bib overalls and straw hats — my apologies to those who prefer wearing them — and actually get to see the equipment we use and the business we are engaged in, they ask very bright questions.
For those that want to farm, I encourage them to attend college, gain certifications and skill sets, and to work for someone else, whether it be on another farm or a different job for a few years. This allows them to mature, get educated, gain valuable life and work experience, and even more valuable outside income. Earning one’s way into the operation with a skill set that fills a void is desirable, and pays dividends to all involved.
The other thing I would emphasize is that family is important. Sometimes, mixing family and business is challenging and sensitive.
What’s the one problem in the agriculture industry that isn’t being worked on but you would love for someone to address?
One pet peeve that I have as a farmer today is not being able to service and repair modern equipment. It adds a lot of cost to the average operation and downtime becomes quite expensive.
It’s frustrating because we often can’t perform what used to be simple repairs.
It’s obvious that some of the machines are outpriced way beyond the economies of scale of small and moderate sized operations already. If we are economically forced or governmentally regulated to use all the modern luxuries in upcoming years, there may be far fewer farmers who are truly owners & operators. Instead, we may see large farm consortiums and private industry pick up the pace, and conceivably, even begin to deal directly with landowners. This is perhaps where big farm data may take us. Farmers who survive for another generation will have to adapt and change, just like great grandpa did.
If you or a farmer you know would like to be interviewed for Kicking Up The Dirt, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear your story.