Big Dreams and Growing Pains on the Farm

One young farmer learns to manage his ambition and the growing pains that come with it.

By Des Keller | Photos By Charles Riedel

Dustin Edwards

Dustin Edwards

Six years ago, Dustin Edwards had a full-time, off-farm job as an environmental scientist. He owned 17 acres of farmland not far from where he grew up, and lives still, in Lebo, Kan.

There was never any question, though, that farming full-time—and then some—was his ultimate goal.

“When my friends were going to the pool in high school, I was working in the field,” says Edwards, who, at a lean 6 feet, 6 inches tall, starred for his high school basketball team and played in college as well. “And I wasn’t working on the farm that much because my dad was making me; I wanted to be there. I’d gladly work till midnight.”

So perhaps this next bit of news shouldn’t be surprising.

This summer, Edwards, 32, will be farming more than 4,700 acres in 12 counties in a north-to-south band that stretches nearly 200 miles. Since last year, his operation more than doubled in size, due mainly to the addition of hundreds of acres of rich Missouri River bottomland 1½ hours from home.

Not that Edwards owns this farmland. He doesn’t. He has, however, helped directly engineer the sales to investors by pitching his abilities as a research-minded, long-term, tenant partner who can produce profits while caring for and improving the land.

That’s exactly what he did last year when he met with Carol Dengel, a Kansas City-area investor who wanted to purchase farmland as something more reliable, if less sexy, than the stock market. “He’s really, really passionate,” Dengel says of Edwards. “He’s aggressive and flexible, and makes a great impression. The most important thing for me—someone who doesn’t know very much about farming—is working with a farmer who absolutely knows what [he is] doing.”

Edwards shows a satellite map he’s used for land research.

Edwards shows a satellite map he’s used for land research.

Edwards and Dengel met through Bill Gaughan, a representative of Farmers National Co., the largest farm real estate and management firm in the U.S. Gaughan had previously met Edwards when the farmer approached him about finding a buyer for another piece of farmland. That initial deal didn’t work out, but Edwards made an impression.

“First of all, I was stunned by how up to speed Dustin was on the opportunity we were talking about,” says Gaughan, who is based in Louisburg, Kan. Edwards had brought along an entire printed report on the property, complete with a plan as to how it would be farmed, including income projections.

“Here was this young guy from Lebo, an hour and a half away, who knew as much about this property as me,” says Gaughan. So when he later began working with Dengel to find investment property, he knew just the guy to contact.

“When really good ground goes up for sale,” says Gaughan, “it’s a sprint to see who is going to buy it. My investors, who are not typically farmers, will have to make quick decisions, but they also want quick answers. I can get ahold of Dustin, and I know he will almost stop everything he’s doing to look at it.”

As it turned out, Dengel, Gaughan and Edwards met at a truck stop one morning last October less than two hours after Gaughan called them with news of a very good 187-acre parcel coming on the market. Edwards, who was in his pickup on his way to harvest with four part-time employees, detoured to go look at the farm, then meet Dengel and Gaughan.

Purchase and rental agreements were discussed at the truck stop. Edwards took more time to estimate the income the land might produce based on fertility and the installation of center pivot irrigation. They parted ways with a verbal agreement.

“We wrote a contract on the way back to Kansas City,” says Dengel. Edwards had added another 187 acres to his portfolio.

Gaughan has now worked with Edwards on five properties. “Some of my investors will only buy ground if he’s the one farming it.”

“You have to be a bit of the salesman and have belief in what you’re doing,” says Edwards. “These businesspeople, these investors, their bottom line is a 4.5 to 5.5% return, and I believe 100% I can make them their money.”

Edwards with daughter, Emma; son, Jett; and wife, Ashley.

Edwards with daughter, Emma; son, Jett; and wife, Ashley.

In part, Edwards can close the deal by offering a base rent plus a bonus if the market does well—and if the farm produces. The bonus may nearly double the rent a landowner receives.

“I don’t need to make $300 to $400 per acre,” says the always-blunt Edwards. “If I make $200 per acre I’m good.” In return, Edwards gets long-term contracts and serious loyalty.

Beyond salesmanship, his farming ability is being tested this year. “This brings with it growing pains,” he admits. He has no full-time employees and almost no grain storage. He delivers crops to five different elevators and has always done all his own spraying.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Edwards says. “It comes down to management, planting times and staggering crops.” That’s why his land is spread out north to south, rather than east to west—to take what advantage there is of climate at different latitudes.

On the home front, there will be considerably more time spent away from his wife, Ashley, a pharmacist, and two small children, Jett, 3, and Emma, 1. Jett already seems a mini-Dustin, scooting around the house from one activity to another, rarely sitting still, talking all the while about what he’s doing. “My time is precious with them when I have down time, because I know later it is going to get wild,” says Edwards.

Just how wild might it get? Edwards has no plans to grow beyond 5,000 acres—but he had no plans to grow by 2,500-plus acres in one year either. Farming more than 5,000 acres, though, would require a second combine and another full-time employee.

“My passion isn’t to manage a farm,” he says. “It is to farm. I never wanted to be one of those guys sitting in the pickup watching something get done.” He leans on experience he got working for his father, Rick. “I learned to farm from my Dad. That’s why I’m a good farmer, because he does everything right.” He concedes, though, “I like new projects. That is the exciting thing to me.” He laughs about saying that to his bemused wife. “Ashley says, ‘Why don’t you go downstairs and hang the cabinets above the washing machine?’”

When we talked to him on a far-too-typical day this spring, he had just gotten back in the house at 5:30 a.m., after having spent the previous 22 hours applying anhydrous ammonia and tilling fields. He drove 1½ hours to arrive home by then, so Ashley could leave and make it to her job by 6 a.m.

“You’d think today I’d be tired and dragging around, but I’m not. I love farming that much.”