A Young Farmer’s Career Moves

A young farmer brings new ideas to the family operation, but with a passion for agriculture that has always been there.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Boyce Upholt

Andrew Armstrong didn’t really decide to be a farmer, at least not that he can remember. The aspiration has simply always been there. Given his upbringing, however, that’s not surprising. Andrew’s farming roots go back at least five generations on both sides. One of his favorite games as a child was “carpet farming” with his toy combines; he has shown livestock since he was 3 years old; and his favorite childhood memories involve riding in the semi with his father at harvest, while listening to the weather band and scrambling to beat the oncoming rain.

Yet, Andrew is rare among farmers: He is just 22. The average age of farm operators in the United States is 58 years old, according to the USDA, and the age of the principal farm operator has increased with every survey since 1982.

Andrew is also unique among his peers. He grew up in South Charleston, Ohio, 30 minutes outside Dayton, where cornfields run up against suburban development. Farming was also rare at his high school. There, Andrew kept his grades up—he was salutatorian—so his parents had no excuse when he asked to skip school to help on the farm. He participated in a dual-enrollment program in association with a local college, not because he wanted the credits, but because the schedule meant some days he could be home and working before lunch.

As an eighth-grader, his parents gave him a 20-acre plot of hay, which remains his to manage today. He makes decisions about when to bale, and he sells the crop. His parents sometimes help with harvest, but this year they were unavailable. Andrew then realized he could hire his friends—including some novice farmers—to help take care of the process themselves.

Cutting the Fat

When Andrew graduated from high school, he decided to attend Wittenberg University, a well-respected liberal arts college just 15 minutes up the road. As in high school, he could get home easily and work while he learned. (In his college years, Andrew took over as the lead corn planter on the family farm.)

He also liked that Wittenberg could offer him some new perspectives, and vice versa. Farmers were all but unknown on campus, and, he found, were sometimes misunderstood. His first-ever class was on climate change, and in some discussions he felt he, as a producer, had a target on his back.

Having earned a college degree in business entrepreneurship, Andrew continues to work with his parents, Amy and Allen, while looking for more ground to farm in partnership with his sister Alissa (not pictured).

Having earned a college degree in business entrepreneurship, Andrew continues to work with his parents, Amy and Allen, while looking for more ground to farm in partnership with his sister Alissa (not pictured).

He was, however, able to digest some criticism and counter misperceptions, and the experience deepened his commitment to farming sustainably. For instance, once Andrew is farming on his own, he plans to continue his parents’ practice of no-till farming, but also introduce new practices, such as winter cover crops.

Andrew eventually decided to major in business entrepreneurship. Meant as a sort of backup, non-agricultural skill set, it has actually paid dividends on the farm.

For instance, his father, Allen, remembers wanting to replace a grain leg that had been in operation since 1973. “And Andrew goes, ‘Well, what’s the return on investment on that leg?’”

Since the old leg still worked, Andrew convinced his father there was no need to spend. “I get so entrenched in the day-to-day,” Allen says. “But he has a fresh perspective of, ‘Wait a minute, this is a business. That might be a little nicer, but it’s not going to make us any money.’ Which was right.”

“I’m all about efficiency,” Andrew says. “Cutting costs, not just increasing income, that’s really where I see my future—being able to cut costs, cut the fat off.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

That business mindset has in some ways tempered Andrew’s dreams. He once thought that by the time he was 25, he’d have the largest farm in the county. Land is still a key part of his plans; he aims to invest in farmland he’ll share with his 26-year-old sister, Alissa, as soon as the prices are right. The siblings have attended land auctions since Andrew was in high school, but the numbers have yet to line up.

The obstacle isn’t lack of capital. Andrew believes the area in which he lives and farms is in a land bubble. The auctions almost always start at what he says is the upper value of the land.

“Prices are going to go down, and people are going to lose,” he says. “It could take one year, it could take five.” For now, he is building his skills, reputation—and his credit. “I want to be a good businessman. I want to be a good environmentalist. I want to be a good farmer, and not all the time does bigger mean better.”

In late 2016, Andrew made his first major investment: He bought a new Challenger® MT555D tractor. “It got real, real quick,” he says. It was a first in many ways; his family has worked with other brands, and had always bought tractors used.

But Andrew applied his trademark analysis, considering the tractor’s performance and resale value, and ensuring he had a viable business plan in place. Now his parents pay him for its use when the tractor sidedresses their corn. (Andrew is exploring the possibility of leasing out his equipment and labor to other farmers, too.)

Meanwhile, Andrew enjoys the social life of a typical young man. Yet, his friends—some of whom can’t tell an ear of corn from a soybean, he says—joke every October or April that they’re about to lose him for a month. Though every once in a while, he’ll get them to come mow hay and catch a glimpse of what is an increasingly rare sight—a young farmer in the field.