Every Part Of The Farming Equation

Profitability is a balancing act. See how Panek Farms takes as many variables out of the equation as possible.

By Jamie Cole

“It wasn’t 40 hour weeks that built this farm,” says Jim Panek, looking back over more than 40 years of working the land. “You’ve got to keep improving every day; otherwise you get stagnant.”

Stagnation has never been an issue at Panek Farms, one of western New York’s largest and most diverse operations. Jim and his sons Phil and Alan run the commercial side, growing “a little bit of everything,” says Phil—“corn, soybeans, green beans, peas… then sweet corn, strawberries, and pumpkins for the farm stand.” Jim’s wife Kerry runs the stand along with Phil’s sister, Katie. They even sell trees at Christmas from their stand at the farm in Albion, New York.

Panek Farms has always been a family effort. Jim’s father, John, was one of 13 children that grew up on a farm that wasn’t large enough to allow him and other siblings to farm full-time; he worked for Eastman Kodak. Jim went to college for electronics, but still had that farming DNA; when he married Kerry, a farm girl, he says that farming work ethic got reinforced and supercharged. “She works harder than anyone you could ever imagine,” says Jim.

Jim and his brother Pete had a painting and roofing installation business early on that helped fund farm growth. Jim and Kerry raised winter squash and sold it out of the back of a 1967 Chevy pickup. In 1982, the family bought a 170 acre farm—“two houses and no grain bins,” says Jim—“and just gradually, every year we grew and every year we grew and every year we grew.”

The repetition is important and intentional. Forty-two years in, the Paneks are farming 11,000 acres.

Eleven. Thousand.

And though many farmers approach their operations with a growth mentality and a business mindset, Jim brings a manufacturing edge to the table. “We’re a big business,” he says. “We’re also a factory. We’re gonna produce every year.” Corn is the biggest “widget” in that factory—6,000 acres in production—but everything here is go big or go home. “This year, Kerry sold 55 semi loads of pumpkins,” says Jim, with a broad, proud smile. “I like to say that Kerry taught the boys to work, and that made them ready for the farm when they were old enough to drive a tractor,” he laughs.

Brother Pete still runs the painting and roofing installation business, and Jim and the boys even have a “side hustle” that grew from the experience of trying to improve every acre they added to the operation. “The biggest change that helped Panek Farms on the land was when we started doing drainage tile,” says Jim.

The Paneks have tiled 8,000 of their 8,500 owned acres. “We normally are in the field two to three weeks earlier than a non-drained field,” says Phil. “And by doing so we can plant ‘longer’ crops.” And they’re doing it faster, too. “We set a record this year,” says Jim: “9,600 acres planted in 8 days, unheard of in western New York.”

The return on investment with tiling is almost instant, relative to most land improvements. “The thing with tile is, it’s working 24-7, every day of the year,” says Jim. “The payback on yields happens in 3 to 5 years, and keeps happening because we are never waiting for fields to dry out. We’re not ‘mudding’ in the spring,” he laughs.

“Everybody else started seeing it as well,” says Phil. “So we started doing custom drainage tile for some local dairy farms after they saw the improvements in our fields.” The “side hustle” is five years in, and “we plan to keep doing that,” says Phil.

Jim says tools like call options and crop insurance have helped farmers market crops in a more straightforward manner, but many still lack a handle on other risk management variables. “It’s always wet here in the spring because of the snow pack; by tiling the ground, we’ve taken that variable out of the equation,” says Jim. Equipment is another variable that needs more predictability to create return on investment, Jim says: “Having the equipment ready when it’s time to go. Having equipment big enough…”

“I mean, if there is something upcoming that will increase yield or increase efficiency, we are looking at it,” says Phil, completing the thought. “You’ve got to do the best you can, at the right time.”

The aggressive planting schedule that makes the most of the advantage from tiling “takes a lot of logistics to make happen,” says Jim, and that’s just one aspect of their diverse operation where timing is crucial.

That means downtime is not an option, and that’s why Panek Farms began to turn to Fendt equipment.

“We started having major issues” with a competing tractor brand, says Phil. “And when you have a virtually new tractor, three or four years old, sitting in the shop for six months, that doesn’t go over very well.

“So with Fendt, the first thing that attracted us was the Gold Star Warranty program, the reliability of the tractors and the backing of the dealership.”

The Gold Star Warranty helps remove another variable from the balance sheet by guaranteeing uptime—“if one goes down, the loaner tractor is there,” says Phil—and providing a fixed cost for at least three years with a full service plan. (See the details of the warranty program here.)

But the real benefits to cost of ownership continue in the field. The Paneks run two Fendt 1167s, an 1162, and a 943, all tracked models, attractive to the Paneks initially for the reduced compaction. “Compaction is one thing, ride quality is another,” says Phil. “Plus, we are pretty wet in the fall, so that added traction has been good for us.”

And, says Phil, “we knew their transmission was the best,” and that has paid returns for the operation. When they bought the 1162, “we had it side by side with a John Deere 9RX,” says Phil, “and the Fendt was using five gallons less fuel per hour.” Meanwhile, “our other tractors were using 30 to 35 gallons of DEF a day, and the Fendt is half that,” he says. “It’s incredible how much DEF we’re saving.”

Phil says the CVT transmission took some to get used to, but “it’s unbelievable at how low an RPM they pull, and you don’t even hear the motor work.”

The experience with the tractors led to the purchase of a Fendt Rogator sprayer. “We put a lot of pre-nitrogen down, and we’re putting 67 gallons per acre down and can still go across the field at 15, 18 miles an hour at that volume,” says Jim. Plus, “it has the all-wheel steer, so we are running over less crop on the headlands,” he adds.

“It has the all-wheel steer, so we are running over less crop on the headlands.”Click To Tweet

The Paneks’ dealership, Java Farm Supply in Batavia, New York, “treats us like gold,” says Jim. “They come and do the service work on the tractor when we aren’t working… you’ve got to be wired on all cylinders and they understand that. The window of opportunity is short.”

“They’re a family operation and each family member is a professional,” says Java’s John Bookmiller of the Paneks. “They know where their profitability comes from. They’re excellent operators.

“In a world where margins are tight, everything is shrinking, input costs are going up… When you buy a Fendt tractor, you know exactly what it’s going to cost you to operate,” says Bookmiller.

“We try to mitigate as much risk as we can,” says Phil. “After that, we just pray,” he laughs. But it doesn’t hurt to take as many variables out of the equation as possible. But, advises Jim, “You have to look at every part of the equation.”