A Producer Profits from Patience
For this farmer, a slow and steady approach to growth pays dividends in success and stewardship, both for his land and his town.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
Farmer Ben Laun’s house sits just two blocks from the village center in Table Rock, Nebraska, population 366. Ben’s father, Billy, has a dental practice on one of those blocks. Around the corner from that practice, painted on a brick wall in stark black and white with a bit of Husker red for emphasis, is a sign that reads: “The future of Table Rock depends on you.”
It’s a sentiment Ben has taken to heart. At only 32 years old, Ben was just elected to his second term as a village board member, serving as the chairperson, no less. Civic service reflects civic pride, and Ben clearly loves his small town, especially the “small” part. “I don’t like being in the city,” he laughs. “Even for an afternoon.”
Must be in his blood. Ben’s grandfather farmed land near Table Rock, and when Ben’s father tired of city life—he had been a dentist in Lincoln—he opened the practice in Table Rock and farmed on the side. The grandfather was a county commissioner, and so was Ben’s mother, Kay; both served in Pawnee County, where Table Rock is located. Ben has started raising his own family here, too; he and wife Lisa have a son, Oliver, who is already tooling around on a toy tractor.
“I consider myself lucky to grow up in a farming family, where there was potential to farm,” Ben says. “A lot of people don’t have that opportunity.”
Ben seized that opportunity, and is still farming some of that family land today, and has added some as well. He’s up to about 1600 acres with a corn and soybean rotation, but it’s not your typical “farmstead-and-family-land” operation.
“Our ‘farm’ is spread out about 30 miles from east to west,” says Ben, across Pawnee and Richardson counties. “It’s 100 acres here, 150 acres there.” That can mean great variance in topography, soil type, and even weather. But Ben says there are advantages to that, as a form of risk mitigation. “We never carry hail insurance,” he laughs, alluding to the fact that a weather event isn’t likely to wipe out a whole crop when it’s spread across two counties. And a dry season on one geographic side of the operation might be aided by ample rainfall on the other.
Whatever the location and weather situation, Ben’s focus is on stewardship to help meet those challenges. The land Ben farms is mostly rolling hills, many of them terraced. Some of those terraces go back half a century. And as effective as terracing can be at helping prevent erosion, it’s also a slow process to improve farmland through that practice. No-till helps preserve the terraces that are still functional and haven’t been broken through already, and Ben is building and rebuilding on the slopes that need attention; some new terraces this year are in cover crops and will be ready to plant this season.
Tiling goes together with terracing as Ben makes improvements to his fields. “Terraces used to drain into grass waterways, and that worked all right. But now the sprayers are bigger, you can have drift that gets into the grass… It just works better to have a tiled waterway system, and it’s more efficient,” he says.
The improvements take time, but Ben is fine with slow and steady. “Patience is really important with farming, because there’s a lot of variables that are unknown and uncontrollable,” he says. “There’s no reason to try and double your acres if you’re not profitable, and not only by being profitable; you also have to be in a position where if you have a bad year, you can withstand a loss,” he says.
If you’re noticing a farming philosophy emerge, that’s intentional on Ben’s part. It has served him well, both as a farmer and a civil servant.
Whether Ben earned his knowledge through working on the farm or working on the village board is tough to decipher; the approach is virtually the same. “I would say the conservative approach toward the town and farming go hand in hand,” he says. “With the town, you have to maintain what you have instead of starting new projects. It’s like people forget to maintain what they have.” Ben says that with Table Rock under his leadership, he plans to stick to infrastructure.
Same goes for the farm. “Our main focus over the last few years has been … to improve what we have,” he says. “Once we get improvements like tiling, cleaning up the fields, making them so they’re easier to farm, then we will get the same job done quicker, and then there will be time to expand.”
He knows it’s an approach that sets him apart from a lot of young farmers, especially those that get a start from farming family land. And while he believes there is a lot of opportunity for young farmers—“A lot of families are trying to figure out who’s going to farm the land next,” he says—“You’ve got to be patient with growth overall,” he advises. “If you try to grow too fast, there could be a lot of growing pains. I feel like growth has to make sense.”