Building to the Big Leagues
This farm family takes a “Moneyball” approach to its operation.
By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins
When your farming operation is spread across five counties, getting from field to field is no easy feat. For the Barnard family, based in Foosland, Illinois, a roundtrip journey to check crops puts well more than 100 miles on the farm truck. They call it their “ring of fire.”
“We’re pretty spread out right now,” says Matt Barnard, who operates Barnard Farms with his father, Ted, and brother, Brett. “We tried to build in 300- to 500-acre chunks, 7 to 10 miles apart, but you never want to be the guy who has to drive from end to end with the tractor.”
Shrinking their “ring” and increasing their efficiencies is just one of the future goals for this operation. While they may have come from humble beginnings, the Barnards now play in the big leagues of agriculture, where they’re thinking outside of convention to build their business.
Though their roots now run deep in east-central Illinois, the Barnard family originated in the southern part of the state. Otho and Eva Barnard relocated during the Great Depression.
“My grandparents were the oldest children in their families, and when the Depression hit, there were still a lot of mouths to feed,” Matt says. “You would think that the oldest son would get the farm, but it was just the exact opposite.”
The young couple moved north, and Otho found work as a hired hand. He and Eva would raise a family, including Ted. After many years of working for other people, Otho would eventually lay claim to his own acreage, starting Barnard Farms in 1944 with 120 acres.
Ted built on his father’s efforts. He wanted to offer his sons the opportunity to return to the farm, but he also wanted them to get experience elsewhere. Both boys attended the University of Illinois and started individual careers.
“I had a pretty wise father who said, ‘Hey, go out to the real world. The farm’s not quite big enough,’” Matt recalls. “So, we got day jobs. I not only learned from a lot of other good people, but I also learned from a lot of farmers. I came back to the farm full time in 2012.”
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To continue expanding their farming operation, the Barnards adopted a novel approach, one that diverged from most traditional arrangements.
“We wanted to grow, so you have two choices, right? You either rent from your neighbor or somebody gives you ground,” Matt says. “Well, in our area, that’s not really viable.”
Instead, the Barnards recruited outside investors. With this infusion of capital, they were able to purchase farmland as it came up for sale. The family farming partnership now encompasses several thousand acres.
“One investor group has now grown to 23,” Matt explains. “We have them from Oregon to Texas to New York. We treat it as an investment for them. Just like somebody would get a statement on their 401(k), we do a yearly summary for their farm asset and help them diversify.”
To ensure their investors see positive returns, the Barnards have employed a unique strategy to maximize profit on every acre of corn and soybeans, whether that means maximum production or not. Matt likens it to the “Moneyball” approach employed by the Oakland Athletics baseball franchise in the early 2000s.
With a payroll roughly one-third that of large-market teams such as the New York Yankees, the A’s posted winning records and made the playoffs in 2002 and 2003 with a roster of players who were identified using analytics and advanced metrics.
“That’s what we’ve tried to do with our farming operation,” Matt says. “We get a strategy and then we work our way back. We really look at dollars per acre versus bushels per acre. Sometimes, you can make more money raising 200-bushel corn than you can 240 or 260.”
For example, just as the Athletics might select a player based on slugging or on-base percentage, rather than homeruns hit, the Barnards might select a corn hybrid for a field with poorly drained soil based on that hybrid’s nitrogen-use efficiency, rather than overall yield.
“If we know we’ve got ground that’s not as receptive to high volumes of nitrogen, we’ll look to plant corn hybrids that are really efficient,” Matt says. “Instead of using 1.2 pounds of nitrogen to make a bushel, maybe they use 0.7 or 0.6 pounds.”
The “Moneyball” method has led the Barnards to adopt precision agriculture. They implement variable seeding and fertilization and use drones and remote sensor technology to create specific prescriptions for managing in-season crop health. Matt says his brother, Brett, likes to use another sports analogy to describe what they do.
“He says it’s like that football coach who’s walking around with a laminated sheet,” says Matt, who in 2013 also co-launched Crop Copter, a business selling drones for agricultural applications. “It’s third and six, you’re down by four and it’s the third quarter. What play do you call? They’ve already scripted all that out.
“We have our script for the year. We’re going to follow it,” he continues. “It doesn’t always make sure that we have a successful outcome, but we’re trying to take the emotion out of farming.”
Drones and data may be the new tools of the farming trade, but Matt and Brett haven’t overlooked the values of drive and determination, values they are instilling in their young four children as they look to solve future issues of labor, capital and markets.
“If we’re not concerned about some of these things, there’s not going to be something that we can pass on to our kids,” Matt says. “If our kids are going to be successful, the business of farming is the first thing we’ve got to teach them.”