Going It Alone

Midsize family-owned and operated farms look for ways to cut costs and improve productivity. Here’s how one farmer does it.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Craig Lassig

Larry Flom, with brother Steven in the photograph.

Larry Flom, with brother Steven in the photograph.

With 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans under a no-till and conventional-tillage program, Larry Flom, by most accounts, is a typical Minnesota farmer. However, the fact that he farms all of it by himself, even during the busy planting and harvest seasons, puts Flom in an “above average” category that seems to be growing.

Flom, who farms near Dennison, Minn., wasn’t always alone in his endeavors, though. Up until about 13 years ago, he had shared the family farm in partnership with his brother Steven.

“There were actually four of us boys who grew up on the family farm,” Flom explains, noting they also had a dairy. “When Dad retired, two of my brothers took over the dairy while Steven and I took on the farming operation, which we eventually expanded to about 2,000 acres.

Unfortunately, Steven was killed in a car accident in 2000, leaving Larry and his wife, Kari, to run the operation, which they’ve since trimmed by 500 acres. “Steven was the business guy,” Flom relates. “So I had to reluctantly take on more of the marketing role, too.”

However, the bigger issue, he says, is the time and labor involved in managing the actual on-farm work by himself.

Squeezed in the Middle

Farms the size of Flom’s are disappearing at a rapid pace from the North American landscape. Consider these statistics: The total number of farms grew in the U.S. between 2002 and 2007. Yet, the increase was for those on both ends of the spectrum. Farms with sales of less than $1,000 increased by 118,000, while the number of operations with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000 during the same period.

Meanwhile, the number of midsize farms in the U.S. shrank by as much as 25% in some states from 1997 to 2007. The decrease in Canada was even larger, with mid-sized farms (those between 400 and 2,240 acres) dwindling by a whopping 38%.

The reasons for the decrease are numerous, but certainly include a profit margin that is razor-thin for many farms—a fact that has all the more impact on a midsize operation. While the growing number of large-farm operators can afford to bring in more workers and small farms often get by without outside labor, the midsize farm frequently has the need but not the income to keep someone on the payroll. Also, it has become too time-consuming to find skilled, temporary help for more labor-intensive seasons such as planting and harvest.

“I don’t have anyone to help me, and I’ve never hired anyone,” Flom admits, noting that his wife is generally occupied with the grandkids. “Even during harvest, I cut a bin load with the combine, empty it into the grain cart and then stop when it’s full to empty the grain cart into the semi. There have been times I could have used an extra person, and John Isaacson [with Isaacson Equipment] has helped on occasion. But most of the time, it’s just easier to do it myself than to find and train someone.”

“It’s not unusual for one person to farm 1,500 acres or for a father/son team to farm a few thousand acres,” says Kent Olson, professor of applied economics and Extension economist–farm management at Minnesota State University. “If they’re highly mechanized and have adopted labor-saving technology, such as Roundup Ready crops, it is possible in this day and age to handle that kind of acreage.”

Olson, however, says one of the biggest challenges occurs when it becomes necessary to hire farm employees who are skilled and available when needed. This is particularly true when livestock is involved, and where fruits and vegetables are produced. By last September, some farm crews in California were already as much as 60% short of needed workers. And the situation is similar in Canada. Citing an immediate need, the chair of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council recently stated, “Canadian agriculture is facing a labor shortage of at least 30,000 skilled and unskilled workers.”

Technological Advancements Help

Yet, there are still plenty of midsize farms like Flom’s that remain in business—many of which have adopted the types of practices Olsen describes. For instance, Flom uses Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. Both are planted in 30-inch rows following preplant incorporation of a residual herbicide. Hence, the most that’s ever needed is a post application of Roundup.

Larry and wife, Kari, on the farm.

Larry and wife, Kari, on the farm.

Flom, however, says the things that have helped him the most are the technology and capacity available in today’s farm equipment. As an example, his new Class 7 combine not only has the capacity to handle a 35-foot draper header, but it has a grain bin capacity of 330 bushels and an unloading time of only 83 seconds, so he can spend more time harvesting. Other time-saving machines include a 16-row Model 8516 White planter and a 54-foot Sunflower® Model 5055 field cultivator.

“The autosteer that I have in the two largest field tractors and the combine, and the suspended cab on my Massey Ferguson 8670 tractor have been a big help too,” says Flom. “You’re not nearly as tired when you come in at night. Plus [because of the autosteer], you can watch the equipment so much better. There have been times that I would have had to quite combining soybeans earlier without it,” he adds.

The fuel efficiency of today’s larger machines is also a huge help in alleviating pressure on the bottom line. For instance, Flom says about his MF8670, “I just love the fuel economy. It just idles along when I’m planting, so I’ve been able to go for days without having to worry about fueling it up.”

Flom has the inside track when it comes to learning about new technologies. Each fall for nearly 14 years now, he has hosted a dealer field day for Isaacson Implement, allowing the dealership to demonstrate a myriad of products in a typical Minnesota field environment. During the one-day event, customers can see the newest combine models harvesting corn, test the Dyna-VT on a Massey Ferguson tractor while pulling a grain cart, or witness the effects of different Sunflower tillage machines in corn stubble.

“It’s something I enjoy,” he relates. “Plus, it gives me the opportunity to learn something new from the company field reps who come out to help.

“Like a lot of farmers, I probably have more equipment than I actually need,” he confesses. “But when it’s just me doing everything, I want to be ready to go when I need to go.”

Thanks to the 32-mph transport speed on his MF8670, Flom can literally “go” when that time comes. “The farm stretches out over a 20-mile area,” he notes. “So the road speed certainly helps me get more done.” Added together, the number and scope of these advancements are often enough to help keep today’s midsize farmers in business.