One Plot at a Time
This row-crop producer clawed his way into agriculture by farming tracts others deemed too small.
By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins
The unmistakable trappings of urban sprawl surround Preston Owen. Here, north of Kansas City, Missouri, rural parkways and roundabouts connect an ever-growing network of gated communities and golf courses. Not too long ago, homes only dotted this landscape. Now, they dominate.
These signs of the times are clearly visible from the cab of Owen’s tractor. He can’t help but notice the stadium lights of a new baseball complex built less than a half-mile from where he plants corn on this late April day. To his west, the control tower for Kansas City International Airport stands resolute on the horizon.
Owen knows what’s coming; he’s seen it before. Like an unstoppable tidal wave, suburbia will eventually swallow this piece of Missouri countryside. Rows of corn and soybeans will inevitably yield to rows of homes. The city will prevail, and Owen will have to farm elsewhere.
Yet, if it weren’t for these pockets of seemingly forgotten ground tucked between subdivisions, Owen may have never had the opportunity to farm.
“Little chunks of ground that have been developed around, that’s where I got my start in the Kansas City suburbs,” Preston says. “I’d farm 5 acres here, 10 acres there, 3 acres there — just little undesirable tracts that no one else wanted to farm. That’s how I carved out my niche and started Show-Me Farms.”
What began with a little more than 100 acres less than a decade ago has become a full-blown commercial farming operation. Today, Show-Me Farms, based in Polo, Missouri, comprises roughly 6,000 row-crop acres across six counties. Owen raises corn, soybeans and wheat.
Restarting the Family Farm
While he grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, Owen did have a connection to agriculture. His parents were raised on family farms in Missouri.
“Mom’s side came from Maryville where they also had the Allis-Chalmers dealership. Dad’s family was from Chillicothe,” Preston says. “Both families lost farms in the Great Depression, and they had lived through the struggles of the 1980s, so neither chose to continue farming.”
Young Preston spent his summers on his grandparents’ farms, helping with planting and harvest and putting up hay. When he reached high school, he worked for a few farmers in the Kansas City region. He loved every aspect of farming.
“If you had asked me what I wanted to do when I was in grade school, I would’ve told you ‘farmer,’” Preston says. “In middle school, I’d have said ‘farmer.’ In high school, I changed that to ‘custom harvester,’ but it was still farming.”
After graduating high school, Owen attended the University of Missouri where he’d study plant science and genetics. During college, he worked a few seasons as a custom harvester before planting his first tiny patchwork crop during his junior year.
“At that point in time, we had $7-$8 corn and $15-$16 soybeans, so it was hard for a guy like me that didn’t have any money or any equipment to get started,” Preston recalls. “So, those undesirable tracts were the only way I was able to get started. Mom and Dad were a little nervous about it, but it was on such a small scale, it was hard to go wrong.”
Owen finished his bachelor’s degree in 2014 and turned his attention completely to farming. By 2015, the high commodity prices that had hindered his initial endeavors had been replaced by decade-low prices.
“As the old saying goes, timing is everything,” Preston says. “Those low prices coupled with high inputs and cash rents caused a couple major operations around here to fold, and I was at the right place at the right time to pick up more acres. We’ve been growing ever since.”
Outside the Box Agriculture
While realizing his childhood dream job has gradually moved Owen farther from the hustle and bustle of city life, he hasn’t left his Kansas City connections behind. In particular, one partnership has helped improve his operation’s sustainability while lowering his fertilizer bills.
“We work with a company, Synagro, and we’re contracted to spread all the biosolids for Kansas City,” he explains. “So, when anyone in Kansas City flushes their toilet and wonders where it goes, it ends up in one of our fields somewhere. It’s about the most ‘green’ fertilizer possible, and it’s 100% renewable. We’ve been able to delete a lot of granular, non-renewable phosphorus and potassium in our operation as well as significantly reduce the price of fertility.”
Though Owen is a young, ambitious producer, he also understands the traditions and “rituals” of agriculture. This includes the near-ubiquitous early morning coffee klatch where farmers gather.
“If someone wants to get into farming, they just need to hang out at the local coffee shop at about five o’clock in the morning when those older farmers roll through,” he says, noting he met his biggest landlord over coffee. “More often than not, they’re willing to help a younger guy get started. Those guys know the land, and they tend to know who owns the land, too. So, they’ve got the playbook and the plat book.”
At just 30 years old, Owen has his sights on growing his operation — ultimately moving farther away from a city that continues to also grow. While he still farms a few suburban fields, he admits that he won’t miss the leery looks from neighbors who don’t understand the tools of modern agriculture — or the single-digit hand gestures from 9-to-5ers who feel inconvenienced by his slow-moving vehicle during their daily commute.
“I still really appreciate how plants function and grow and produce yield. That hasn’t changed,” Preston says. “There’s a thrill you get from raising a crop and doing a good job at it while being a good steward of the land.”