The Accidental Entrepreneur

If farming didn’t keep him busy enough, this Kansas producer also hauls seed and owns a farm-supply store and a construction business.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Charlie Riedel

Multitasking, resource optimization and interdisciplinary capabilities: They’re among the latest buzzwords in business circles. Yet, those concepts are certainly nothing new to most farmers … especially to Pat Urban, who lives near Robinson, Kansas.

In addition to farming about 2,500 acres of row crops and managing around 150 head of cattle on another 500 acres with his brother, Mike, Urban operates a construction business and a trucking company with his wife, Kimberly, and co-owns a feed and farm-supply store with his mother, Raynette. Granted, most farmers are involved in many different aspects of farming, but managing four different businesses is something Urban himself hadn’t planned.

“When I got out of high school, I attended a technical college in Beloit, Kansas, where I learned diesel mechanics,” he explains. “After that, I went to work for a Caterpillar dealership in Topeka. About a year and a half later, Dad commented that if I were closer, I could help farm.”

Farming … and Then Some

Consequently, Urban moved back to northeast Kansas and got a job with a nearby tractor dealership, where he worked as a mechanic while farming on the side with his dad and brother. Then, when Urban was just 24 years old, a local dirt contractor decided he wanted to retire, and offered Urban the business.

“So, I bought my first dozer in 1991, and it’s gone downhill ever since,” he jokes, noting that he now owns three dozers, as well as skid loaders, excavators, trucks and everything else that goes with a dirt-contracting business. “We primarily work on terraces, ponds and that sort of thing,” he adds. “But we’ve also bid projects like roads and parks. Nearly all our jobs, though, are in either Kansas or Nebraska.”

Urban says the feed store and elevator was another unexpected turn of events. When the original owner decided to sell the business in 2000, Urban says he and his dad bought the facility with the idea of just using it to store corn and soybeans from their own harvest, as well as storage for the anhydrous ammonia and dry fertilizer they use each year.

“However, a number of neighbors soon cornered Dad and asked him to keep it open,” he explains. “So, Dad agreed to sell feed, fertilizer and chemicals, but not seed, since he used to be a seed dealer himself and didn’t want to compete with his customers.” Since they don’t buy and sell grain at the elevator, Urban says the seed storage facilities have been used for his operation’s personal use.

“When Dad and I bought the business, I was to be the ‘silent partner,’ and he was going to run that part of it,” Urban explains. “But a few years ago, when he bought a house on the lake, it seems he became the silent partner,” he adds with a chuckle.

Assuming an Even Bigger Role

And when Urban’s dad, James, passed away approximately two years ago, he left the feed and farm-supply business to Urban and his mother. If customer sales, construction and farming weren’t enough, though, Urban still has to manage the trucking business, which began during what he describes as a “pretty tough winter.

“Dad said we could probably save some money by hauling our own seed,” he says of their effort to decrease expenses. “Then, another seed dealer said, ‘If you’re going to pull a van trailer, you can haul mine, too.’ So, we’ve been hauling seed for him for 17 years now.”

In the meantime, seed companies have merged, and merged again, to the point that the brands Urban once hauled are now part of Monsanto. Fortunately, he continued to move with the mergers, and he now hauls a large percentage of the soybeans to and from Monsanto’s area seed plants.

“We haul beans to plants in Des Moines, Iowa, and Marshall, Missouri, to be cleaned, and then we haul soybean seed back to the dealers,” he says, noting that his fleet includes hopper-bottom trailers, which are capable of hauling bulk goods. “It used to be that the majority of the seed came back in bags and bulk containers. Now, nearly 80% of the seed comes back as hopper loads of loose seed, which is treated and bagged by the dealers.”

Simpatico Business Relationships

Urban says all the businesses work together, even if they do keep him on his toes. In addition to hauling seed for Monsanto and trucking lime for local farmers, Urban says he uses his trucks to haul all the chemicals and fertilizer that he and his brother use on the family farm, which is split nearly 50-50 between corn and soybeans. (Because they can haul large loads, all the farm’s fertilizer and farm chemicals are purchased at wholesale prices, which further cuts down on farm expenses.) Urban also uses his construction equipment to add one or two terraces to the farm each year, even though vertical tillage has helped reduce erosion.

Many of the nine full-time employees on Urban’s payroll often share responsibilities during the year. “Most of the guys who work construction or do the trucking also help on the farm … especially during harvest,” he says. “There are a lot of days that even I get up not knowing what I’m going to do that day. I might think I’m going to go run a dozer, and end up working in the elevator all morning and rescuing a truck that broke down in the afternoon. So, we couldn’t get by without everyone multitasking.”

Don’t count on Urban’s life getting simpler anytime soon, either. He just recently expanded the farm-supply business to incorporate a fertilizer plant that includes blending capabilities. He says he and his brother would also like to add about 500 more acres of farmland if they could find it reasonably priced.

In the meantime, his son and one of his three daughters have already gone their own way—the daughter attends college in Virginia, while his son works as an electrician in Texas—as the other two finish grade school and high school. “We just have to take it one thing at a time,” he reasons. “I just try to remain flexible and not get too stressed out about anything.”