It’s All About Relationships for this Young Farmer

One young farmer discusses the changes he’s made—in communication, planning, logistics and more—in order to compete in today’s market.

By Jeff Caldwell | Photos By Charlie Niebergall

Henry County, Ill., has some of the most productive, lucrative farmland in the United States and beyond. Farmers and landowners know it, making for quite a competitive environment in which to compete for that land.

Dan Baum

Dan Baum

That’s nothing new for Dan Baum. His family has farmed in Henry County for about 175 years, so he’s familiar with this dynamic. His farm is his heritage, but he’s also quick to say he’s not just raising corn, soybeans and beef cattle because it’s tradition.

Baum and his wife, Emily, are in it to support their family and leave behind a successful operation for their three young sons. Given the current competitive climate today, that’s no easy task, as evidenced by the fact that the Baums’ acreage base extends almost 120 miles from their home farm near Geneseo, Ill.

“We’ve been farming here since the 1840s. It’s definitely part of who I am,” says Baum, who earned a degree from Iowa State University in 2000 and worked in the large farm machinery sector briefly before returning to the farm. “Realistically, I am not in the business just to say I am farming. I am making a living.”

Farther afield

Making that living is a whole different scenario than it was even in his father’s generation. Business partners have changed and sustainably operating a farm takes a sometimes altogether new set of skills than it has in the past, Baum says. While his drive toward good stewardship of every acre he farms is similar to that of previous generations of his family, the means to achieving that outcome are altogether different today.

In west-central Illinois, farmland is typically held closely, especially the highest value land. With Henry County land values having more than doubled since 2004, it’s attracted a lot of investor interest and, as a result, increased competition for farm properties.

For the Baum family, such a tight market has spawned the need for new farm management ideas, including a twist on the growth strategy. In the early and mid-20th century, Baum’s family farmed across a 15-mile stretch. Today, their farm operation stretches that 100-plus miles to the area around Bloomington, Ill., Emily Baum’s hometown.

“It’s a unique situation. Our family’s always traveled a ways from the farmstead and back, so we were already used to that. Two generations ago, they’d travel about 15 miles.

“Because of the size and efficiency of our equipment today, traveling 120 miles is about the same to us as it was to them back then,” Baum says. “It does cause some of our operational costs to be higher for things like fuel, but we try to think about all of that when planning for those farms.”

A new type of landowner

In addition to increased competition, newer generations today have less direct ties to the land. As a result, farmers like Baum can find themselves hammering out farmland lease and ownership deals in a much different way than in decades past. It’s helped shape how he approaches his land management, taking care to devote more attention to education and information-sharing with his landowners, some of whom have few or no current ties to the farm.

“In Dad’s generation, all of our landowner relationships were with people who were directly involved in the farm as a career. But, they were the last generation. We were their next generation. They knew who we were, what our plans were, what we were doing, and they trusted us,” Baum says. “Now, we are looking at a next generation who isn’t going to farm, but they have the land and want it to stay in production. You have to work really hard to maintain their trust. You have to deliberately make an effort to call them, educate them on what’s going on out on their land.”

Meeting landowners’ needs

The kind of relationship-management strategies Baum employs on his farm aren’t, he says, just important to growing and advancing a row crop operation. It’s part of a larger management strategy that’s critical to sustaining year-to-year success on a farm like his in the Corn Belt. In some ways, Baum explains, he approaches his operation more like a business than a traditional farm.

Managing a farm operation that stretches 120 miles is something Baum takes in stride thanks to a solid fieldwork strategy and the right machinery. As a result, he puts a premium on performance, which is a big reason Baum chose a Massey Ferguson combine.

Managing a farm operation that stretches 120 miles is something Baum takes in stride thanks to a solid fieldwork strategy and the right machinery. As a result, he puts a premium on performance, which is a big reason Baum chose a Massey Ferguson combine.

“There’s more of a business mindset to how they go about their daily activities,” says Nick Westgerdes about the Baums. Westgerdes is a farm manager with Farmers National Company in Rochelle, Ill., which manages land for some of Baum’s landowners. “It’s refreshing to work with a farm operator truly treating his side of things like a business and making things more organized, detailed and open, with more effective communication.”

With looser ties to the farm, many of today’s landowners demand more information about day-to-day operations, and they want that information in different ways than in generations past. “This next younger generation of landowners—Baby Boomers and younger—wants more,” continues Westgerdes. “They want more communication; they want more information. They like to have their communication different ways. There’s more emailing, whereas with the older generations, you have to pick up the phone and call them,” Westgerdes says.

On the farmer’s side of the land lease equation, maintaining such a conduit of communication means the farmer doing his or her homework. And that’s where Baum excels in his farm’s management, Westgerdes says.

“He knows where he’s at with various things in his business, like what he can and can’t pay for cash rent. It’s refreshing to have a 10-minute conversation on the phone about a lease and what will work for him, versus an operator not organized with their thought process,” he says.

Managing people and time

“We are working on a land deal right now that is only happening because of our focus on communication,” says Baum. “It’s a lot of time and energy. And, it can be tough at times of the year when you really need to be out planting corn. You need to be able to do it from the tractor cab or have good, reliable employees, so they can do that for you while you focus on communication.”

Having employees who can not only do the work but also understand its implications at the whole farm level, is important to Baum’s ability to effectively interact with his landowners and, in some cases, expand his farm. “We’ve hired employees who are rock-solid. Especially with our growth, we are looking at high-caliber employees.

“We’re not looking to hire them to shovel grain. They are making decisions for us,” Baum says. “We require education. It’s important because we are looking at people who are well-rounded. It’s just so important to have good, trustworthy employees helping us manage our business.

“As young farmers, we feel it’s important to set ourselves apart, and we feel like our annual reports, meetings, newsletters and other communication efforts set us apart. Education and transparency are important,” Baum adds.

“We’ve had land opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise because of our communication levels. We’re aware that we need to continue this work to keep those opportunities growing in the future.”