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Featured in this month’s edition of Progressive Farmer as one of America’s Best Young Farmers for 2012, LaRue County couple Ryan and Misty Bivens exemplify the growing trend in modern farming – leasing hundreds of acres in order to produce enough crops to offset today’s high production costs.
“Farming is a business, and farmers today are following the Walmart philosophy of larger franchises that allow one-stop shopping,” Ryan Bivens said from his farm office off Highway 84 about three miles west of Hodgenville.
He quickly included the big difference between most businesses and farming, however, a difference that makes his chosen occupation the more challenging.
“In business you can set the price of your product to cover your costs and make a profit, but in farming you’re dependent on the market as to what price you receive, plus you also are at the mercy of the weather.”
He noted how that last year’s spring and early summer, for example, were almost perfect for crops to produce a bumper harvest. Hot, dry late summer weather, though, cut the yield considerably.
“You can do everything perfectly, but you’re still at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said.
To receive the biggest return possible, he uses the latest in high-tech equipment to grow corn, soybeans, and wheat. His large John Deere 4730 sprayer, for instance, has a computer inside the cab that practically drives the mammoth machine when it’s on auto track. A swath control ensures equal spacing of coverage on rows, a function that also is environmentally effective, preventing overspraying.
The couple farms 5,400 acres, most of it leased from 68 landlords in Hardin and LaRue counties. They’ve come a long way from the house and two acres they bought near Magnolia in 2002.
“Misty, who’s from Garrard County, got a teaching job at LaRue County and that was the reason we moved here,” he said. He grew up on a small farm in Spencer County where his mother was a teacher and his dad worked for a propane company.
“Farming has always been in my blood and Misty’s, too,” he said. “When I was a high school freshman, I rented 30 acres of farmland in partnership with my dad.”
His wife grew up on a cattle and tobacco farm and his family had also raised tobacco. The two met in FFA while in high school and their relationship grew while both attended the University of Kentucky.
“I tell people I didn’t go to college to get an education, but to find a wife,” he said.
By the time he graduated from UK, he was renting 700 acres in Spencer County. For the first year or two after coming to LaRue County, he continued farming those acres, transporting his equipment back and forth.
“Once we settled in here, I put an ad in the Herald News asking to lease ground locally,” he said.
He soon had 500 acres leased. Bivens considers each of his lease contracts a trust strengthened by his following the Golden Rule.
“From where we come from, we treat people the way we want to be treated,” he said. “I get to use their land and they get a return on their investment. The relationship has to be continuing.”
To help ensure a return on their investment, conservation is especially important considering the steep rise in production costs.
“When we moved here, the cost per acre to produce a crop was $200,” he said. “With the increase in fuel and especially nitro fertilizer, today the cost is $700 per acre.”
The couple at first agreed not to purchase any equipment that cost more than their house. As their acres increased, however, so did the necessity for more and bigger implements.
Bivens now operates seven semis on his 250-acre home site that includes 300,000 bushels of grain storage and a high-capacity tower dryer. He employs three full-time workers plus several seasonal hands.
He acknowledges that with an operation of this size, a $100,000 investment doesn’t buy that much.
“A lot of people don’t appreciate what farming means to the community, though,” he said. “The interest at the local bank will pay the salaries of two to three employees who’ll spend that money on gas, food and clothes, a lot of it in the local economy.”
His farming operation means 16-hour days at times, with plenty to do year round.
“Right now, I’m doing input, preparing for this spring’s planting season,” he said. “It’s a team effort, too, because Misty, after teaching all day and getting the boys (Cyrus, 4, and Avery, 15 months), fixes or gets meals for our workers and sometimes takes the food to them in the fields.”
He’s hoping to find more local acres to lease, plus he already has the permits to start a large-scale dairy operation with up to 4,000 head of cattle.
“It will happen; it’s just a matter of when, maybe in the next two to three years,” he predicted. “Once it does, it will be a huge boost to this whole region’s economy, bringing in as many as 50 full-time jobs.”
Until that time, he will endure the dry seasons and be thankful for the bounteous harvests.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.