Starting a farm from scratch, most people contend, is next to impossible these days, but Marion, S.C., farmer Jimmy Taylor is proving the theory, and all those who discouraged him from farming for a living, wrong.
Jimmy got his first taste of farming working part time on a tobacco farm during his high school days. Though one generation removed from farming he just couldn’t get the thought of farming out of mind.
He didn’t major in agriculture at Clemson University because so many people had told him he couldn’t make a living farming. He earned a degree in forestry, got a job, got married, started a family and all seemed to be playing out well.
He and his brother Wade Taylor, a Marion County, S.C., deputy sheriff, managed to farm a few acres part time — much more of a hobby than a living at that time, he says.
Then the economic downturn in the U.S. became a recession and like millions of Americans, he lost his job in 2008. Despite a college degree, excellent work record, and a few years experience in the forestry business, finding a job was tough.
“I was sending out resumes — actively looking for a forestry job, but I was also trying to figure out how many acres it would take to make a living farming, because that’s what I really wanted to do,” Taylor recalls.
So, in 2009, armed with about 350 acres of land, 1970s vintage farm equipment, and a small tractor, Jimmy Taylor started farming. He didn’t have enough good land; he didn’t have the right equipment, and admittedly didn’t really know what he was doing that first year.
“I read everything I could find about growing grain, I attended every farm meeting and field day I could find and I had a tremendous amount of help and support from farmers in the area and from the whole agriculture industry,” Taylor says.
The strongest support came from his wife, Julie, who was pregnant at the time with their second child. “She told me to follow my dream and that’s what I did that first year,” Taylor says.
With the economy seemingly in meltdown mode, 2009 wasn’t a great year to find funding for a first-time farming operation.
Thad Williams, who heads the Marion County FSA office, proved to be a God-send, helping Taylor get together all the information he needed for a farm loan and finding the money to do it.
Paid off operating loan
“I simply couldn’t have gotten the money to start farming without Thad’s help. He was nervous that first year, I was nervous, but we got through it. We paid off our operating loan, but not much else from that first crop,” Taylor recalls.
I remember telling Wade, “I don’t know whether I can make a living farming or not.” “I talked to Thad about it, and we restructured some things and made the decision to try it one more year.”
Between his first crop and his second one things began to fall into place. He acquired some additional land, which helped provide more leverage for funding. A part of that funding allowed him to buy new no-till equipment to replace the 1970s vintage planter he used his first year in farming.
In 2010, he planted about 700 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and a year of experience made a big difference he says.
“I was able to plant a better crop and take better care of the crop, and probably as important as anything, do a better job marketing the crop,” he explains.
A neighbor farmer let him use some grain bins to hold his soybeans, which he sold for a higher price. Things like that just clicked in 2010, and with good prices and a better crop, Taylor was well on his way to doing what so many people had told him he couldn’t do — be a farmer.
“Farmers will help you and without the advice I got from neighbor farmers and the physical support, like hauling grain and storing grain, I don’t think I would have made it those first two years,” he says.
Going from conventional to no-till was a big reason for his success in 2010, Taylor contends. “That first year, with the equipment I had, I couldn’t get across enough land to get things done timely. And, the old planter I had skipped and clogged and I got behind and never caught up.
“I talked to one of the larger and better farmers in our area about no-till, but I was determined to do it my way — a more conventional approach to tilling the land. He told me, you will go to no-till, and he was right,” Taylor says.
Some of the land he farms is prone to washing and with heavy clay soils, Taylor was skeptical at best as to how no-tilling would work. On one particular 50 acre field, the ground was so hard, he says, he had to keep his seat belt buckled on the tractor to get across it.
“We planted that field in corn, so we had some money invested in it, and I was really worried about how it would work no-till. The corn came up in a nice, full stand and produced 110 bushels per acre across the whole field,” he notes.
Planting that same field in 2011, he says there is already a big difference in the soil — just from one year of no-till. A skeptic at first, now he is a firm believer in no-till and working mostly on his own, it has given him the timeliness he needed to produce good crops.
For anyone thinking about going into farming full-time without family land or equipment to get started, Taylor has some good advice.
Tough to find good land
The first thing, and the hardest thing, he says, about getting started in farming is finding enough good land to farm.
Between his first and second year of farming, a large acreage farmer down-sized his operation and another retired and Taylor was able to rent a portion of both farms.
To get started, hard work and good luck have to go hand-in-hand he contends. A big part of the hard work comes from putting together a workable farm plan that you can sell to a lender.
FSA has a lending program geared for low-equity farmers that can be extended up to seven years. That’s the program Taylor used, and still uses, to get started in farming. Knowing what’s available from a Federal lending agency and convincing them to finance a first-time operation are two entirely different things.
“Establishing an honest working relationship with your lender is absolutely essential to get started in farming. When I run into a problem, I know I can work with Thad to find a solution, and I think he knows I’m serious about farming for a living for a long time, so we find a way to keep the farming operation going throughout the crop year,” Taylor says.
On a personal level, he says, you have to be conservative in everything you do. “You have to take care of the crop and spend the money you need to spend to produce a good crop, but you have to learn to live on less and save money from one crop year to help get you through the next one,” he adds.
Farming under any circumstances is time-consuming, but getting started and doing most of it yourself takes you away from your family more than most jobs.
“I now have two small children, my wife works full — time, and I work 10-12 hours a day six days a week. I spend Sunday with my family,” he explains.
Starting out from scratch, you will likely have to find used, usually old, equipment and make it work well enough on a small scale to prove you can make it farming. Having just finished planting his third crop, Taylor says he still has a ways to go to prove to himself he can make it as a full time farmer.
“My brother would like to farm full time — that’s our dream, but we have to take it one step at a time. You have to understand you’re going to make some mistakes and learn from your mistakes, without letting them beat you,” he says.
Good crops in 2010, and one of the best wheat crops in years in South Carolina, added another layer of hope to Taylor’s quest to be a full-time farmer. Hard work and perseverance are making what so many said was impossible, possible for Marion, S.C., farmer Jimmy Taylor.