Adaptation was vital for young farmers more than ever in 2020 as volatile commodity prices, business closures and COVID-19 lockdowns impacted almost all aspects of life, according to attendees at the recent 2021 Iowa Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmer conference held virtually.

For Wright County Farm Bur­eau member Ethan Lambert, 2020 meant pivoting to find an outlet for some of his cattle. Last spring, as the pandemic forced beef processing plants to shut down, the young farmer had cattle ready for market.

“We had our cattle sold, but then the buyer called and said they were shutting down the plant for two weeks. We had to sit on our cattle,” Lambert said.

Fortunately, he was able to hold his cattle until the plants reopened, though Lambert still suffered a financial hit because the prices he received post shutdown weren't as good as he would have received earlier.

But he adapted by working with local lockers to process more cattle for direct sale to local consumers. He was able to move more than 20 head off his operation, four times the number he sold directly in 2019. 

“I think it’s good for us, because at that time I was getting better margins selling direct (to consumers) than to the processors,” Lambert said. “And it’s good for the consumer, who gets a break on the price of beef compared to what they buy at the store.”

The direct cattle sales, along with a part-time job, helped carry him through 2020. And Lambert said he’s ready for whatever 2021 throws at him.

Not going anywhere

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “Not to be a cliche, but farming is in my blood; it’s what I love to do. I have a really strong passion for it.”

At the Young Farmer Conference, Lambert attended a breakout session on hay production and marketing. There might be an opportunity to turn more acres into feed for his cattle in a bid to help control input costs, he said.

An eventful year

Calhoun County Farm Bureau Vice President James Hepp and wife, Paige, had an eventful year in 2020 beyond dealing with the pandemic. The couple were married in August and are working to diversify their row crop operation with cover crops and looking at options for a third cash crop.

“I don’t care about being the biggest. I just want to be the best,” James said. “There will be a lot of opportunities out there, especially from folks looking to help someone just starting out.”

James is relatively new to farming, working with a family friend to take over his farming operation just two years ago. James splits his time between the farm and his crop insurance business. 

Paige, by contrast, was raised on her family’s farm in Pottawattamie County. This experience led her to be a passionate advocate for ag issues. 

“I feel like I have a voice in ag, and want to be involved in telling ag’s story,” she said.

As a former West Pottawattamie County Farm Bureau member, Paige helped bring ag education to her surrounding communities with Ag in the Classroom activities. She has also worked in advocating for conservation practices and now works at a marketing agency focused on promoting agriculture.

“I think if there’s a positive from this whole COVID thing, it’s that people are a lot more interested in where their food comes from,” James said.

Diversifying with bison

Lucas and Bethany De Bruin of Mahaska County are taking a big step toward diversification in 2021 by adding bison to their existing row crop operation.

“The farm right now is not really big enough for both me and my dad,” he said. “So this is my chance to diversify.”

Lucas is partnering with a neighbor who already owns a bison herd. Because he has worked with the animals already, he has gained knowledge while saving up to build his own herd. 

“My neighbor really took me under his wing,” Lucas said.

The 2021 Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Conference was held virtually to keep attendees safe during the pandemic.  

“We are happy we could bring a virtual conference to our young farmers,” said Mary Foley Balvanz, Iowa Farm Bureau leadership training manager. 

"While it’s not as much fun as seeing hundreds of other young farmers in person, the information from our keynote and breakout speakers was excellent," she said.