Faced with challenges like high farmland prices and access to capital, young farmers are using their creativity and determination to establish roots in agriculture, says Randy Francois, who was recently elected chair of the Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Advisory Committee for the 2021-22 year. 

Raising livestock provides op­­portunity for many young farmers, said Francois, who raises hogs and row crops in partnership with his dad and another farmer in Buchanan County. 

“Livestock has been a huge reason why I was able to come back. When I came back, dad kind of stepped to the side and said you can come help with the pigs,” said Francois. “It gave me, as a young guy, my opportunity to take the reins a little bit on our operation.” 

Other young farmers are foc­using on niche markets, as evidenced by entrants in Farm Bureau’s Grow Your Future contest, which has featured a cricket grower, flower farms, direct meat sales and cover crop providers, among others, he notes. 

“These are young farmers that are making these endeavors and they’re growing their operations creatively,” says Francois. “It’s really unique to watch their operations grow, and it’s something we can all be excited about in rural Iowa.”

Francois and his wife, Megan, have two children, J.J., age 3, and Macy, 18 months. Corn grown on their farm is fed to their pigs, and manure from the hog barns is utilized as fertilizer on row crop ground. The family employs no-till and cover crops on fields where those practices make sense.

(Photo above: Raising livestock continues to provide an opportunity for young farmers to get a start in agriculture without large investments in land and equipment, says Randy Francois, chair of the IFBF Young Farmer Advisory Committee. PHOTO / CONRAD SCHMIDT)

Every field is different

“There is no one way to do things. We have four different methods around here,” says Francois. “Every field is just a little bit different. We treat every field separately.” 

The 31-year-old Buchanan County Farm Bureau member didn’t always envision spending his days grinding feed, sorting hogs or tending row crops. 

“If you would have asked me when I was 18 years old, I would have said I never would have come back to the farm,” Francois says. “I worked on the farm (in high school), but I didn’t really have a passion for agriculture.”

That passion began stirring after he graduated from college and started working as a precision agriculture specialist at a John Deere dealership in Manchester, about a 20-minute drive from his family’s Buchanan County farm. 

“I was able to come by at nights and on the weekends and just kind of slowly came back and did more and more. Mom and Dad never closed the door,” Francois says. He joined the family farm full time in 2015.

“It’s been a great move. I’ve really enjoyed every part of it,” he says. “When you come back, you come back because you want to, not because it was something you were growing up to do or you’re forced to do it. When you come back with that passion, you have pride in what you do and you’re educating yourself to make yourself better and to make your operation better. I think that’s very important.”

Off-farm experience

Having off-farm experience also offers young farmers different perspectives on how successful farms operate, he points out.

“I credit that John Deere dealership. Working there, I saw a lot of really good operations and how they were run,” says Francois. “We have a lot of different personalities working together, and having that off farm experience gets you into that business setting to be able to work with each other. I think that definitely has helped.”

He says Farm Bureau’s young farmer program also helps by providing networking opportunities for young farmers who are facing similar challenges such as dealing with landlords, working off-farm jobs and finding affordable daycare. 

“My wife and I went to our first young farmer conference in 2015, and it was the best thing we’ve ever done,” he says. “That’s something that the young farmer group really stresses is just getting together and getting that camaraderie and energy from people all over the state to build the brand of agriculture and really be proud of what we do growing fuel, food, and fiber.”

Young Farmer Conference

The young farmer committee is busy planning for the 2022 Young Farmer Conference, which will be held the last weekend in January. 

The venue has been moved to Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines, providing more space for young farmers to gather. Francois is looking forward to the conference being in person again this year after last year’s conference was held online due to COVID-19.

“We’re coming off a pandemic year that was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and we were still able to reach our target of young farmers through various channels that we’ve never done before,” he says. “Looking forward to the year ahead, we want to build off that success that we had last year in reaching our audience.”

Hear more from Randy on The Spokesman Speaks podcast