‘City boy’ finds his place in an agricultural career

Stan Utting didn’t grow up on a farm, but people around him sometimes say that seems to give him a better perspective on the changes in agriculture in his position as manager of Agri Producers Inc. at Tampa.

Using an ag metaphor, you could say he didn’t get so wrapped up living among the wheat stalks that he couldn’t step back to look at the field.

Some say Utting has good insights about profitability in farming, but he’ll tell you that until the latest government farm program gets worked through, nobody knows where the profits are.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” he said.

Over the past 30 years in the business, Utting has seen farming in Marion County evolve. Then, farmers pulled up to the feed mill for chicken and pig feed on Saturdays with a predominantly wheat cash economy. Now, half the milo raised in the county gets shipped to Mexico.

Utting grew up in Hillsboro where his mother, Grace, was a nurse and administrator at Tabor College and his father, Bill, was a salesman at the late Dean Schroeder’s auto dealership.

Even though he grew up in town, he had roots in agriculture because his parents were among the family’s first generation off the farm.

“Mom’s family was from north of Hillsboro, and Dad’s was over in the Antelope area,” he said. “I helped my uncle on the farm, Larry Jost at Marion. I hauled hay, and ran a tractor some.”

Now, while he works at the cooperative, his wife, Kathy, is a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in Marion. Their oldest son, Luke, 26, lives and works for the Serner Co. in Kansas City. His other younger son, Alex, 23, is a college student studying computer science in Phoenix, Ariz.

Utting said his children have followed the path of most youth from Marion County who don’t have a relative who will get them started farming. They left.

“It hasn’t been a growth industry,” Utting said.

Utting actually began his career with cooperatives while still a student at Tabor, working in the accounting department of Cooperative Grain & Supply in Hillsboro. From college, he went into the Farmland Industries management-training program.

He worked as office manager of Farmers Co-op in Haven from 1974 to 1976. In 1976, Harold Tucker, the manager of API, died, and Utting came back to Marion County to succeed him in the business.

Since then, Utting said seen a steady trend develop in agriculture.

“In general, it’s a change in size,” he said. “The equipment got larger with fewer farmers getting over more acres. The window of opportunity (from planting to harvesting) got much narrower. They get it done so much faster with the big equipment.”

Utting said that this has made farmers seem more focused on the weather. Conditions must be right to accomplish things within a shorter time frame. He said that tends to make farmers more intent on what they are doing when the window of opportunity is open.

People who farm full time, Utting said, primarily grew wheat years ago.

“Now it’s more diversified, with as much grain coming in here in the fall as we have at wheat harvest,” he added. “There’s more corn, milo and soybeans. All these crops have better yields.”

For example, wheat yields of 30 bushels an acre once would have been considered good, but 50 bushels is common now.

The combination of a shorter window of opportunity, higher yields and more grain crops has resulted in major changes in elevators that receive the grain, Utting said.

“It meant that we had to build additional grain storage with more legs and more augers that could handle everything faster,” he said. “We also have all these concrete houses built in the 1950s that were meant to handle pickups and smaller trucks. We have to handle big trucks now.

“It seems like we just get done handling a big wheat crop when 60 to 90 days later in comes a big milo crop,” he added. “API is fortunate that we still have four facilities served by railroad.”

Those elevators are at Durham, Lincolnville, Tampa and Herington.

Utting said rail service changed where local grain ends up. At one time, he said, most feed grain was consumed by local livestock. Then, as the milo crop grew, the Southern Pacific transported more to far-reaching places such as large dairies in California and Arizona.

Union Pacific then bought the Southern Pacific, which improved railroad service into Mexico. Today, 50 percent of API purchase milo goes there for livestock feed.

“Mexico’s economy is growing too, and they have more money,” he said. “We’re a good supplier. We’re sending more wheat to Mexico, too.”

Better markets anywhere are good news, Utting said, because “production agriculture has been a struggle for a lot of our producers. Since 1998 we’ve had pretty cheap grain prices, and higher production costs, but now after five years grain prices are getting decent.

“Cattle have done better by us,” he added. “Cattle have helped a lot of people survive. We have several farmers who have 2,000 to 3,000 acres of broke ground, and have grass for cattle, too. This isn’t like some of the big cash-grain areas with bigger holdings, so that’s a lot of acres for here. Some of it is in small plots.

In 1976, a farmer with 500 or 600 acres of broke ground would have been a big farmer, Utting said.

“A number of them have picked up more land by purchase or renting-especially where it’s too high-priced to buy. They cover more acres to increase income. The ones who have stuck it out keep getting larger. At some point they may hit diminishing returns.”

Utting said a growing number of smaller farmers work another job off the farm to earn enough income to keep going. Along with this trend, some farmers are turning to specialty crops such as alfalfa.

“We have some guys caught in between-guys who didn’t quite get to the scale of size who might be looking at off-farm jobs for the first time now,” he said.

Another trend in an effort to gain more profitability while aiding soil and moisture conservation has been to more no-till or minimum-tillage farming, Utting said.

“We supply custom no-till equipment here,” he said. “It goes along with getting bigger, and covering more area because fewer practices over the same area are required.

“This has been one of those years when no-till ground yielded as well or better than conventional tillage,” he added. “It does require people to use more weed management with chemicals.”

Utting said the trend toward diversification has “helped our producers more than anything.” Farmers have been combining more than one grain crop with beef cattle, and in some cases, dairying-although the number of dairies is down considerably.

Utting said hog operations are nearly gone, too.

“When I first started, every Saturday morning we’d run the feed mill here. We’d have people come in for these little pickup-loads of feed. We’d be busy making chicken feed because most everybody had some poultry. They might have a cow to milk. Now the whole thing is gone. We don’t do that anymore.”

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