ASK A FARMER: Brian Scott (Indiana 2,200 Acre Corn, Soybean, Wheat and Popcorn Farm)

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[ 2300 words – 9 minute read ]


This interview is part of our ongoing “Ask a Farmer” series drawn from Q and A’s in our community forum.

Brian Scott is a farmer, blogger and all around Ag communicator from Indiana. He runs his 2,200 acre corn, soybean, popcorn, and wheat farm with his dad, grandpa, and the occasional help from the next generation.
Through his blog The Farmer’s Life he has garnered quite a following due to his openness and passion for talking everything farming from popcorn to GMOs to new ag technologies (his recent favorite being the use of drones on the farm!)

Brian is fresh off an #AgChat conference that brought leading #Agvocates from across the country to brainstorm and understand how it is best to talk and help consumers and society understand farming.

Follow Brian on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheFarmersLife
Twitter: @thefarmerslife, and Instagram @thefarmerslife
 
The Food and Farm Discussion Lab community talked to Brian about communicating with the public on ag issues; the challenges of  bringing the next generation of farmers; and precision ag, cover crops, no-till farming and where he wants to take his operation next.

[The interview has been lightly edited for continuity. Questions from the community are grouped together under the label “FAFDL”.]


On #Agvocacy 

FAFDL: You have been tapped by industry to act as a spokesmen, so to speak, for ag and farm owners. How do you balance wanting to get your message out to as much of the public as possible, with not coming off looking like a pawn of Big Ag? Do you find people are a little less trusting of your motives? I am sure there are some people weary of entering social media discussions out of fear of detractors.

Brian Scott: I’m surprised I don’t have more trolls sometimes considering some of the content I’ve put out there. One thing I try really hard to do is be nice even when I’m strongly in disagreement. I think that’s something I learned when I was off the farm for a while working in retail of all things. As store manager I learned the really angry customers (who are sometimes actually wrong! Or trying to steal from you.) want you to get mad too. Nothing makes those people more upset than seeing they can’t rattle you.
I should also say I haven’t made a dime off my social media and blogging. I’ve gotten opportunities to do things that would not have been presented to me if I wasn’t doing this stuff which sometimes includes travel and lodging being taken care of, but I’ve never been paid to do anything.

FAFDL: Just coming from Ag Chat Cultivate & Connect Conference, are you or will you change how you engage consumers? Or maybe a better question what did you learn from Ag Chat that you’ll be applying to your agvocacy?

Follow Brian @thefarmerslife and #AgChat to learn about drones in farming.

BS: I’m going to try to figure out Snapchat. I need to continue to do more videos going forward for sure. I feel like I’ve done a lot of the stuff on GMO, etc. I’m starting to turn a little of my focus on sharing things about being a dad/parent who happens to be a farmer. Hoping that will engage more non-farmers.

FAFDL: I am curious as to what your father and grandfather think about the state of trust among farmers/food supply today. I don’t often hear the views of older generations. Are they frustrated? confused? angry? apathetic?

BS: I don’t think they are very frustrated to be honest. Then again, they don’t have Facebook accounts! They’ve changed over time as conditions and markets required. Especially Grandpa. Today he turns 90 so he’s really seen huge changes in ag.

FAFDL: It must be so great to talk to your grandpa about farming and turn around to see your kids playing in the shop!

BS: Our crop insurance agent was out yesterday. Grandpa was telling him how he was really old enough to understand the depression was happening. He can tell you about the drought of 1936 though. He did tell about his dad telling about a frost in July 1918 that did a lot of damage to the crops that year.

FAFDL: That’s insane! but cool!

BS: Grandpa and I went to the surveyors office once to locate a county drainage tile before we started putting in our own drainage system. Unfortunately the aerial photo didn’t have a year on it, but the field we farm as 277 acres now was fenced off into 15 fields in that photo.

FAFDL: You were one of the few voices that was out front and center in the GMO debate a few years back, have you seen the public discussion more forward? Or back? Or does it just seem like a treadmill?

BS: I feel like the debate isn’t what it was a few years back. Maybe GMO isn’t the hot topic it used to be? Maybe acceptance is increasing?

FAFDL: As a farmer, what is the one myth/rumor/complaint about ag that when you hear it, you have to walk away from the conversation before you say something you’ll regret?

BS: Hmmmm. Not sure I’d walk away from something. Maybe from someone if the convo obviously won’t be productive.

FAFDL: Sorry, didn’t mean “wouldn’t answer”, I mean what bothers you/upsets you the most that a layperson thinks about ag?

BS: Maybe that some people seem to think farmers shouldn’t make good money. Or that technological progress seems to be frowned upon.

#FutureofFarming

The next generation is ready to go!

FAFDL: The lament I hear most often from farmers goes something along the lines of “Where will the next generation of farmers come from?”

I think it’s an important question, and points out the trend of fewer and fewer people growing more and more crops, and the associated social costs with rural population decline. What kinds of ideas/thoughts are being discussed in ag circles these days to try and address it?


BS: I think some stats show the number of farms increasing, but I think a lot of that is really small stuff. The USDA defines “farm” at $1000 in sales per year. I think commodity farms like mine are just going to keep getting larger as people age out without replacements. It’s also very hard for someone to get started in my type of farming and have it be your main income. Cost of land and equipment is high. I know some of the industry magazines talk about farmers who don’t have family to take their place putting some of these beginning farmers under their wing for a while.

FAFDL: Do you feel like the issue of farms without people to take them over is as big of an issue as it’s made out to be? I hear this thrown around all the time, but over here east of you by about 60 miles I couldn’t name a single farm that derives its sole source of income from the farm that doesn’t have someone waiting in the wings. Most of the farms I hear about not having someone to take it over are either too small to provide a family income, are already being rented out, or are being run as a hobby/second income.

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BS: You might be right, there are several guys my age in our immediate neighborhood so I know when land comes up for sale close to home it’s probably going to be the only shot one of us gets to buy it in our lifetime.

FAFDL: I guess what I see may be defined as a lack of farmers relative to what the census may classify as a farm owner, but not a lack of people willing to buy and farm land. Sure seems to be pretty competitive at auctions still for there to be a lack of “supply” of farmers.

BS: Right. The land will be farmed. If I quit today I could sell or rent all my land immediately.

FAFDL: Why do you think that point is so often brought up as a detriment? More of the impact on rural economies or just misguided fear by an unknowing public thinking we won’t have anyone to farm our food?

BS: Because people don’t like consolidation. I don’t think we’ll stop seeing bigger farms for a while. If memory serves average census farm size shrunk a few acres from 2007-2012, but small and micro farms probably increased in number too.

Precision Ag Technologies allow farmers to track data points from the cab as well as mark planned in-field variables. In this case various levels of Nitrogen applications

FAFDL: You come across as very pro-active in looking for ways to improve your farming – productivity, profitability, sustainability – what have been your most recent changes/adjustments/investments?

What are the next few challenges on your to-do list?

BS: Nitrogen has been top of mind for me. I’ve been doing lots of on farm testing. We bought our own applicator a few years ago. We had always used the ones the retailer offer up until then. That was a six figure investment we made in applying nitrogen with no equipment to trade for it. Basically I want to apply it even and efficiently and find out how low I can go with the best balance of yield and profit. Cover crops are part of that nitrogen plan as well. This will be our fifth year working with covers and we definitely haven’t mastered it yet. I’m going to continue hammering on those items. I’ve been pushing to put all our acres in no-till. This fall we did the least tillage we’ve ever done, so I was pretty happy about that. I’m a big fan of efficiency.

FAFDL: Have you been doing nitrogen rate testing to find your minimum economic rate? Have nitrogen requirements decreased as you do less tillage?

BS: I didn’t compare till to no till. I averaged about .90 per bushel this year, but all my tests showed I wasn’t limited by nitrogen this year. I could’ve easily backed off more this year without losing yield. We got rain when we needed it, but never in large quantities. Next year I’m going to start doing zero nitrogen strips. And they’ll be on purpose. They are usually by accident!

FAFDL: They can be a real eye opener, and going with low rates is safer now with drones and high clearance spinners or y-drops for rescue. I’ve done variable rate N since 2008, high rate for low yield ground, low rate for high yield ground. Paid for equipment in one year!

BS: Variable rate technology is working for us too. We don’t own a sprayer, but y drops might make it interesting to think about again. We’re almost 100% sidedress now (An application of fertilizer between the rows of growing crops is known as a “sidedress” application.. Haven’t fall applied anhydrous for four or five years now.

#AgPolicy

FAFDL: Do you think that the fairly recent decision to not regulate the CRISPR edited new waxy corn from Dupont as a GMO (see also Penn State’s mushroom, among others) will help, or hurt with outreach efforts on dispelling fears about the technology?

BS: That’s going to be interesting to see if other countries follow the same path. Exports are really important. We’ve grown waxy for a long time, and it’s pretty much always happened to be non-GMO. But starting in 2015 the place we contract with now requires is to be non-GMO. Not a big deal really on our end. I really hope it helps. Same goes for consumer facing like Innate potatoes, Arctic Apple, and did you see the pink pineapple going around yesterday? I often wonder what the current public opinion of biotech would be if instead of RR soy being the first big success if something that directly benefited the consumer came out first.

On Brian’s farm

FAFDL: Do you find that as more arguments come out about pesticides and GMO use that your core beliefs on the subject have changed or stayed the same? Intensive nitrogen management, cover cropping, and reducing fossil fuel are the major tenets of the organic movement, so it would seem like we are moving towards the same end goal as organic farmers, but using different technology.

BS: I think I’m more environmentally conscious as a result of being active online. And anytime I can cut inputs and/or maintain yield or increase profit that’s a win win.

FAFDL: Why popcorn?

BS: Same basic process and equipment as growing field corn, but potentially higher pay. We’ve been growing popcorn since 1978. So longer than I’ve been around. Sometimes it actually is about the money. 😉 But from a standpoint of discussing ag with consumers, I’ve learned telling people I raise popcorn gets people interested.

How do you identify dent corn from popcorn? Droopy pollen loaded tassels.


 

FAFDL: While we know there are no GMO popcorn varieties, is there any purity testing to ensure no cross pollination has occurred? Are there certain spacial/timing considerations used to ensure there is no pollen drift and cross pollination?

BS: There are open pollinated varieties of popcorn, but to my knowledge pretty much all commercial popcorn is “dent sterile” meaning it won’t be pollinated by regular dent corn

Continuing Education…

Ben Schaefer (FAFDL Ask a Farmer editor): The great thing about Brian is he loves to talk about farming. The bad thing about Brian is he loves to talk about farming. Chances are that many questions people may want to ask are already in blog form on The Farmer’s Life. If you had a question for Brian but missed the conversation, or are a shy lurker, check out his blog!

Really good ones where I learned a lot:

1) Monsanto contract

2) Why, what is No-Till?

3) Why popcorn is different – not GMO, doesn’t cross pollinate with other corn

4) Waxy corn? Huh!

5) Ever wonder why it’s called ‘Dent’ corn?

6) All the drone videos

 

The full Q and A thread can be found here

[Please consider supporting FAFDL.org with an ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon.]

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Please consider supporting FAFDL.org by ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon.