As a young boy, Nathan Brown and his mother would have the inevitable conversation about what he wanted to do when he grew up.
“When mom asked me what I wanted to do I, would tell her I wanted to farm,” Nathan said. “She said, ‘You can’t farm.’”
The Browns were not farmers. And with no land, it didn’t seem very likely that Nathan’s dreams could be realized. To save her son from trying to tackle the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in becoming a farmer, Nathan’s mother encouraged him to do anything but farm.
“She told me there was no way I’d ever be able to farm and that I needed to figure out what I was going to do,” Nathan said. “She wanted me to be a truck driver.”
But now, in his early 30s, Nathan and his wife Jennifer are farming over 1,000 acres of crops and pasture for beef cattle in Highland County, just down the road from where he grew up dreaming of being a farmer.
“The farmer down the road from us used to raise tobacco and, when I was young, my brother and I would help with tobacco and help feed cattle in summer when we were out of school,” Nathan said. “One day I got off the bus and there was a cow out. I jumped on my bike and rode back the lane. The farmer told me to make sure she didn’t get out on the road and he would be down in a few minutes. I helped him get her in, and fix the fence. He said, ‘See you tomorrow.’”
That farmer, Roger Earley, hired Nathan to help around the farm and the young boy was one step closer to realizing his aspirations.
“I worked for him and his son all the way through high school,” Nathan said.
Earley’s son eventually got an off-farm job and Nathan was told that if he stuck around, he might get the opportunity to run the place. Nathan and Jennifer were married in 2002 and leased 25 acres for some tobacco production and cattle pasture. The tobacco production stopped with the “buyout” in 2004, but cattle and crop production continued as Nathan started renting more ground in the area.
In 2006, Earley semi-retired and rented Nathan 540 acres of crop ground and he leased a 20-head cow calf herd. Jennifer had grown up helping on her grandfather’s farm and had a steady job with the USDA to provide some income to live on while Nathan poured everything he had into building the farm.
Nathan and Jennifer’s brother went together to start a custom harvesting business as well, which helped Nathan get his foot in the door with financing.
“Financing has been something we have had to really work at building a relationship with our lender. You can’t just walk in off the street and get a loan, especially since the financial meltdown a few years ago,” he said. “We bought a combine together to do some custom harvest and that was the first time I had ever met with a banker. We got the loan for that. I told the banker what my plans were. I knew where things were headed and that I wanted to build an operation from scratch. Being open and honest and sharing how we planned to get there has been really helpful for us.”
Land has been another major obstacle for the farm.
“Land is a big challenge — securing and renting ground the right way. We won’t inherit any of this ground we’re farming,” Nathan said. “As of right now, we own 35 acres, with a house and pasture. Our ultimate goal is to own more ground. The situation we are in right now renting most of our ground is not where we’d like to be. It is scary for us.”
Nathan has been diligent about building relationships with landlords and potential landlords (or sellers) to expand the acres he farms in close proximity to where he is already farming.
“With custom acres, we are running 1,400 acres total, but the furthest farm from here is less than five miles,” he said. “We have been very lucky to acquire land in a condensed area. A lot of it is connected too. I used to get so frustrated because I couldn’t find ground, and Jennifer would just tell me that good things come to those who wait.”
And they did. The patience has paid off.
“We pride ourselves on putting together a marketing plan for our farm with potential landlords,” Nathan said. “We put in the highlights of our practices and goals in a cover letter and then, it is about building a relationship.”
Nathan has built a reputation for going the extra mile to care for the land and for the landowners.
“Nathan is very passionate about farming. You can see that when he is talking with landlords and working,” Jennifer said. “We always try to give them some extra and they all get honey baked hams for Christmas. Nathan bends over backwards for the landlords.”
He puts an emphasis on caring for the land.
“Some landlords want to know how we will take care of the ground and our fertility program. Many are worried about erosion issues too,” Nathan said. “We highlight our no-till practices. We have also been experimenting with some cover crops and how they can fit into the operation. We have tried a little cereal rye. I think eventually we can use that for winter grazing. It all depends upon when you can get it put on.”
It has been an incredible and challenging journey thus far for the Browns, with many challenges remaining, but it has all been worthwhile for Nathan to achieve his dream. The couple was recognized with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s 2013 Outstanding Young Farmer Award and this week they are at the American Farm Bureau Annual Meeting in San Antonio competing on the national stage.
“It is nice to be recognized and show others that there are opportunities out there,” Jennifer said. “We have been very blessed and fortunate for the opportunities we have had and this has been an eye opener for Nathan to realize how much he has accomplished. And now our two sons are telling us they want to farm just like daddy.”
Both Nathan and Jennifer recognize that there have been great opportunities that have allowed them to get to where they are, but there has also been no shortage of sacrifice and hard work.
“We have had opportunities, but you have to be ready to capitalize on those opportunities and make something out of nothing,” Nathan said. “If there is a will there is a way, you just have to look for the opportunities to get you there. Opportunities have allowed me to do what I wanted to do when I grew up, and Mom is pretty proud now. She sees it now.”
For more on the Browns, see the Mid-January issue of Ohio’s Country Journal.