John Hummel hopes there can be a future on his family’s Fairfield County farm for his sons Grant (left) and Bowen (right) in the wake of rapidly encroaching development.

The challenge of a generation

By Matt Reese

It wasn’t that long ago when the outskirts of central Ohio towns like Groveport and Canal Winchester quickly transitioned to open, fertile farm fields with prolific crops and grazing livestock. In just the span of a generation, though, warehouses, residential areas, strip malls, and traffic have forever altered the landscape. Some would argue the change is for the better, and society is currently demanding it, but a growing number of voices are being raised about the erosion of the Ohio agriculture of generation’s past and concerns about a food insecure future beneath the pavement, in the shadow of perceived progress.

The issue is certainly not new for Ohio, which has a long history of paving over some of the world’s most productive farm ground. But in the wake of massive change including huge solar fields, the Intel announcement, an unsatiable demand for warehouse storage due to online shopping, and yet another housing boom, Ohio’s agricultural future is looking increasingly uncertain in some areas. 

John Hummel was the 2022 Ohio Farm Bureau Outstanding Young Farmer and the fifth generation of his family on the farm in Franklin and Fairfield counties. He and his wife, Kacy, have two young sons. He farms with his father’s cousin and a full time hired hand. Hummel really found his love for agriculture in high school, especially after he got his driver’s license and could spend more time on the farm. 

“My senior year of high school, the farm added close to 1,000 acres, and I made the choice to stay on the farm and commute to a satellite branch campus for college so that I could be on the farm to help every day,” Hummel said. “I have never regretted my decision to be on the farm full time as soon as I could. My long-term goal is to keep the family farm alive and thriving well into the future.” 

But more than any before him, Hummel’s generation has seen tremendous loss of farmland in the area of the family’s farm, located east of Columbus, around 30 miles south of the new Intel project. The farm has had to adapt significantly to remain viable amid the massive land use changes around it. 

“Our biggest challenge around here is Columbus pushing out on us. With the way the economy has been with homebuilding and warehousing, it has really pushed against us. To overcome it we’ve moved south, we’ve moved east we’ve moved north. Our biggest challenge is keeping a base of farm ground,” Hummel said. “I don’t see how, if my boys wanted to farm, I don’t know how they will in this area. It is hard for any farmer to compete with the large acre house lots and any other development. These home builders are buying farms for double the farm price and we just can’t compete with it.”

Preserving farmland has long been a major concern in Ohio, it but seems to have garnered increased urgency. It was the main topic of discussion at the Farm Bureau Annual meeting late in 2022 and a top focus of the Ohio farm Bureau Ag Day at the Capital in February, where Hummel and fellow Ohio farmers met with legislators. 

Finding this careful balance between development and preserving farmland, while protecting landowner rights, is no easy task, said Brandon Kern, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation senior director of state and national policy. There are many broad issues, and details, to consider. 

“We’re seeing development pressure from all sides, whether it’s housing or big economic development projects. It is all taking farmland. It’s been an increasing topic of concern for a lot of our members. Some of the policy proposals coming from counties are directly reflective of making sure that landowners and farm ground are taken care of when utility easements go through. Do we have a fair playing field? Are we accounting for and taking measures to preserve farmland in addition to some of these development projects? Should solar companies pay into a fund that would help provide offsets in a farmland preservation program so that we can do more easements? That’s definitely a topic of conversation,” Kern said. “One of the things we’re talking to policymakers about is redevelopment of brownfields and areas that had been once developed already. Why aren’t we looking at that ground before taking prime farmland out of production?”

To overcome these issues so far, Hummel was fortunate to find his role on an established family farm in need of a next generation. The farm was also fortunate to have multiple opportunities to expand in spite of the development pressure around it. 

“My senior year in high school we picked up 900 to 1000 acres, which opened up some room for me on the farm. I went to Ohio University Lancaster while working at the farm full time in 2011. Then in 2013 I got financially involved in the farm when I got 600 more acres,” Hummel said. “We developed a few relationships with some retiring farmers who gave us an in to get more ground. We sold some ground for a development price and were able to buy some more ground too. It was about creating relationships and impressing the neighborhood by doing a good job.”

As the farm was maneuvering around the constant land use changes in the area, Hummel really pushed to maximize the production on the ground they had.

“We have been able to grow our yields and grow our balance sheet in the last 15 years. We have been reducing tillage and boosting yields. We have reinvented how we mange ground and it has made for better crop yields. That, plus adding acres, has really helped,” Hummel said. “In the last 15 years we have gone from pretty conventional tillage to nearly 100% vertical tillage and some no-till. We run a couple of different tools. We run a Case in-line ripper to break up the hardpan with minimal surface disturbance. We typically run it on bean stubble before corn. 

Then, right ahead of corn planter, we run Great Plains Ultra-Till, very light tillage with straight blades and rippled coulters that just fluff the very top of the ground and leave it undisturbed below it.”

No-till is also a growing part of the farm management. 

“If we get really hot and dry, we switch to no-till for the corn, which helps with yield in those conditions,” Hummel said. “For beans, we’re leaving the corn stalks stand in the fall. If it is dry, we no-till beans. If it is wet in this high yielding corn residue, we’ll use a Turbo-Max right ahead of planter for beans.”

Cover crops have been tried, but not found a consistent fit on the farm.

“We have dabbled in cover crops. We’re struggling to find anything that works in our setup. 

We have sewn rye in the fall in washout areas and we’ve had trouble getting it killed and then we had some issues with slugs,” he said. “We have also tried blends and had trouble the next spring getting a good stand of corn because of slug damage.”

Technology has also played a significant role in farm profitability.

“We’ve implemented a lot of technology. We have auto steer running RTK on the planters. Two years ago, went to a high-speed John Deere planter with row cleaners, everything adjustable on the fly, hydraulic downforce, and ExactRate liquid fertilizer system,” he said. “We’ve stayed pretty old school with fertilizer on our planter. We still have 2X2 on the planter with 6 gallons of 28%, 6 gallons of 10-34-0 and 3 gallons of Thio-Sul. Then we come back around V3 and sidedress 150 units of N with 28% using a coulter and a knife. We started doing that 10 years ago and liked the security of having the 28% in the ground with some of the hot summers and wet conditions we’ve had. We have been using nitrogen stabilizers but may not any more due to the high cost. We really like the knife for sidedressing. It helps open the ground up and allows air and water in the ground. We do some variable rate as well.”

Hummel also added GPS to a John Deere gator to map all the field boundaries and waterways to set up automatic shutoff for seed and inputs.

“That saves us 12 to 15 acres of fertilizer and seed,” Hummel said. “Our next step is a nozzle-controlled sprayer. And anything we have used for swath control has paid for itself time and again. We’ve done a lot with switching up our sprayer. We went to a Hagie sprayer and now we put fungicide on every corn and soybean acre. Fungicide over the long term always seems to pay, it may not every year, but it usually does. We could never get it flown on when it needed to be done. As planting windows have been spreading out, we are better off when we can do the spraying ourselves.”

Maybe the biggest benefit to farm profitability has been the purchase of a tile plow. 

“We did an 80-acre field ourselves and we have done work on some rental farms where there are wet spots,” he said. “Tile pays. It is getting emphasized even more with the springs we’ve been having. Doing the tile ourselves cuts the cost of the tile in half. Tile is a no-brainer.”

While many pieces have fallen into place to make the farm sustainable for the future, the challenge of Hummel’s generation looms large as he considers the viability of his young sons farming with him one day. 

“We have had some real growth to add to our balance sheet, especially with the limited labor we have. I’m 32 and I farm with a 69-year-old guy and a 72-year-old guy and as we look to the future, the biggest challenge is keeping productive farm ground in our area,” he said. “Agriculture is vital to the future of Ohio, and it is time we started being treated like it.” 

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One comment

  1. Richard I Miller

    agree that we need to save farmland for the future. children and grandchildren will not have a chance to farm when the land is lost to houses and big buiesness. ohio lost 400000 acres to this problem in 2022.

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