Ag Day, Meet America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers

March 14, 2019

Every year on March 14, we celebrate National Ag Day; a time when producers, agricultural associations, corporations, universities, government agencies and countless others across America gather to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by American agriculture.

To celebrate Ag Day 2019, we want to once again recognize our 2019 America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers.

Kevin Ruyle, Kansas

Kevin Ruyle runs Buss Farms with his brother-in-law, Thane Buss, where they give constant attention to the service of soybeans, wheat, corn, grain, sorghum, alfalfa, and cotton. In addition to the nine months of planting and harvesting, Ruyle also runs 60 Red Angus cow/calf pairs.

In 2018, the farm grew 600 acres of cotton. In 2019, that number is expected to increase to 1,000. But with growth comes additional planning. Respectively, both Ruyle and Buss have two sons, and if they want the farm to stay in the family, generational opportunities need to be created. Their solution seems to come in the form of cover crops.

“We’re still learning,” Ruyle says. “But, there is a yield increase [when a cover crop is planted] before soybeans.” This new venture could also support their corn yield, and possibly even create a grazing opportunity for Ruyle to expand his cattle business. “When the kids get older, I’ll be looking for more revenue streams, whether that’s cows or more land,” he says. “Maybe there’s an opportunity for cattle or something else we don’t even know about yet. I’m not sure, but I think the future will be exciting.”

Hayes Kelman, Kansas

Corn and wheat farmer Hayes Kelman diversifies his family’s farming business by distilling its corn and wheat for Red Eye Whiskey. Red Eye – 51% corn, 49% wheat – is “a beautiful, hand-crafted, trail-aged, frontier-style Kansas whiskey,” Kelman says.

Kelman Farms raises wheat, sorghum and irrigated corn and soybeans for “soil to sip,” products for Kelman’s Boot Hill Distillery brand. Although the whiskey, vodka and bourbon products are successful, they are not without challenges. The source of water for Kelman Farms, the Ogallala Aquifer, is declining rapidly. The family has even capped some wells for lack of productivity.

To combat this, Kelman decided that the family farm needed to be vertically integrated to avoid a heavy reliance on water. “There has to be something more than just growing the grain, taking it to the elevator and then repeating the same process all over again the next season,” he says. “It’s no secret that we all face the same issues: maximizing production, minimizing inputs…But, we really enjoy drinking whiskey, so the best idea we could come up with would be to start a distillery.” The distillery multiplies the value of the grain fermented many times over. “Ultimately, I want to see this farm continue. It’s that exact reason I’ve expanded it with a distillery.”

Shanon and Melinda Sims, Wyoming

Sims Cattle Co. sits in the Rock Creek Valley at the foot of the Snowy Mountain Range, where annual rainfall is 16 inches, and no month goes by without snow. Sims cattle graze at 7,200 feet, meaning that the growing season is often as few as 45 days.

Despite this, the Sims operation is tuned to function as an ecologically sustainable unit in this turbulent climate. “That means high-intensity, short-duration grazing, full-season grazing deferment on one-third of our upland range and the elimination of chemical inputs to the soil,” says Shanon Sims, who manages the operation with his wife, Melinda, and his father and mother.

Following a family loss and increasing debts, the Simses reduced their reliance on fossil fuels, eliminated the use of chemical inputs and downsized their machinery line.

The result comes in the form of 645 cow/calf pairs, 300 yearling heifers and about 40 bulls. “I am a firm believer,” Shanon says, “that we can manage our livestock in a way that stabilizes soils, creates diverse habitats and operates in harmony with wildlife.” The animals graze 140 pastures for six months, from one to 14 days, each. No pasture is grazed more than one time during a season. Some get as many as 800 days of rest. The herd grazes for four months on windrowed hay and two months on baled hay.

In ten years, the Sims went from a debt-to-asset ratio below 50% to operating entire years on their own money and having a rainy-day account holding one year’s worth of business expenses.

Joel Lange, Iowa

To Joel Lange, “expansion” does not necessarily mean “more.” Originally leaving his family farm for the Marines, Lange eventually looked to his roots for his next move. His goal was straightforward: to farm better. That didn’t mean buying a lot more land, or planting even more crops.

“We can expand by making our land more productive,” he says. “Better water infiltration, high organic levels and better biological activity will get us there.” Lange Farms is planning a more aggressive crop rotation plus cover crops to achieve those goals.

Iowa rates farm ground by a Corn Suitability Rating. The county Joel, who manages the farm with his brother Stephen, lives in has an average CSR of 75. Their actual farm averages 87. In wet years, county and farm yields are close. But, in dry years, his farm averages 30 to 75 bushels per acre above the county average.

In addition to close management of production practices, Lange Farms corn and soybeans goes only to value-added markets. Within 40 miles of the farm, there are four ethanol plants and one tortilla plant. “None of our grain goes to an elevator; it all goes to an end user,” he says.

Bobby Morris, Louisiana

Across 3,200 acres of soil ranging from heavy clays to sand, Bobby Morris puts all of his management focus on sugarcane, and has one of the highest-producing cane farms in Louisiana. Cane was first produced on Morris Farms in the mid-80s, and Morris, a fourth-generation farmer, took over the farm from his parents six years ago.  “You have to have a pretty sharp mind to keep everything flowing,” he says.

Morris is always hunting for better ways to manage sugarcane and meet his income projections. Which is helpful, when your farm’s acreage doubles, then doubles again, like Morris’s farm. “Each time we acquired more acreage, drainage, grass pressure and yields that were well below our standards,” he says. “With sugarcane being a ratoon crop, these key problems took years to rectify. But, I can say our yields have steadily increased on the new land.”

Morris participates in the American Sugar Cane League Secondary Station Program, which gives Morris Farms early access to new varieties of sugarcane. Although this increases the amount of risk his farm takes on, he believes the rewards outweigh the uncertainties. Morris also pays close attention to the efficiency of his equipment line, and has added GPS mapping and laser grading in order to accurately apply chemicals.

“We only have 100 days to get our crop out of the fields during sugarcane-grinding season,” he says. “There is no storing the crop in the field. When it’s time to harvest, it’s go time, and I love every minute of it.”

Read more about our 2019 America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers in the February 2019 issue of Progressive Farmer.