Change of heart has Franklin back home

Managing Editor

CHAMPLAIN, Va. (June 3, 2014) — Coming back to the family farm was not a given for Tyler Franklin.
But now, as the sixth generation in his family to farm, he said there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.
Working as a kid for his father, Robert D. Franklin and grandfather, Bobby Franklin, Tyler said he remained interested in agriculture but when he left for college at Virginia Tech, he said coming back to the farm was not in his plans.
“I guess I was a little burned out,” he said. “But sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
After graduating with a degree in crop and soil environmental technology, Tyler worked at the Virginia Crop Improvement Association’s Foundation Seed Farm in Mt. Holly as assistant manager.
But after four years there, he said the opportunities he saw in working on and taking over the family farm one day was appealing to him more and more.
Tyler’s father had recently scaled back the amount of land he was tilling but welcomed his son back.
“It all kind of fell in place,” Robert said. “I know what Tyler is doing right now is going to help him the rest of his life.”
Robert and Tyler both agree, working off the farm was helpful to Tyler coming back full-time, giving him a different perspective from what he knew growing up along with experience working with leading technology in the seed industry.
“Had I stayed here on the farm and not gone to college I think I’d be spinning my wheels right now,” Tyler said. “Sometimes it’s good to get away and get a different perspective.”
Robert said he views the time Tyler spent at the VCIA farm as basically getting a bonus degree, calling it an “education on top of education.”
Ag specialists and advisors note there are many benefits to young people working off the family farm for a few years, even if their ultimate goal is to take over the family operation.
Dr. David Kohl, Virginia Tech professor emeritus for agricultural finance and small business management, said he encourages young people to leave the farm for about three to five years to allow them to build their own skill set in business, communications, responsibility, organization and working for a supervisor who is not a family member.
He said research has indicated that businesses are four times more profitable and transition is two times more likely to be successful with outside experience.
“When the younger generation comes back, make sure they are making some management decisions within six years of returning,” Kohl said, “or they will be a ‘hired-hand for life.’”
Kohl said one strategy he has seen work well was having the younger generation work three years as an employee after returning, then three years as a manager before taking on part or full ownership of the farm.
Rather than ramp up on acres again to support Tyler’s return, the family puts more of a focus on what acres Robert kept, about 1,200 owned and leased.
“For this to work, we’ve got to maximize every acre,” Tyler said.
To do that, they invested in more irrigation on the farm and this year all of their wheat acres are grown for certified seed and they’ve contracted about 30 percent of their soybean acres with Montague Farms in Center Cross, Va., to grow food grade natto beans with the intention to add more value to their crops.
“I’m open to growing any crop. If the numbers worked on paper I would love to try it,” Tyler said.
This winter, they’ve also started on a path to gain more acres internally.
With about half of the family’s farm in wetlands and forestland, the Franklins consulted with NRCS officials to designate boundaries for the wetland acres and began converting areas around the wetlands to crop land. It’s an ongoing process, Tyler said, but expects it to yield a few hundred acres in new cropland that they already own.
“Every acre of land that we clean up is more valuable than having to go out and deal with another partner,” Tyler said, adding that he also relentless at scouting fields, trying to catch problems early and treat them early, a habit he honed while at the foundation seed farm.
“When I have free time, I’m scouting,” he said. “It’s more important than ever. The crop today is different than yesterday. Every rainstorm changes the crop somehow.”
He puts the same emphasis on record keeping, a skill he said came out of extensive lab work while in college.
“That really forced me to pay attention to detail and take good records. All that is just as important here as it was in college. The most important tool I think I have is my record book.”
Another important tool for Tyler is his involvement in state and local agriculture groups. At 30, he’s the vice president of the Virginia Grain Producers Association and second vice president of the Virginia Soybean Association.
“That’s just because I didn’t say ‘no,’ he said with a smile, noting the continual search for young people to get involved in farm organizations in Virginia and around the country.
“I believe in everything that these groups are doing and I want to still be farming in 40 years. By saying yes to these opportunities, I feel like I’m defending Virginia agriculture in a way.”
To build on his leadership experience, this year Tyler participated in the ASA’s Young Leader Program and is the middle of the NCGA’s New Leader Program, both which foster leadership training and connect growers from across the nation.
“Those really helped open up a lot of doors for me,” he said of the programs. “I’m probably getting more out of it than they are out of me.”
With four years in a management role on the farm, Tyler said he sets yield goals and other benchmarks from year to year, but long term he shares the same goal his father, grandfather and other ancestors had, to have the farm available for another generation to takeover.
“I’d really like to pass this on to another generation,” Tyler said. “To have a seventh generation Franklin farming the same land I grew up on would be very rewarding.”
“The experience away from the farm is even more critical for small producers,” Kohl said. “It allows for some entrepreneurial thinking to pick up ideas from other businesses. It also will help the balance of off farm jobs and business time management.”