By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: This Yuma, Arizona farmer is Arizona Farm Bureau’s 2nd Vice President. He loves farming and the challenge of managing a diverse portfolio of crops. One of the most thoughtful farm families I know, John and Alicia Boelts are already at work instilling in their children the importance of saving and thinking about the future.

An interview with John Boelts about farming in Yuma, Arizona.

Our ongoing series of Arizona’s farmers and ranchers.

Tell us about your farm operation. My wife, Alicia, and I own half of Desert Premium Farms, LLC. We are row crop, cereal grain and forage crop producers in the Yuma area. We’re partnered with Kent and Jenny Inglett. They own the other half of Desert Premium Farms. We grow vegetables in the winter months and cotton, wheat and all kinds of other stuff the rest of the year on about 1,500 acres.

The Boelts family from Yuma, Arizona. A bit older now, the children are learning early how to save and understand about managing resources.

For the last five years since we started our operation, we’ve produced head lettuce, romaine lettuce, and green leaf lettuce. This year we grew some colored cauliflower and white cauliflower. We’ve diversified the mix a bit; it’s what we call our winter game.

As far as crops grown in the southwest part of the state, I’ve grown everything from vegetable seed crops, cantaloupe, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, spring mix, and then a whole host of summer crops.

I don’t have a favorite crop I like to plant. I always like to get started at the beginning of a new season; but I’m also always glad when I get to start harvesting and as the season wraps up I’m always glad to be done harvesting our last field.

It’s actually why I like farming in Yuma; the diversity of crops keeps things interesting. While you may be checking one thing off your list because you’re wrapping up harvest on one crop, you’re up to your eyeballs in either the crop you’re planting behind it or another crop you’ve already got going and having to monitor; so you’re constantly checking things off your list but constantly adding things to your list.

My favorite crop will always be the one that looks the best and yields the best no matter what crop I may be growing at the time. It’s always nice when you break your own record on the average yield of any crop.

The benefit of diversity is that even if you’ve had a train wreck with something but the next thing is coming around the corner to allow us to aim for a successful crop. The vegetable deal, unlike other crops, while one field might not have done so well either because of price or yield we can always tell ourselves we have another harvest in a couple of days and another opportunity as opposed to putting all our eggs in one basket. 

And Yuma farmers can grow a lot of lettuce and vegetables in general. In iceberg lettuce alone there are currently anywhere from 80 to 100 seed varieties in production right now. There are more varieties than that, but many of the older seed lines are not heavily in production now.

Regarding lettuce, you’re influenced to plant certain varieties based on weather. You have a whole host of people working in the seed industry marketing seed based on a farmer’s needs and what weather conditions are at that time of the season.

Most produce growers are determining what variety of a certain vegetable type they want to grow with input from their seed sales folks.  A lot of the Yuma growers might be dealing with five or six seed companies because, unlike when you grow cotton where you might have a favorite seed company you always go to, the deal with vegetables is that you’re changing varieties to try and make an optimal match to weather, soil and other factors including what you're contracting with shippers for.

What changes have you seen in your lifetime as it relates to farming?  As it relates to the produce business, the biggest change has been the advent of trying to wrap our hands around the idea that the general public would assume that we can fix every issue food safety-wise. Although we’re doing everything we can to ensure food safety we have limited science we’re able to apply. Things like chlorinated water, which has save humanity, but it doesn’t always fix every single thing. Sometimes things still are not perfect.

But, things are very good and always improving when it comes to a sophisticated food safety system. In this litigious society, we try to do the absolute best we can for the consumer with the absolute best technology and science to ensure food safety. And, 99.99 percent of the time we’re exceeding expectations. But, there is that discomfort that your clientele think you’re being malicious and you end up in court for that .01 percent food safety failure.

We’ve watch the food safety issue in the industry evolve and shift and as produce growers we’ve tried to be out in front of the cause and the science in order to proactively protect the food production process.

The biggest thing, even bigger than food safety though some might debate me on that, whether it’s vegetable farming or any other aspect of production agriculture, we’ve watched the cost of doing business go up dramatically. We’ve watched input costs, energy costs, logistic costs, and machinery costs – basically the increased cost to do everything as it relates to farming – we’ve had opportunities in our industry narrowed.

This, obviously, creates challenges to be profitable and sustainable in agriculture. It limits opportunities. What I’ve seen in the last 19 or 20 years that I’ve been in this business, our opportunities are less frequent and certainly the cost of doing business has gotten higher. And food prices, though they’ve seemed to go up for consumers, by and large the farm gate, retail prices have gone up very little in comparison.

For example, we’ve seen alfalfa prices go up, but they’ve really tracked along with what production cost are to produce a ton of hay today and in some cases have not tracked with overall cost of doing business. You see seed costs two to three times what they used to be, farm equipment, fertilizer, fuel costs -- everything costs two to three times what it used to cost.

You take all that into account and realize it makes sense that hay is not $80 bucks a ton anymore it’s $240 a ton.

Why did you choose to go into agriculture? You grow up around it. Some families, their parents try to talk them out of it saying there’s got to be a better way to make a living or way to make a buck. You enjoy it. Farming becomes part of you. Plus, you don’t see yourself doing anything else. And, it certainly a bit easier if you can see opportunity.

Yuma has been pretty good to us over the years. Farming is a high stakes game but there is opportunity.

I can’t speak for folks in other places, and I’m not sure I’d know how to answer this question is I was in another place but being where I’m at, you tend to stay an optimist and hunt for those opportunities. It keeps one going and it’s what made me get into it.

Plus, I like working in the dirt. I like working on the equipment.

My dad probably was right, there probably is a better way to make more of a margin, more opportunity, a better or easier way to make a buck but if Yuma-area farmers are categorized as making some of the best returns on investments in agriculture, breaking down costs per hour or assigned costs to a field, which results in you trying to get more efficient with those costs and spread it across more acres and we certainly try to do that in Yuma and other very significant agriculture production areas.

It’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes you simply have to say it’s in your blood; it’s part of what you do and you certainly have those memories from when you were a kid. These experiences all combine to influence that decision as to whether you’ll get into agriculture or not.

I’m second generation Yuma-area farmers, but 5th generation American farmers because our family came from farming in Nebraska to Arizona.

Boelts farming has been traced all the way back to Germany when historically they started using last names. Does that mean we’re not as smart as other families (laughs).

Will anyone in your family - younger generation - pursue farming and/or ranching? Yes. With us not owning any farm ground, the prospects for the next generation [John and Alicia have 2 young boys and a girl] are a bit tougher, but the opportunities are still there.

In the Yuma area, a lot of us are cash rent farming. I don’t think I’d pave a path for any of my kids. If it’s something they wanted to do, I’d definitely enable it and encourage it.

Right now, they look at it and go, “That’s a lot of work.” They’ll get dirty and do work, but they may be developing the same pattern I developed growing up that it kind of gets in your blood.

Farming is a possibility but does not have to be an absolute.

Partly because of where you farm, you already grow a diverse set of crops. But there’s always room for adjusting your farm business model. What considerations are you making for your current crop portfolio? Yes. We’ve been working for a couple of years to add cauliflower and broccoli to our mix. Also, for winter plans we’ve tried to expand into growing some spinach and spring mix. For two reasons, we can grow a good crop and grow it affordably for customer and secondly, there are real advantages to having a mix of short-term and long-term growing crops. Lettuce, depending on the type, can have as short of a planting to harvest cycle of 60 days, while the other vegetable crops take more than twice as long. A lot of ground, you’re only going to get one crop off it.

Cash rents are cash rents. You do the best you can and negotiate the best deal on the best piece of ground and then you still have to take what you can get. The important thing for us with the fixed costs including the equipment you have to have, there are advantages to try and grow some crops that are shorter term [in their planting to harvest cycle]. As a result, you might be able to squeeze two vegetable crops than one with a longer-term growing cycle. This can positively impact what you’d normally consider your fixed cost. So, I consider rent a fixed cost, which in general it is. That doesn’t mean we’re going to grow three crops on every piece of ground, but we’ll try to optimize as much as we can and in this way whittle away at some of those fixed costs.

By doing that, we’re growing wheat and cotton, being diverse and we enjoy growing it. They’re good crops and good rotations for the soil. When cash rent is built around the vegetable deal, having more double-crop vegetables becomes a big plus.

Having crops that you can gain a little more margin on, like the vegetable crops, you spread equipment and other costs across a wider mix of your crops.

For wheat and cotton and other crops we keep very detailed records and we look very closely at what the equipment is actually costing for that crop.

We’re not in the business of doing things for practice, we’re in the business for profit. We have to be if we want to be sustainable; if we want to stay in farming.

That’s one angle we’re working on, faster growing vegetable crops. But there are other crop considerations like adding melons back into the mix.

Some things you adjust for are about expanding and changing your crop mix, working on new customers, the other issue is growing certain crops that make growing all your crops affordable.

What are your community activities? Besides our involvement in the county and state level with Farm Bureau [John is Arizona Farm Bureau’s 2nd Vice President], we’re actively involved in our church for our family’s edification and try to help out when things come along for the community. My daughter does dance and have the boys in city recreation league that includes inline hockey.

We have fun with the kids and when we get time in the summer we try to get away to Colorado mainly in June or July.

What is one fact/experience/achievement no one knows about you? One year for Farm Bureau, Alicia and I were national runners up in American Farm Bureau Federation’s Achievement Award.

I don’t know if it’s an achievement or not, but it’s different: my wife went to college and graduated. But, I took some college-level math and Spanish classes but never went on to college after graduating from High School. It’s funny, because often people just assume that you went off to college to get a degree before you launched a business. I normally tell people I got my degree in the college of hard knocks. I’ve always been so anxious to learn despite the fact that I didn’t go to college, that I simple moved though hands-on learning.

What do you think you do really well? Explain. I do really well, I think, at tasks that require a lot of moving parts, are complex and then in the midst of it maintaining a positive attitude and always having the end goal in mind.

Plus, I’m not smart enough to shy away from some things that others might say, ‘not for me.’

Alicia reminds me, ‘You don’t say “no” often enough.”

Why are you a farm bureau member? Farm Bureau is the group that can bring everybody in the agriculture community together. I like that Farm Bureau can represent the farmer that has 50 acres in Alaska, or 5,000 acres in Georgia or 50,000 acres in California. Every farmer is on the same level playing field and has the same things to offer. We’re all working together for the benefit of an industry as a whole. If you’re a commodity-specific organization you’re forced to focus on the one agriculture commodity. So I participate with the various commodity organizations I’m a grower part of; but I participate more heavily with Farm Bureau because it represents American agriculture as a whole. No other organization can offer that.

How will the next generation of farmers have to operate? Whether my kids go into farming or not, I’ve told them they have to realize that the stakes in farming and business in general are high and keep going up, especially the financial stakes. I’m trying to gingerly teach them that so much of what we have to do to successfully run a business boils down to the bottom line and your net income.  

I’ve decided that my kids have to be a bit older before I put them on a swather or other farm equipment because I’m bringing them into a professional work environment and I want to hold them to the same standard as my current employees working for the business.

In the meantime, I’ve given my kids jobs to do on a rental house we own. They want money to be able to buy stuff. So we give them odd jobs.

Then, we sit down and talk about what you have to do to earn money. If the cost of getting into business are so high it’s prohibitive and the cost of staying in business are so high, that its prohibitive, then you have to be really good at managing resources. We’re attempting to teach this to our kids.

When teaching them about money, I told my kids you don’t currently have any expenses in your young life. So, I suggest that they save 50 percent of what they earn. I also tell them, you’re going to tithe your 10 percent. Often they’ll tithe more than that.

The reason I suggest saving the 50 percent is that there will come a time when you [the kids] will be paying your own expenses. If you had money in the bank, wouldn’t that make life easier? The kids agree. So, then I tell them what are some of the things that you might need to spend money on? I often am expecting them to think of things like books, that they love. I told Alicia I’m not going to talk to them about these heavy subjects until they’re older.

But apparently I must be an ogre of a dad and talk about things in front of my kids that might create more sober considerations because when I asked the two oldest together, the boys, “What is it that you need that you might want savings for?”

Matthew said, “I might want to have kids someday. I think kids are pretty expensive.” Jokingly, I told them, yes you are since you’re bleeding me dry with this mowing the grass thing. He knew I was joking.

Andrew, my oldest said, “Well, I probably am going to buy a house someday and I might want to go to college someday. And that, you tell us, is really expensive.”

They both also said they’d probably need money to get married someday.

I told them, ‘I kind of expected you to say things that are more in your age of interests.’

Then, I realized okay, they get it. That’s done. At least on the level that that is the first thing that came to their mind, we’re done with this conversation. You get it. I did tell them that they might have some things in between these big life ticket items that they might want to spend money on, that I’m not going to give you money to do and you know what those items are; but you already get what are the big items. So fine.

Some of the most successful people in production agriculture were individuals who were willing to live without and do without and work hard.

So, the kids are getting it figured out. What’s the next generation going have to do to operate effectively? They’re going to have to work harder than we do and they’re going to have to have money. More money than those of us operating today simply because the stakes seem to be getting higher and higher.

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