By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: This young farmer and his wife, Jessica, have mapped out their future and it means they plan on running efficient agriculture businesses that are also diverse.
An Interview with Brandon Brooks of Maricopa County Farm Bureau
The latest in an ongoing series about Arizona agriculture.
Tell us about your farm, your business: I am a fifth-generation farmer, whose family took the chance and headed west to homestead 120 years ago. My wife, Jessica, and I are raising our two children and carrying on the farming tradition in the original 100-year-old farm house. I take great pride in my family’s long history in agriculture.
Jessica and I are the owners of Fifth Generation Farms, a General Partnership. I am also the manager of a 4,000 acre farm known as MK Farms. On these two operations we’re growing cotton, barley, wheat, alfalfa and sorghum.
Committed to farming for the future, Jessica and Brandon Brooks currently live in the 100-year-old farm house, representing the generational legacy of this farm family from Maricopa County.
I am responsible for managing the staff, scheduling on-farm duties, crop production, crop sales, crop hedging, purchasing, equipment maintenance, tenant relationships, budgets, safety and training, public relations and advocacy issues with agriculture. I am also responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of MK Farms, a 4,000 acre cotton farm with 25 employees. I do this in conjunction with running my own business, which is why Jessica's involvement is so essential and beneficial to the overall success of our operation. Jessica is responsible for all office duties including Quick Books, payroll, some marketing and research, water usage tracking and scheduling. She is also responsible for lease renewals and FSA needs.
Additionally, we recently launched Fury Farm this past November (2014) with the objective to provide the freshest organic vegetables possible to our community. We planted our carrots, kale, lettuce, spinach, beets, and onions the last week of October on our seven-acre farm and plan on our first harvest the last week of January.
Fury Farm has partnered with a large, established organic vegetable farmer in order to supplement our offering. We are not limited by our own supply and we feel that is what makes us unique. Many of our competitors offer a type of vegetable until they run out and then they cannot offer anymore. Fury Farm can continue to offer our seasonal customers their favorite produce items regardless of Fury Farms production.
We also plan on incorporating fruit into our offering and will be planting watermelons and cantaloupes next spring. We also plan on growing sweet potatoes and sweet corn, two vegetables that are challenging to grow in our area due to disease and pests.
Although Jessica was a “city girl” when we met, she is now a proud “farmer's wife’ working in partnership with me helping to make decisions about our operation. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration with a minor in Marketing, and Jessica received a Bachelor’s of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management.
Jessica continued her education and received a Master’s degree in Elementary Education. The first ten years after college I had a career in the business world off the farm where I was very successful, but later decided to follow my roots and go back to agriculture.
Why did you choose to go into agriculture? After college, I was encouraged by family to pursue my own career and not work on the farm. For 10 years I wore a suit and tie in various sales management positions and was successful. However, I realized the farm is where I needed to be. My wife and I decided to accept our calling, and put it all on the line.
After several meetings with my father we came up with a game plan we felt comfortable with and that we could both walk away from in two years if it did not work out. My father tested our will for the first year and encouraged us to get a “Beginning Farmer Loan” with the USDA. It didn’t take long for us to realize "farming was in my blood" so we started with a 20-acre alfalfa field and applied for the loan. My father was willing to sublease us some more ground if we qualified for the loan, and in February of 2011, we were approved. This achievement enabled us to rent more land and purchase some equipment at a few local auctions. 2012 was an exceptional year, as far as yield and price, and this allowed us to double our operation in size on the same loan amount. We leased some small parcels in town that had not been farmed in many years and acquired additional land from my father as part of his succession plan.
In 2011, Fifth Generation Farms, LLC was created. Continued high yields and prices gave us the opportunity to start purchasing more equipment and land. We purchased a 10-acre parcel of bank owned land that had water rights. After removing over 100 trees and countless rocks, we were able to convert this ground to agricultural land that today is a producing alfalfa farm and equipment yard. In 2013 we applied for a conventional loan and received a line of credit from the bank without a third-party guarantors. With the increased capital, we were afforded the opportunity to partner with my father's farming operation, MK farms and leased another 300 acres. In addition we accumulated another crop share partnership with a local grower, adding 100 acres to our production. Today on about 1,070 acres we grow alfalfa, barley, cotton, silage, wheat, lettuce, beats, kale and carrots.
Will anyone in your family - younger generation - pursue farming and/or ranching? We are planning on passing our achievements to our kids like the many generations before us. We have a diversified operation to ensure as tenant farmers we can succeed for years to come. Without the generations before us, the challenges of entering the business of agriculture may have been overwhelming, but we had the opportunity and took it.
Would you ever consider growing different crops and/or changing your farm or ranch model? In addition to our farming operation, we are profit sharing partners with my father's wholesale and retail hay operation B-1 Hay Sales. B-1 Hay Sales custom harvests 1,500 acres of alfalfa and produces over 15,000 tons of alfalfa per year. This business unit is a very important component to our operation because we also hire them to custom harvest our alfalfa. In 2013, Jessica and I purchased a retriever truck to enhance B-1's ability and ours to sell hay to local customers. I am responsible for all of B-1's day to day operations which include irrigation scheduling, cutting, raking, baling, quality of hay, and contract negotiation.
In order to enhance our operation and also differentiate ourselves, we purchased some unique equipment that opened the door to custom farming for Fifth Generation Farms. We purchased a Spra Coupe and a 500 HP track tractor with some “one pass” vertical tillage equipment. This year was the first year we had this equipment and as a result we were contracted to do custom work on over 1,000 acres. This income is being used to help us pay for our investment and this equipment has reduced our per acre input costs by over $200 per acre.
The Fury Farm is our newest venture, a small organic garden that is grown by us but with community involvement. Our community team is helping us with weeding, harvesting, and packing. This is our first year, but we can already see the potential of this new venture. We have partnered with another large vegetable grower in order to supplement our offering while we continue to grow. We feel this venture may have the most potential because of the "Farm to Table" concept. We lease almost all of our ground and because of the urban outgrowth planned for the future we will have to generate more income on a per acre bases to remain a viable and healthy agriculture business.
And, we’re willing to try all sorts of crops. For example, we experienced our first production challenge when we decided to grow ornamental Indian corn, a specialty product with aesthetic requirements from the buyer. We realized we did not have the resources to be successful when the opportunity was presented so we reached out to a local vegetable farmer and received the help we needed to proceed growing the crop. We had to purchase packaging and line up a hand harvest crew.
Once harvest came, the challenge continued. Yield was significantly lower due to worm damage, and what we thought was a home run on paper was turning into a strikeout. Thankfully, we harvested enough to fulfill the contract and negotiated a price increase before delivery, helping to offset projected loses. The end result was a project where we broke even. We believe it was a winner because we were able to go to Lowe's and see consumers purchase the product that we had grown. It was a tremendous learning experience.
This learning experience was critical to our ability to start Fury Farm, because of the similarities between growing and harvesting ornamental corn and organic vegetables.
What are your other activities including family-related and community-related? I enjoy spending time with our young family while sharing a love for the outdoors and snowboarding with my wife, while staying active in Farm Bureau and politics; devoting nearly all of my time away from family farming to advance the causes of our industry and promote of a positive image of agriculture.
I am on several boards that are all agriculture related including being involved in Farm Bureau, especially Maricopa County Farm Bureau.
I also plan to help grow the West Valley Mavericks by increasing membership and charity events within the community and become president within five years. A connection with the community as urban development continually infringes upon our operations is critical. West Valley Mavericks will be a strong advocate for charity, culture, community, and commerce.
What is one fact/experience/achievement no one knows about you and what do you think you do really well? I like to make businesses more efficient; to make them really work. Transition from my other career to farming is my example. I worked in manufacturing after college. When I made the transition back to the family farm I set out to implement certain processes that I learned in manufacturing in order to enhance efficiency and therefore increase profit margin. First, I had to dive into the operation and learn what processes were in place and what kind of culture the company had. We addressed organization and documentation by developing "farm workbooks" and best management practices BMP policies. The workbooks include purchase logs, tillage trackers, commodity trackers, farm maps, crop lists, safety objectives, Particulate Matter 10 logs, incident reports and employee status forms. Record keeping in our business is critical because traceability is important when it comes to purchasing, planting, spraying, fertilizing and food safety.
We also wanted to take a "lean manufacturing" approach to the shop and yard and created a new policy "create a place for everything and put everything in its place". This has increased our efficiency for changing out implements and servicing equipment by at least 10%. We also changed the way we service our equipment. For example, we moved to synthetic oil that is 25% more expensive but has twice the life. We also changed the way we purchased fuel by incorporating a 10,000 gallon storage tank in order to handle a semi load of product. This along with asking our fuel supplier to extend our terms has led to roughly a 10% reduction in fuel costs. Our communications was all push-to-talk with a heavy price tag, so we sourced a superior communication option at 1/3 of the cost. All of these significant changes and improvements led to savings of over $100,000 a year for MK Farms.
Recently, I have been given the responsibility of handling the marketing for MK farms. This responsibility was directed to me after the results of our personal marketing success of commodities for Fifth Generation Farms. This entails creating and executing contracts, buying and selling options, statistical analysis, and extensive market research. Forward contracting allows us to ensure the potential for profit before we ever plant a seed. This makes working with our bank easier regardless of our cropping decisions.
I was also able to implement “no-till cotton” at MK Farms. This has led to further “no till” crops into our operation and reduced fuel, labor, and water cost. To further enhance our efficiency, Jessica and I purchased some tillage equipment that allows us to till the soil in a vertical manner not to disrupt the plane of the land. We have started to grow most of our crops in the flat rather than the furrow. This is single handedly the biggest cost savings we have experienced. We have reduced our tillage costs by up to $100 per acre and have reduced our water usage by up to 40%. Tillage and water are two of our top five expenses in agriculture. After thorough audits of both companies which led to the actions mentioned above, we are confident about our well-being going into uncertain market conditions.
In order to constantly improve, we strongly believe in continued education and strong relationships with industry related organizations. That is why we have established great relationships with Farm Bureau and Cooperative Extension, both of our irrigation districts and with many other local producers and businesses.
Why are you a farm bureau member? Because Farm Bureau is engaged, very much like Jessica and I are with the business. We both plan on expanding our roles in the Farm Bureau. I intend to increase my leadership roles in county and state Farm Bureaus and Jessica plans on becoming more actively involved in the Women's Leadership Program and Ag in the Classroom. She is very actively engaged in our operation and has a passion for what we do. This passion combined with her love for children and education has opened her mind to what and how she can make a difference and bring awareness to children who do not understand where their safe food comes from. I have been involved in Farm Bureau for almost five years and current leadership is in support of me seeking more leadership roles. I am honored and excited at this opportunity and look forward to making an impact on the Farm Bureau and agriculture.
I am also planning on expanding my responsibilities within the agricultural community, and in organizations like the Cotton Growers Association and the local public power utility in my state. I would also like to become more engaged in the Grain Promotion Council, research and development of technologies with Universities in regards to seed, herbicide, and pesticide development.
Over the next five years, we want to be strong supporters of our community and agriculture because we are blessed to have the responsibilities given to us to provide and give back to others.
How will the next generation of farmers have to operate?
We have to take advantage of technology advances in both production and information technology. But, we have to learn from the past and we have to be present in the present; be aware of what’s going on around you in the business environment. Also, we have to think about the future, the family farm’s future. The biggest challenge in a family business, is working with your family. Since we decided to go back to the farm, we have had some ups and downs but after five years, we are still working together.
Regarding family farming, we have plans of growing our operation to over 3,000 acres, based on a strategic succession plan in place between MK Farms and our farm. However we also plan on acquiring other land currently outside of our operation through relationships and our continued best management practices, we learned at the YF&R Leadership Conference in 2013 how important succession planning is on family farms.