Stress can take a lot of the fun out of farming over a 30-year career. That’s why every family farm needs a shot in the arm every now and then — a rejuvenation of sorts, to make things interesting again.
The pick-me-up for the Fincher family farm began in late 2007, with Hunter Fincher’s decision to return to his Alamo, Tenn., farm to work with his father, Henry.
Earlier that spring, the younger Fincher had graduated from Crockett County High School and entered the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s pre-medical program, much to the delight of his parents.
But after one semester, he had changed his mind. Some of it had to do with him figuring out that a medical career was not for him. But a lot had to do with the fact that it didn’t rain much in west Tennessee that summer, which had put his father’s dryland cotton farm in dire financial straits.
Average yields were off 344 pounds from the previous year across west Tennessee, and cotton prices were hovering around the cost of production. Henry was wondering if he would ever farm again.
A concerned Hunter left UT, moved to a college closer to home, changed his major and pitched in after school and during the summers to help his father put 2007 behind him. When he graduated from Middle Tennessee State University this May, he committed to becoming a partner in the operation.
Hunter’s return to the farm is paying off for the farm, and best of all, it’s made farming fun again.
On a recent morning, the Finchers sat in their farm shop office, with rain and hail beating an all too familiar refrain on the roof. But neither seemed too worried about the excessive rainfall this June has brought to the area. “Our other partner is God,” Henry said. “We could not do it without Him. We get up every day believing that we’re going to be taken care of. We have to do our part and not worry about the rest. We let Him take care of that.”
The family farms about 3,200 acres of cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans and is related to the family of Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee’s eighth congressional district. “We’re proud of him,” Henry says. “He’s tried to fulfill all his promises, even though he’s stepped into a bit of a hornet’s nest.”
Hunter, 22, has known little else but the farming life. As a child, he spent hours in tractor cabs with his father, and learned how to drive hauling water around the farm. In the seventh grade, he started cutting stalks after harvest. Soon he was running the module builder and sprayers.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to farm because it was what my father did.”
When Hunter graduated from high school, his father discouraged his son from farming for a living. “Input costs have increased so much,” Henry said. “We were risking, and we still are, everything we have every year. I told him he had the opportunity now to take a different road. I told him it was strictly up to him.”
Hunter took his advice. He was off to UT.
But when it stopped raining in west Tennessee in 2007, crops shriveled, profits shrank, and young Fincher transferred from UT-Knoxville to UT-Martin, “to be closer to home. UT-Martin is also a really good ag school.”
For his sophomore through senior years, he transferred from UT-Martin to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and earned a degree in agricultural business in May 2011. The day after graduation, he was disking fields on the family farm. His mother, Brenda, a college professor, was happy to see her son earn a degree. For Henry, having his son on the farm for good was like a breath of fresh air.
Today, father and son take a team approach to farming, trusting each other to make good decisions, and recognizing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
For example, Hunter was able to use knowledge gleaned from college and growing up around computers to take over the farm’s record-keeping and precision agriculture program. That is okay with his father. “Computers are fun to look at, but they don’t like me,” Henry said. “I can walk into a room and shut one down. Hunter likes that kind of stuff. He’s takes care of that, the record books and updating everything.”
“Daddy is real good at growing crops and taking care of crops,” Hunter said. “I can definitely learn from him. But the computer was something I could come in and take charge of and really run with it.”
College had also gotten Hunter interested in the commodity markets. He watches the markets closely and uses forward contracting, along with put and call options to hedge prices. “I got really determined that I was going to figure it out,” Hunter said. “I’m not sure I can now, but I’m still learning.”
While Henry admits he has a little trouble “writing the check,” when it comes to marketing, he has little doubt about his son’s contribution.
“All winter and spring, I send him detailed financial reports from the end of the year,” Henry said. “On the commodity side, he sets a breakeven price, figures out how many acres of what crop we need to plant and the price we need to get for it. My way had always been to go out there, plant it and take what they give you for it.”
“We set a goal for ourselves on what we want for our average price,” Hunter said. “When we realize we can get to our objective price by averaging our prices together, we go for it.”
Hunter also computes how many acres are required to cover input costs, “and we cover that much. The rest we can market. That helped out. Last year, we got into doing calls and put options.”
After 2007, the Finchers diversified their operation to include more grain. Using contracts to move and market grain instead of grain bins and baggers can make life on the farm a little easier.
For example, while bagging wheat at harvest one year, a bag broke open, which meant they had to scoop all the wheat out of the bag. “It was 100 degrees and we got in the bag and scooped for hours,” Hunter said. “I came home at the end of that day thinking I wanted to do something different. The next morning, I was ready to work again.”
While Hunter believes he made the right decision to go to college and study agriculture, he remains fully supportive of friends who’ve made different decisions. “Some didn’t go to college and have done very well. There are a lot of different ways to do it.”
Henry is just happy to have his son on the farm. “I started out with a John Deere 4020 tractor, a four-row piece of equipment and was working 600 acres by myself. I picked cotton for 28 straight days. But I loved it. I loved to get up and go to work. But lately, it had gotten to the point where I didn’t enjoy it anymore. It seems like everything is out of proportion.
“When Hunter started showing an interest in it, it made me feel better about it. There’s nothing better than working with your son.”
“I like the idea of being with the family and being outside every day,” Hunter said. “It’s kind of like a Southern thing, growing cotton, being a part of the history of the South. I guess the older you get, the more it can get to be a headache. But I don’t want anything to ever take the fun out of farming.”