Minnesota farmer finds a way to pursue his passion

Jonathan Knutson
Forum News Service

BADGER, Minn. — Farming and ranching can be challenging, especially when commodity prices are poor and income is limited. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects U.S. net farm income this year will be about $70 billion, down from the record $123 billion in 2013.

With less money to be made on the farm, the need for off-farm jobs becomes increasingly important. Nearly two of three U.S. farmers work off the farm and 40% of all farmers work at least 200 days annually away from their farm, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

‘You need other income’

Jason Smith stands in a good-looking field of oats, which he hopes will yield as much as 160 bushels per acre. Like any farmer, he takes emotional satisfaction in a promising crop. And the possibility of a big yield offers potential profit from the field, even with poor commodity prices.

Smith has another reason to enjoy the field. In it, he’s spotted two deer, both bucks, and that holds special appeal to this farmer/agricultural banker who loves nature and the outdoors.

“I really like farming. Every day is different,” he said. “And you see some of the nicest sunrises and sunsets.”

Smith, 34, farms 600 acres of his own near Badger in northern Minnesota, as well as helping on a 7,000-acre farm that he worked on growing up. To supplement his farm income, and to secure invaluable health care insurance, he also holds a full-time position as vice president of Border State Bank’s location in nearby Roseau.

“With (only) 600 acres, you need other income,” and the company-provided medical insurance is a big help, too, Smith said.

The farming part of his dual career comes as naturally and easily as breathing. Smith started helping on the farm when he was 10, mowing grass and picking rocks by hand. He became an actual employee of the farm when he was 13 or 14.

“From the time I was a kid, I didn’t like going to the babysitter. I’d rather tag along with my dad to the field. I just enjoyed doing it. And I wanted to keep doing it as I got older,” Smith said.

Both Jason Smith and his father, Jay, now work for Brach Svoboda, a local farmer. Jay has worked for Svoboda for many years, and Jason, as a boy, frequently was with his dad.

“Jason was always close to his dad. Being on the farm so much (when he was young), it was love for the old man, love for ag,” Svoboda said. “He (Jason) had a sense of urgency to farm. He always had it since he was a little tyker.”

‘Kind of a joke’

Jason’s ag banking career is another matter.

“It started out as kind of a joke,” he said.

A Border State Bank official, whom Smith had known for years, asked if Jason, then a senior at the University of Minnesota Crookston, would be interested in joining the bank.

Smith, an ag business major who took quite a few agronomy courses, was skeptical.

“I thought there was no way I’d wear a suit and tie every day and sit in an office every day,” he said. But he had a formal job interview, “one thing led to another,” and Smith was offered the position during the week of college finals. He accepted and joined the bank in January 2007.

“The first year, there were times I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in it. But it’s been very valuable to me, seeing the business perspective (of ag,),” Smith said.

An ag banker needs an “understanding of the local market. Needs to realize what guys are going through,” he said.

He quit wearing a tie a few years ago and doesn’t wear a sports coat. “Dress pants, polo shirt or button-up shirt — I think they (bank clients) are more comfortable when you’re dressed normal,” he said.

Bank officials are cooperative in giving him time to farm, Smith said.

At harvest, “I’m in the office at 6 or 7 a.m. and stay until 10 a.m. Then off to combine,” he said. “August, September, October — I don’t spend a ton of time in the bank unless I’m not combining.”

‘A lot of competition’

Smith is raising hybrid winter rye, oats and soybeans this year. In his work with Svoboda, he helps to raise other crops, too.

He and Svoboda cooperate on farm equipment, to the benefit of both.

“I rent machinery from Brach. I’ve kind of lucked out. I’m slowly buying some of my own, which ties into his (Svoboda’s) own farm, and do custom work for him. I tried to pick assets that are good for me,” Smith said.

“We help each other back and forth,” Svoboda said. “Instead of buying a junk machine, he buys nice stuff and with custom work for me, he’s able to justify it. If you can help each other, it really goes a long way.”

Smith reinvests all his farming profits into his operation. “I’ve never pulled a dollar off the farm. One hundred percent goes back into the farm,” he said.

Smith’s top goal is getting enough land to support himself strictly as a farmer. He estimates he’d need about 2,500 acres, roughly four times more than he has now.

A number of farmers in his area are reaching the age where they could retire or phase out of ag in the next few years. That could create opportunities for Smith to expand.

“As land comes up, I will continue to try to buy it. But there’s a lot of competition,” he said.

Some of that competition may come from Smith’s clients at the bank. If so, “I will be straightforward. I will tell other guys I’m interested. Be up front with them,” he said.

Like area farmers in general, Smith will need above-average yields to turn a profit this year, given poor commodity prices. But his crops are faring well, thanks in part to just-in-time rains this summer, so he’s fairly upbeat.

Smith is certain of this: He wants to be a farming lifer.

“As long as everything goes good, I’ll do it (farm) until I’m dead. I can’t sit still. I can’t picture myself retiring,” he said.

Farming came naturally to Jason Smith, who supplements his agricultural income with a job at Border State Bank.