In the agriculture industry, farm managers play an important, yet often understated, role in the constantly changing landscape. As the intermediator between landowners and farmers, farm managers provide vital services for all parties involved, including but not limited to determining correct lease type, purchasing insurance, marketing grain, accounting, and purchasing inputs from suppliers. Just like the farmers they work with and landowners they represent, a farm manager’s work is never done.
Here to discuss the day to day operations and challenges of being a farm manager, as well as why this is a bountiful career, is Sam Zach of Hertz Farm Management in Norfolk, Nebraska.
How did you get involved in farm management?
I became an intern for the Hertz Nebraska offices for the summer of 2016. It was a very good experience getting to know more about farm management and Hertz in general, they liked me, and I liked them, and that led to a job which I am doing now.
What made you want to continue pursuing farm management as a career?
I liked the people I continued to meet, I wasn’t very familiar with farm management and the industry until I was introduced to it, so after doing some more research and talking to other people there were a few key points that made me want to give it a try. One, being the variety of work a farm manager does- nearly every day is different. The second being it isn’t all the time spent in the office. Depending on the season, and primarily in the summer, I get to go check fields and visit with farmers and lenders quite a bit, and I really enjoy that. It also gave me the opportunity to participate in the ag industry when I didn’t have a family farm to go back to.
What does the day to day of a farm manager look like?
Nearly every day is a little different. As a farm manager, I manage farm ground primarily for landowners who do not farm the ground. A farm manager represents landowners in a variety of tasks including finding somebody to farm their ground, determining the correct lease type, negotiating the rent level if it is a cash rent ground, marketing the owners share of grain if it is a crop share farm, purchasing crop insurance, purchasing property insurance, signing up for government programs, keeping track of finances for the farm for record-keeping and tax purpose, and a wide variety of tasks you can’t predict, but just happen day to day.
The day to day of a farm manager really depends on the time year. During the spring it is a lot of planning for the upcoming crop year, during the summer it is monitoring the growing crop, starting to market the grain for fall, making decisions on herbicide, insecticide applications. During the fall helping coordinate harvest and delivery, selling grain, then late fall-early winter, before the end of the year, purchasing inputs taking advantage of discounts on seed and fertilizer. Then after the first of the year, we’ll do a farm report on how the farm did the previous year that summarizes the finances for the landowners’ taxes and then it rolls into the next year’s crop. Spring and fall might be when some farm improvement projects take place, like installing drainage tile, adding or removing terraces, trees, cleaning up fence rows, that kind of stuff.
What is the biggest challenge of being a farm manager?
We continue to face things out of our control, similar to the challenges that a farmer faces- weather, pests, insects, freeze, etc. You don’t know what is going to come so always having to react and trying to plan best for those challenges can be an issue.
Farm managers can sometimes have a bad name with farmers because they think we only represent the landowner side and we are out to get the most out of the farmers, get the highest rent and tell them what to do, but that really is not the case. Most of the time we are not committed to one seed company or one fertilizer company, if the farmer is comfortable doing something and they have figured out a system over the years, we will let them continue doing that and try to not get in their way. If we see a room for improvement or a discussion, we will talk to them, but we aren’t out there telling them the exact seed types to plant and the exact fertilizer to use, it is a 2-way relationship.
How does one go about becoming a farm manager?
To manage properties in the United States, a person must have a real estate license in the state they are managing the properties. I myself, in Nebraska, started out with a Nebraska real estate salesperson license- there are 2 levels and that is the lower level. This past spring, I moved up to Brokers license which allows me to be an office manager and manage a branch office of a company. Industry-wide, that is the only consistent requirement. Here at Hertz, we require having a 4-year college degree and we prefer someone to have a background in agriculture.
There are also organizations within the farm management industry which allows a person to take more courses and learn more and continue to improve as a farm manager.
Why do you think farm management is a good career?
The variety, you’re not doing the same thing day after day and you’re not always confined to an office- you get to get out and see the countryside. That’s one of my favorite things, getting to drive across the state or to other states to see the properties that I manage. Another thing I enjoy is the variety of people I get to work with. From the landowners to the tenants to the different vendors we buy and sell goods with- people in agriculture are top-notch, so it is always fun conversing with them. Then the ability and opportunity to participate in producing food to feed the world all while optimizing the farmland to make sure you are getting the most out of the ground and producing the crop in a sustainable way so we can do this for years to come.
What opportunities are there for young people to enter this career?
On one end you see quite a few farm managers who have been doing this for a long time, which speaks well to the industry, people like what they do and they want to stick with it, but it also says there will be quite a few farm managers retiring over the next 10 years so there is an opportunity there to replace those going out the door. Another potential is if a young person wants to go back to the family farm, but maybe the family farm can’t sustain another person full time so maybe there is an opportunity for that person to work as a farm manager and then either farm on the weekends or work out something with their employer as a part-time status during the spring or fall, just so they can still be involved in the farm but have a reliable source of income, especially in hard years like recent ones where crop prices have been lower.
How do you recommend young people prepare to get into this field?
A person doesn’t have to be an expert on any one single topic in agriculture, it is better to have a general knowledge on a lot of topics, then build your network so as you have questions or need specific expert advice, you have someone to call. It is not possible to know everything about everything, so knowing a diverse group of people goes a long way. That is a good place to start as well as seeking out a general knowledge of agriculture and farming. If someone is really serious, they can start studying real estate classes, as that would be the next step to becoming a farm manager.
Sam Zach is a Farm Manager and Real Estate Broker for Hertz Farm Management, Inc. in Norfolk, NE. Sam grew up on a farm near Humphrey, NE and attended college at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. If you would like to reach out to him his email address is SamZ@Hertz.ag and his office phone number is 402-371-9336.