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Reflections on Farm Transitions with Marlin Hartzler

This week’s podcast is the second episode of our Farm Transition Planning Podcast Series. This is our first ever podcast takeover with Pennsylvania Farm Link, where we'll explore farm succession planning, business planning, and more. If you missed the first episode in the series, we encourage you to go back and take a listen to Guiding Families Through Transition with John Black.

Darlene Livingston, the executive director of PA Farm Link and operator of a livestock and crop farm in Indiana County, will be our host for the series. Today's guest is Marlin Hartzler, a crop and hog farmer in Belleville, Pennsylvania. Marlin will discuss his journey in farming and the transition along the way. For the full podcast, click here:

 

Can you tell our listeners about yourself and your farm? When did you start farming? Please walk us through a timeline of your farm business from then until now.
I am a fourth-generation dairy farmer, but I am not a dairy farm anymore. I started farming in 2008. I bought my farm from my grandfather, and we started milking cows in 2008. From 2008 to 2010, we were farming the way grandpa did. In 2011, we took the AgBiz Master's Class, which was a turning point in our operation. We worked with Farm Credit from 2010 to 2016, and then we sold the cows. Those years were very fundamental and there was a lot of financial foundation in those six years. I can't quite stress that enough. Then we sold the cows in February 2016. I got an off-farm job and raised dairy heifers until we got our hog barn built. We populated our hog barn in November of 2018, and we started with finisher hogs. We did finisher hogs from 2018 until January of 2020. Then we switched over to nursery pigs, and we've been doing nursery pigs from January of 2020 to present.

You mentioned the transition from your grandfather when you bought the farm in 2008. Why did you want to take over the farm and what were your greatest hopes and fears at that time?
I feel like I was very naive going into the transition. It might sound odd to say this, but my ambition at the time was to carry on the family tradition. There wasn't a lot of forethought on my part as to taking on a business. Is the business going to fail? Is it going to make it? To my detriment, those things were not really on my radar at that point. They came bubbling to the surface between 2008 and 2010, when we realized that this is not working. I didn’t have a lot of fears going into it, but they came shortly after the realization that this is not working. We needed to do something different.

You've also gone through a transition of farm enterprise from dairy to hogs, which I'm sure was not an easy decision. Tell us about that transition. How you came to come to that conclusion, and why was important for the future of the farm?

We realized, soon after we started, that things were not going well. We decided to get Farm Credit involved and we worked with them for six years on our dairy operation. Through those six years, we implemented a lot of changes. We played catch up financially. We had dug ourselves in a hole and it was not pretty. Farm Credit was great with helping us benchmark against ourselves going forward. This helped us to understand how we were doing. We had enough history on the books that we saw that the dairy we had was not working financially. We could see it for what it was. We could look at the numbers since we'd been keeping the records for six years. This is what we have and it's going nowhere. We were at the point where we needed to up our cow numbers. We needed to expand. We needed more income. The income was just not there.

We started looking at other options. Could we still be dairy farming today? Probably. We would've had to supplement our income. We would've had to get off farm income. My wife would’ve had to start working. Our vision at that point was a family unit on the farm working together. Those options did not really fit our vision at that point, and so we were looking for something that we could do on farm that would be a complete income that would be a way forward for the family farm.

Sometimes we don't realize all the benefits of a change or transition until a few years go by. What benefits have you seen now that a few years have passed with your change from dairy to the swine operation?
The number one benefit we have seen is the financial aspect. It works out on paper. At the end of the month, everything pans out with the bills. That's the main benefit. It's still a livestock operation, so you're tied to it, but there is more flexibility. There's more family time. You can plan family events and vacations, which I'm finding is important for a farmer. A lot of farmers think vacation is extravagant, but it's not. I'll just put that little plug in there. One of the other benefits was that we were the first hog operation locally, so we were able to educate people on the hog business. There was very little knowledge of hogs locally, so we were able to calm people's fears and explain to them how it worked. I’m not sure if you call that a benefit or not, but that was one thing that we could do. If we were still dairy, we wouldn't have had that opportunity.

Looking back, is there anything you would've done differently during your farming career? If so, what would that impact have been on your farm business?
We should have known what we were getting into. We should have had some financial training, because running a business is big. Although farming is a lifestyle, it's also a business. Recognizing the business aspect of it and knowing what we were getting into would have helped. That part, we completely missed. 2008 to 2012 were the worst years. I think we could have eliminated those years if we would've had more financial knowledge going into the business when we started. Having said that, the school of hard knocks is a good teacher. I do not want to relive those years, but they have taught us what we know and got us to where we are today.

As part of our podcast series, we're asking all our guests a sign-off question. What is one piece of advice farm families should remember while embarking on a family farm transition?
I have two things in mind. The first is to get hands-on off farm experience with working with another business or another farm. I think off farm experience is crucial to bring back to the table. If you can include financial training in that through something like AgBiz Masters or some other financial classes, it can help you to prepare. It can also help to work off farm to get a bigger perspective for what you're trying to do back on the farm. My second thing is relationships. If you don't have a good relationship with family when you start the transition, you certainly won't when you're done. Good relationships go a long way in smoothing out the bumps. Not everything is going to get done right every time, and good relationships go a long way at covering up some of those blunders. Relationships also help with being able to move on successfully for both generations. That would be my two cents there.

We appreciate you listening and learning along with us here today. Marlin's reflections on transition in his business, both taking over from his grandfather and the transit from dairy to hogs, serve as a reminder to all of us that businesses change and evolve. While you might not be 100% prepared for what to expect in a transition, surrounding yourself with good people to help you can go a long way. To learn more about the mission of Pennsylvania Farm Link, visit pafarmlink.org. If you are interested in learning more, join us next week for the final episode in the series, Legal Considerations in Farm Transitions with Jody Anderson Leighty of Stock & Leader.

 

 


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