WASHINGTON CH — Keith Montgomery never doubted for a minute when he was growing up what job he wanted when he became an adult. He was going to be a farmer.
The same can be said for both his sons, Wes and Kyle. It is a tradition passed on from many generations for this Fayette County farm family.
Keith’s grandfather, William Wesley Montgomery, came to Fayette County nearly a hundred years ago from Muskingum County and was the county’s first OSU Extension agent. He died in 1961 after 40 years serving as Extension agent.
William Barton Montgomery, his son and Keith’s father, is 89-years-old and says he has farmed “for more than 80 years.” Born in Fayette County, “I have lived in basically the same house for more than 80 years.”
The senior Montgomery says he is very proud of his farm family, son Keith and grandsons Wes and Kyle.
“I have friends who say that their family isn’t interested in farming, so the farm will probably be sold off, auctioned off.” He was pleased to know that his family’s farming tradition will continue, possibly on to his great-grandson, Wes’s infant son Wyle William.
William Montgomery says he started farming at a very young age.
“I remember that on Pearl Harbor Day, I was a freshman at Washington High School, and was already working on the farm. But after that, it was very hard to get any farm workers, everyone was going to work in the factories.” That meant he had a lot of work to do on his family’s farm without a lot of help.
What are the biggest changes he has seen over the years? “The GPS, technology and other mechanical improvements. I never would have dreamed of having such things to help on the farm as a GPS system.”
What would he tell people who haven’t farmed why he loves farming? “It is the connection to the land. To plant your grain in the spring and see it come up, and harvest in the fall. To do this with your family. The satisfaction of seeing the results of your labor,” he said.
Today? “I try to be active,” he laughed. He talked about working with his son on a drainage tile recently. “I guess you’d say I mostly oversee them,” he laughed.
When asked if he ever considered any other career than farming, he said that at one time he considered going into the insurance business. But the multiple generations of farming in his blood kept him on the farm.
He said his greatest pride is in his family.
Farm family grows
Sitting at his dining room table with sons Wes and Kyle before the start of planting season, Keith Montgomery talked about his family’s farming traditions. He said that his great-grandfather and previous generations began farming in Licking County. “There are at least five generations in farming. We have been in Fayette County since the 1930s. It’s a little flatter here,” Keith said.
“We consider ourselves the fourth generation,” said Keith’s younger son, Kyle.
Keith has been farming full-time except for a time when he was in college. When he started, they had about 100 acres. “We had a lot of livestock then. Sheep, ewes, cattle, hogs. But the livestock industry changed. You either went really big or you got out. We go out about 20 years ago.”
He and his father bought a couple of farms in the area and began to expand. “We’ve been mostly grain since then.”
The Montgomery family now has about 1,500 acres in mostly corn and soybeans. Keith’s father, William, may be approaching 90, “but he is in pretty good shape.
“I am the present and the boys are the future, as I wind it down. The boys are pretty much making all the decisions now. It is good that when they are young they can be making the decision, and not feel like they are just ‘working for dad.’ Everyone has different ideas. If you realize that the next generation will be making the decision you have to support the decisions,” Keith said.
“It makes us feel like we are invested in the farm,” son Wes added.
“Technology has changed so much, it has just left me behind,” Keith said.
“And we have grown up on the technology,” Wes pointed out.
Keith pointed out that all branches of the family have been involved in agriculture. He said his mother Laural’s father, Wilber H. Ford, was also an OSU County Extension Agent. He served in Highland County for many years.
When were the ‘good times?’
Does Keith think farming was better when he was young than today?
“It is different. It was heavy livestock and seven days a week. It is still busy, but you have some freedom now. Some parts are better then, some better now. Land competition is greater now than it was then. Everything looks better when you look back,” he said.
The worst time? “The 1980s, when I started. The interest rates killed me. I bought a farm with my dad, and interest rates were double digits. They were the toughest times. We didn’t have as many safety nets then. No crop insurance like we have now. Probably the best financial times was just a few years ago – the early 2000s.”
What has Keith enjoyed most about farming? “I always enjoyed when new animals were born, sort of a rebirth. I enjoyed when the corn comes up, spring. One of the best things was working with my dad and having my boys working beside me every day, and even today. To me that is worth the most – being with family is the best part.”
“I remember as a boy sitting on a five-gallon bucket in the combine,” added Kyle.
They all bemoaned raising hogs. “Nothing was as bad as that,” said Wes. “Raising hogs will make you lose your religion,” said Keith.
Keith was asked if he ever, as a teenager, thought about doing something other than farming? “Probably as a career, no. It’s just kind of been in the blood. I never had any other thoughts. All my friends farmed.” Keith was in FFA as a kid and attended Miami Trace schools.
Wes was asked the same question about careers. “I would say no, not really. I was pretty active in farming. I drove tractors ever since I was old enough, always wanted to help out on the farm. Even when I was at Wilmington College I would come back and help in the fall and spring.”
Kyle said, “I would say there was probably a couple of years back when I was in junior high. I didn’t know with all the uncertainty at the time whether or not I wanted to come back on the farm – whether it would support the three of us. I knew Wes wanted to come back on the farm. We were both active on the farm. By the time high school rolled around, I knew that if I could come back and make a living I would, because that is what I wanted to do.”
Neither Wes nor Kyle played sports while at Miami Trace. “Farming was my sport,” laughed Wes.
Keith said they have been blessed over the years with very good neighbors and that is important. “Our neighbors have always been helpful.”
What are the biggest challenges facing Ohio farmers each year? Keith agreed that it was the weather, plus prices. “Prices were pretty stable in the past. It is a world market now. Brazil is a major market, grain producer. Years ago they were just talking about grain in Brazil. So now if there are problems there, it has major impact on prices. Marketing? Just when you think you have it figured out… it comes back to bite you.”
“Soybeans for example,” added Wes. “We have probably lost 40 cents (a bushel) in about a week’s time. It’s a pretty big swing in a week. Today, there is so much more need to be business-like. More office work than in the past. More regulations.”
But Keith added that technology has helped a lot. “Fertilizer today applied based on the grids. Sprayers and planters can apply where needed. I never envisioned that when I was young. But there is so much paperwork today … so many regulations. One person can spend all day doing the books and paperwork.”
He also pointed out that price swings were not as big in the past. “Now it is nothing to see corn moving a dollar in price.”
This season the Montgomery family will be planting about 50-50 corn and soybeans “with maybe a little lean toward beans. Soybeans are 2-3 dollars cheaper in input costs,” Keith said.
Does he think they will have any problems selling their grains? “We’ve been pretty lucky here in Fayette County with the dog food plant and the ethanol plant. There is pretty strong basis of supply here – we are fortunate, along with the river for soybeans. We are on the eastern end of the corn belt, but there is still a lot of the demand.” Keith said the majority of their corn goes to the Bloomingburg plant.
This season and beyond
What do they see in the future of farming? For Keith’s grandson would he suggest farming?
“I don’t know if there will be fewer operators operating bigger farms. It is hard to see what will be in future. The consumers will dictate what they want in the future. For a young person today to try to start out at it without family, it is practically impossible,” Keith said.
“Today if you wanted to start out you need to have relatives or a retiring farmer who wants to help you start. It is almost impossible to start out with nothing. You would have to be fortunate to have neighbors, someone to help. It is so capital intensive, it is going to be tough,” Keith added.
“I would like to see my son in farming at this point in time,” said Wes. “You always want the next generation to take over. As far as technology, there are larger farms and fewer farmers. I also think there will be greater yields. It will be hard to believe. I see drones as part of the future.”
“I would have to agree with them,” said Kyle. “It will be hard to get a start without some way in. It’s not impossible, but you will need a way to get in the door. For the future, I think yields will definitely keep trending up. With farm size increasing, you don’t know where the limit will be. I do hope that we keep a lot of farmers in the community and it doesn’t fully consolidate. It is a concern about the future, we want the farms to remain in the family.”
“Yes, in Concord Township today you can basically count the number of farmers on one hand,” Keith pointed out.
“Family farming is an example of successful farming. In most farms today you would consider them family farms and not corporate farms, like more in livestock,” Wes added.
Is “success” for grain farmers all about getting maximum yield? “For some it is and some it isn’t. As you get older, for me, the most important thing is being with my family, my kids and grandkids,” said Keith.
Does he think in the future there will be 500 bushels an acre average for corn on their farm? “Maybe. You have to be fortunate with Mother Nature with water. If we are going to continue to feed the world we will have to do something.”
The big issues?
In 2017, what do the Montgomerys see as the big issues for their farm?
“Trade is probably the biggest issue,” said Keith. “If we get into a trade war, agriculture will be the biggest loser. That is the one thing the U.S. can grow as cheap or cheaper than anyone else. It is us and South America. If we get into trade disputes with our trade partners, that can really cause problems. With livestock, too. A trade war would effect the whole economy.”
“I have read that 80 percent of the soybeans grown in Ohio are exported,” Wes pointed out.
“There is also a lot of talk in the shift in acreage from corn to soybeans. Those predicting tend to lean more to soybeans and corn in the future,” said Kyle.
Are they worried about this year’s growing season?
“Every year is different. Generally with the weather this part of the state has been pretty blessed,” said Keith.
“There will definitely be tighter margins this year,” Wes pointed out. “Inputs have come down some. You have to be pretty sharp and keep a closer eye on the numbers and know what your break-even point is.”
Why they farm
Keith, Wes and Kyle Montgomery were all asked why they farm – how would they explain their choice to those who have never farmed?
“For me, every day is different than the day before. In the spring, you plan the crop out, you see it started, nurture it through its life and in the fall we reap the rewards. You then sit back, think about what we might change, and do it over the next year. Every time it will be different – some years we have too much rain, navigating all of the changes. That is what I enjoy,” said Wes.
“Coming out of Ohio’s cold winters in the spring … every year is a fresh start. Everything is measured in those years. Farmers can look back and tell you which years were good years, which years were bad. It’s like the drought of 2012, it will always be a year we remember. But every year can be remembered for something unique,” Kyle said.
“I enjoy raising crops and when we raised cattle there was nothing prettier than seeing all those cattle feeding. I guess some people like golf, sporting events – we farmers like seeing something grow and then the fruition of it. Not that it isn’t stressful. There is just so much more capital involved today. Real estate taxes have almost doubled in recent years,” said Keith.
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock 4.