Organic Broadcaster

Paul Bickford (right) is teaching John Wepking (pictured with his son, Henry) how to farm at a larger scale. The two farmers are on a unique path to ensure the long-term viability of Bickford’s farm.

Longtime farmer hires young couple as employees with eye to succession

By Jody Padgham

Paul Bickford has come to terms with the fact that farming involves risks. Sometimes big risks.

Bickford, of Bickford Organics in Ridgeway, Wis., took a big risk with his dad in installing a high-tech milking parlor for 300 cows in the 1970s. Another when converting to intensively grazed pasture for 750 cows in the 1990s. And, again when converting to organic row crops after problems with stray voltage in 2011.

“I’m not afraid of change,” Bickford noted in a recent discussion. He pointed out that often change is forced by economics or external factors. “If you’re not making it with what you’ve got, you have the option of going broke for sure, or trying something new,” he said. He’s OK with the risk and work of trying something new. Not every farmer is.

Soon turning 65 years old, Bickford is in the beginning stages of another big change: partnership with a young couple, John and Halee Wepking, who may eventually become owners in his 950-acre operation.

“I’m of the age where I want to slow down, work towards getting out,” Bickford explained. But, he also emphasized his eagerness to pass on what he knows to someone who would value it. “I learned from the school of hard knocks, made plenty of mistakes. I’m not sure that what I know will be useful in the next life.”

Farm transition is a complex undertaking, particularly for owners without an obvious heir who is up to the task. Millions of hours and dollars go into building and maintaining a successful farm operation. Bickford decided he’d approach transition by first finding the right person to step into the business as an employee, and see where things could go. He scouted around a little in the organic community, but found what he needed through a simple ad posted online on Craigslist.

Here’s the base of what he posted:

“I am seeking a forward-thinking individual or couple to join my 950-acre organic farming operation to assist in all facets of growing feed crops and to assist in marketing of corn, soybeans, small grains and hay….

Ethics and trust are a cornerstone of organic farming and are important to my operation. I want to share my 40 years of farm experience with someone who is willing to work to improve my farm. This position could evolve into a partnership or other long-range business association.”

Several people contacted Bickford in response to his ad. Many had no farming experience, several weren’t a fit for the farm’s scale. Plenty offered idealism rather than on-the-ground knowledge. And some just didn’t have the right attitude. “You can teach about equipment and production, but you can’t teach nice,” Bickford claimed. “Farming is a very tough, risky business. You have to work harder than anyone else in your class, and be really smart. Only the best employee on a farm will be offered the opportunity to invest.”

Not long after the ad was posted, John and Halee Wepking saw it and applied. The couple was living in a newly purchased home an hour west in Lancaster, Wis., where they were operating a farm-to-table breakfast and lunch cafe, as well as working on John’s family’s 200-acre farm, expecting their first child, and exploring their dreams of working in agriculture.

The Wepkings’ path to agriculture was not direct. John spent his early childhood years on or around the Lancaster farm; Halee grew up in northern Arizona. They met while in New York City, where each had migrated to jobs in the restaurant and baking industry, after advanced college backgrounds that prepared them for other roles. They came back to Lancaster because John “couldn’t see working in a cubicle” the rest of his life. Their experience in the food industry was leading them back to agriculture.

Bickford and the Wepkings started discussions about what was needed for the partnership to succeed. Bickford admired John’s early farm experience, knowledge of computers, his organizational sense, and his positive attitude.

The Wepkings were at first a little cowed by the scale of Bickford’s operation. Moving from 200 acres of beef to 900+ acres of row crops was intimidating. John was a little shaky about his mechanical skills. They’d just bought a house, and were hoping to stay amidst family, even if working on the home operation was a continual challenge due to extended family dynamics.

But, the young couple brought a diverse set of skills, and an enthusiasm for the entrepreneurism Bickford felt was needed to move the farm to the next level. John was soon hired and the learning began.

Bickford has always invested back into the operation, and his multi-million-dollar farm was highly leveraged when Wepking came on as an employee in 2014. The Wepkings had no equity to bring to the operation. But, John brought great ideas, good connections in the restaurant and baking industries, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

The team sees their ideas and partnership as a mechanism to build equity and develop a viable business to make payments toward a farm transfer. “We started by looking at the end goal and are now discussing things we can do to get there. It will certainly include value-added,” Bickford explained.

The team worked together to upgrade an older house for the young couple, with Bickford contributing funds and Wepkings putting in sweat equity. “This will be recognized when we get to the point of a valuation,” Bickford claimed.

The Wepkings purchased a small beef herd with a $50,000 FSA Microloan, and are utilizing marginal land and other forage that otherwise would not be used. As the herd grows, income will be available for equity investments.

Capitalizing on the Wepkings’ connections and interests, production has expanded to food-grade small grains with a local market focus, which the team sees as having huge potential. They have purchased grain storage bins, and plan to invest in a grain cleaning and processing facility as well as a small flour mill. “John has lots going on,” Bickford said with admiration. They have adopted the name “Meadowlark Organics” for the labeled milled products, but keep the name “Bickford Organics” for the farm.

Bickford and John Wepking are quick to point out that their partnership is a work in progress. They haven’t had time to create the legal framework yet, but together have a clear vision of where their partnership is heading. They discuss things as they come up, making decisions as they go. They seem to get on very well. “It is in both our interests for this to work out,” Bickford claimed. “I want out and John wants in. If we work together, and succeed, we’ll both get what we want.”

“The farm would have no real direction without John’s input,” Bickford said. “He has a real opportunity to make a huge impact on the local flour and baking industry, as well as in land conservation. This could all be wildly successful.” But, he also admits that he has had to invest a lot in new equipment, and if the Wepkings decide to bail, he’ll be sitting on a lot of stuff that he doesn’t want to run.

Wepking chimed in that it has taken him a while to embrace the concept of larger-scale farming. “At first I was a little embarrassed to tell people that I worked on such a big farm,” he said. “But now I understand the value of farming at a larger scale—the conservation benefits, the presence in the community. I’m really proud now.”

Both farmers are thrilled with their so-far successful partnership, but know the road is not easy for those looking to transition on or off a farm. The economics work against it, they agree. They hope that they can manage this transition in a way that can be a model for others, but agree that they’re not there yet. Several more years of decisions and investments must be made.

The pair was a part of the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program, and see opportunities like that where new farmers can learn directly from established farmers as critical to success. “More aspiring farmers need to quit thinking about buying land and think instead about getting a farm job,” Wepking stated. “We need more young butts in tractor seats to learn. Skills access is critical.”

But, Bickford pointed out, not every established farmer makes a good mentor. “There are a lot of farmers stuck in their ways. There needs to be a certain mentality, a graciousness, for it to work.” And, he said, a giving up of decade-old habits of decision-making.

“We are both committed to doing what we can for this to work,” Bickford said. “It isn’t a success story yet, but it is a good work in progress.”

Jody Padgham writes from her 60-acre grass-based farm in North Central Wisconsin.


From the January | February 2018 Issue

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