Noblesville’s Woodward family explains the state of family farming in Hamilton County
As Rand Woodward exits his John Deere 8330 and walks across the field to greet a visitor, he picks up rocks as he goes. Hefty ones, modest ones – it doesn’t matter – they can all interfere with the planting of the soybean crop Woodward is putting in today.
This much has not changed since Woodward started farming 700 acres in Hamilton County 36 years ago.
Most everything else has.
The tractor seat Woodward just left is a much more comfortable version than the one he started out in, especially sitting inside a climate-controlled cab with communication radios, computer display screen and push-button ease with which to work implements. Covering 26.7 acres an hour at 5.5 miles per hour, the machine Woodward will spend 300 hours in this season steers itself via a GPS mapping system.
It’s a far cry from 1962 when Woodward rode on his father’s horse-drawn two-row planter, covering 10 acres per day, or even the open-seat tractor Woodward used in his early farming years – the noise from which has affected his hearing.
“There were nice tractors and advanced technology out when I started farming in 1976 if you could afford it,” recalls Woodward. “I could not. I planted with a six-row planter and had to go back and look to see what I had done. Today 32 rows go in at one time.”
It still takes money to farm, however, as Woodward estimates his costs at $750 per acre for corn and $450 per acre to plant soybeans, factoring in all expenses. What cannot be factored in is the worry that goes along with every crop, which Woodward says is a greater weight on him today than in previous years.
“I basically take $1 million and throw it in the dirt every spring,” declares Woodward, “and then I pray for timely rain and no bad weather. I’ve only had one perfect weather year in 36. Efficiency is up, but even so, last year yield was down due to weather.”
Weather is indeed still the biggest unknown in farming despite advances in predicting and monitoring to time planting, harvesting and everything in between. As he works this day, rain is predicted for the late afternoon and Woodward has mixed feelings about that.
“There are acres of newly planted corn needing that rain,” states Woodward, “and then these beans that need a little TLC. Too much rain initially can cause the muddy soil to seal the seeds underground and you have to go back and replant. Not enough rain delays crop emergence too.
“I don’t need to go to Vegas to gamble,” quips the father of two, “I take a chance every day. The ’80s and ’90s were terrible years. There was no money to be made and we lost a lot of farms. Now banks are happy to loan to farmers. It’s a good return.”
Woodward, who farms more acreage with less equipment (one tractor is 25 years old) than some, still gets about 250 acres planted in a day’s time, often with the help of his son, Austin, who comes home from his agriculture studies at Purdue University regularly to join his dad in the fields. This day, Austin drives seed containers (large containers have replaced bags) out to the field to refill the planter’s hopper. He too, tosses rocks to the edge of the field as he walks.
Unable to physically join in, but watching from the side of the field, as he does every work day, is Rand’s father, Paul, whose own father and grandfather each tilled the soil as well.
Now 86, Paul farmed at Whitcomb Ridge for 60 years. That area is now entirely developed. In fact, Woodward estimates that he, himself, has lost 7,000 farming acres to development since he began farming. Now a large part of his efforts go into simply finding and leasing land. And that is getting harder all the time, with a dozen farmers like him in central Hamilton County doing the same thing. In the ’70s, there were 200 farmers and plenty of land.
Austin’s studies at Purdue focus on making each precious acre more efficient, and he hopes to return to Hamilton County upon graduation and work with his father to increase productivity back at home. Technological advancement, next to land development, has been the greatest factor influencing the family farm, as yield increase and cost savings are the result of constant upgrades in equipment and practices.
“Farming isn’t rocket science,” notes Woodward with a smile toward Austin, “but they sure are trying to make it that way.” In his next breath Woodward concedes, “Little things make you the most money and can pay off big in the end.”
Says Austin, who helped Woodward test a newer, bigger tractor this spring, “Being up-to-date can improve savings and being more efficient can save seed and make sure every seed comes up so that nothing is wasted. More can also be done to use all of a crop’s products, not just the traditional ones.”
For a nation that loves to eat, America knows little about the farms and farmers that feed it. The family at Woodward Family Farms would like America – and Hamilton County in particular – to know that:
“Our farm operation is out here to do good. I treat all land as though it was mine and treat landowners well. We love and respect the land and the relationships we’ve built over the years.” – Rand Woodward
“Farming is hard work and long hours with a lot of risk. We love it, though. We love the outdoors and the tradition and heritage of the family farm.” – Debbie Woodward
“Many people don’t understand farming and may think farmers do nothing in the winter, but winter months are busy with equipment repairs and maintenance, field improvement and planning the crop to come.” – Ashley Woodward
“Farming gives you a view of a life others don’t see. The days and hours are long and sometimes you sleep in your tractor. I love it, though.” – Austin Woodward
“When you see a tractor on the road, pull over. It’s on its way out to a field to feed, clothe and enhance your life.” – The Woodward Family
Every member of the Woodward family has a stake in what happens in the fields each year. Long before Austin joined the family, Woodward’s wife Debbie worked alongside him and now plays a more supporting role – as well as teaching health and wellness for Noblesville Schools. Daughter Ashley, a Purdue grad, carries on the agricultural tradition as a marketing associate and show coordinator at Beck’s Hybrids in Atlanta, Ind.
All agree that the family farm is a hard-working, sometimes rocky, but wonderful place to be and they plan to be there a long time to come.
Adds Woodward, when asked about the possibility of retirement, “Why would I retire? I already get to do what I want to do every day. Isn’t that what retirement is? That’s what farming is, too.”