Candid Conversation with LaRue County Farmer Caleb Ragland

Posted on Apr 6, 2021
Caleb and Leanne Ragland and their three boys on their farm in LaRue County. 

KFB Candid Conversation presents a discussion about the topical issues related to KFB priorities, the agricultural industry, and rural communities, in a question and answer format. In this column, LaRue County Farmer Caleb Ragland discusses last year’s crops, the new season about to begin, and some of the conservation practices that agriculture uses to help the environment. Caleb serves on the American Soybean Association Board and the Ragland family was named the 2020 KFB Young Farm Family winner and the 2021 American Farm Bureau Federation Achievement Award winners. 

The 2020 crop year saw record corn and soybean yields in Kentucky. Was that your experience on your farm like last year?

It was one of the better crops we'd ever had. I don't think it was the very top, but it was probably top on corn and beans. I planted almost all double crop beans, but they all averaged in the fifties, so that was pretty good. I had one about four years ago, we were in the sixties on our double crops, which was just unbelievable. But 2020 was a really good year. And coupled with the bump we had in prices; it was a real solid year financially, too. So that was good to see. We needed one like that.

Did any of that surprise you?

Well, honestly, an uptick in (grain) prices was more surprising than the yields. I felt like, as we got into July last year, we were in a pattern where the rains came at the right time, maybe even a little more than we really needed, but I knew we had the potential to have a really good crop despite being a little delayed in planting. It seems like we’ve been in a little different weather pattern where we live than we had several years ago. And we’ve really had eight pretty good crops in a row. It's been a blessing and it's really, I think, been favorable with some of the lower commodity prices we've experienced the last several years. At least we've had decent yields to kind of help pull through those declines in the market.

Do you think we’ve reached a new norm when it comes to crop yield and production?

I tend to think not. With advances in technology and biotechnology helping to get better genetics, and other technologies that help us lay seeds more accurately and control weeds better, I think yields will continue to increase. I feel there's still unlimited potential for yields to increase even on a large-scale production level. And while all of the technologies are great, we can still be reminded as farmers, how small we are. The good Lord still has to send the rain and sunshine, or we're not going to produce much of anything. We still have to have His hand in it. When the weather cooperates, it's really amazing what we can do. Kentucky has got some really good soil top to bottom and with good management and favorable weather, it's just amazing that we have the ability to grow 70 bushlsl an acre soybeans and 200 plus bushels per acre of corn. My Great-Grandpa would probably pinch himself if he saw that. He farmed with horses hoping to maybe make 30 bushels per acre on corn back when he was alive and farming. So, it's just amazing, in just a couple of generations, how much things have changed.

But with fewer farms, farm families have really had to learn to do more with less. What are your feelings about that?

The American farmer; the Kentucky farmer is just amazing in how we continued to learn how to do more with less. We're using our fertilizers more efficiently. We're leaving the environment cleaner and better than we ever have. We're using great conservation practices. We truly have a great story to tell with being sustainable and doing amazing things to be so efficient with the inputs we use and to really multiply our seed into a great crop. One of my favorite things about being a farmer is just how we can really take pride in doing a good thing for mankind, producing food that's going to feed folks and feed livestock, and make fuel. We're doing a good thing and I feel like we're doing it better than we ever have. And I think we will continue to do that moving forward. I think the future is bright, in my opinion.

There has been a lot of discussion about climate change and taking care of the environment. What is the message we need to be sending out about agricultural efforts to be environmentally sustainable?

We definitely need to be intentional about telling our story. We have nothing to hide. We are the original conservationists, and the original folks involved with sustainability. We were doing these things before it was the buzz word; before it was popular and as time has moved onward, we continue to do it better and better. No-till farming was invented in Kentucky and we are continuing to find ways to be innovative and we need to tell that story because a lot of the public thinks it's far different than what reality actually is. And in reality, those people need us. I also think there are great opportunities for us to partner with our friends in energy and make things better for everybody involved.

With more attention being placed on the good things happening in the world of biotechnology, do you think the time is right to try and communicate about GMOs again?

I think so. We've got find a way to show it as a positive thing and not something to be scared of. In our daily lives, there's lots of things that we use and take advantage of that use bioengineering and it's a part of our daily lives. But we've got to figure out practical examples and show people the safety of it. We have a long track record of safety. I think it's just the fact that the general public may not fully understand it. We just need to have a more thorough educational process and the more we can get actual facts out and be proactive with telling a positive story, the more comfort level folks are going to have. But people are going to make their choices and we support choices. We don't want to force anything that's genetically modified down people's throats, So give them the choice, give them the facts. We have nothing to hide anywhere. I think when you do that people are going to make wise choices and do what's best for them.

As a young farmer, you see the ups and downs on the farm every day. What would you tell other young farmers, or other people your age who want to come to the farm, about our ag industry today?

I think that there is great opportunity there. I also believe there's also great risks. To me, probably the most difficult barrier has got to be access to capital and getting started. As a row crop and livestock producer, the 15 or so years I've been farming, that has gotten much tougher even in that short period of time. You need access to a lot of capital to get started and operate on the scale you need to do to be competitive.

My advice to somebody with limited resources, maybe find a way to partner with a person that's on the back side of their career and provide labor and in turn get experience. Farmers, for the most part, really love what they do. It's more than an occupation, it's a way of life and it's a love. There's a lot of farmers that don't have the next generation coming on and we could probably do more to find ways to help facilitate those relationships.

I would also tell them to get educated, not just in ag, but in business. We are businesspeople more than ever. My grandfather was very successful with an eighth-grade education. He had a dairy in Hart County and when he passed away, he owned close to 400 acres and had money in the bank. But those days have passed, we've got to be sharp.

We’ve got to find ways to be innovative, to find niches, and to find competitive advantages so we can succeed. And I think a good business background is a necessity these days, no matter what kind of farming you're doing, whether it's large scale row crop production, operating a CSA, or if you have a farm market. There are a lot of ways you can find to add value to products you're producing, but you need to have that business mind in order to make it work. I would also tell them to be ready to work hard, be ready to learn to do more with less, and to keep your living expenses low. You’ve got to really want to do it, and have that love and passion for farming because it's not easy. It's not a get rich quick deal, but if you really want to do it, where there's a will there's a way.

What does the coming growing season look like for you?

In talking to my neighbors and folks I know in the industry, I felt like there's a little more optimism, than we've had in a while going into spring. I think everybody was in a little bit of a funk in 2020 from COVID and not being able to do a lot of things we're used to. We were still farming, but some of our other things we're normally involved in were changed. But I think there's just a little hint of extra optimism as we get to spring or get a crop planted. Folks who want it, are also starting to get the vaccine wanting to get back to normal, get out, and live life. So, I think we have lots to be excited about and I think the future is bright. I'm looking forward to it.