Story courtesy of BizCon
When we think of entrepreneurs, we often think of a coffee shop owner, a small manufacturer, or even a home-based business. Rarely do we think of a farmer as an entrepreneur, but to make a living in this long-time profession today, it is a necessity.
Craig Grabe knows this well. One of the fourth generation of Grabe farmers, it is in his blood. The Grabe farming legacy started in 1934 with Edward Grabe, who bought a farm on South Lakeview. It continued with his son Charlie Grabe, who started as a hog farmer, before transitioning into crops like soybeans and corn in the 1980s. Craig's father Michael followed in the family business, starting out harvesting seed corn on his own and eventually purchasing the family farm from his dad Charlie.
Craig remembers working on the farm even back to the hog farming days with his grandfather. "I was really little. I thought I was helping – I don't know if I was" he says with a chuckle. Over the years he helped his father out with the business, Grabe Farms, and is employed there today.Following their father's footsteps, both Craig and his brother Nathan have also started their own side business: "we bought a seed corn picker and we're getting into that" says Craig. The brothers are even hopeful that their small business may one day let them buy out their father the same way he was able to buy out his; "eventually I hope" he says with a laugh "I hope maybe one day we can get to that point."
In talking about farming with Craig, it's clear that being a successful small-town farmer is not just as simple as owning some land and raising some crops – the stereotype that may be seen in movies or TV shows. It is about being diversified.
Between Grabe Farms and the work that he and his brother do, Craig estimates they work 8,000 acres over the course of the year; but not all that land is owned or even controlled by the Grabes. They of course have land of their own where they will farm a mix of crops like seed corn, commercial corn, and soybeans. They will even occasionally rent out their land to farm crops like potatoes for other local farm businesses. Supplementing that is "custom work" where farmers will handle particular tasks like growing, de-tasseling, or harvesting for other farmers – especially big farming companies like Pioneer. "Where we have strived is the custom work" says Craig "a lot of the custom work seems to be steadier".
Working with others in the farming community is both critical and a way of life. Between farmers "there's comradery and a little competition too" says Craig. "You try and outgrow the other guy... it's more just, you know, bragging rights. But there is definitely comradery; you seem to help each other a lot. I've noticed that since I was little with area farmers." It is clearly something Craig feels is important as well; "I think watching other businesses succeed – I like seeing that. I try not to bad talk; I would rather we all get along and prosper."
This community of farming is an important advantage in an industry that is highly dependent on uncontrollable factors like the weather and perishable crops; "[business] is year-to-year, especially with our own crops" says Craig. This is compounded by large up front expenses in the form of farming machinery and irrigation systems as well as issues like a shrinking workforce.
It can be hard to get help these days, "especially in ag" says Craig "because not a lot of people have training in running tractors and stuff like that." Grabe farms has 6 employees including Craig himself, and will add 1-3 extra during busy seasons. With so much to do and a limited workforce, training new, inexperienced hires is difficult too; "you kind of give them a crash course in what we do" says Craig.
For Craig, farming is a way of life with both positives and negatives. Craig most enjoys "working outside, using my hands; it's a very physical job." On the other hand, farming can be a sacrifice too. While farming is seasonal, when they are busy they work a lot. "I don't like the hours we put in" says Craig "it is a lot of hours, a lot of time away from family." Despite this, Craig is excited about the future and being both a farmer and an entrepreneur. "It's kind of cool, my brother and I branching off…I've always wanted my own business growing up."