Often sporting his signature cut-off pearl snap shirt, Kelly Garrett is quick to throw his bald head back in laughter. When he’s not on his Crawford County, Iowa, farm, Garrett can be found confidently passing along his wealth of advice to fellow farmers. He shares his knowledge and endless curiosity through XtremeAg, where Garrett is a leader, as well as in blogs on Agriculture.com.
It hasn’t always been this way. Garrett sat down with Successful Farming to reflect how far he’s come from his start as a college dropout and scared young farmer.
SF: Did you always want to farm?
KG: I always wanted to be a farmer like my dad. I graduated high school in 1993 and went to college with the intent of going to the board of trade or a bank. At that time, I didn’t feel that the opportunity to come back to the farm was going to be there. I actually quit school after three semesters and started working construction. I did not want to be indoors. I stayed in Ames because my wife, Amber, was in school. Then the opportunity came up to rent a farm at home, and I jumped at the chance.
SF: So you dropped out of college?
KG: I wonder if I tried to educate myself and pay attention when I was young like I do now if I’d be farther ahead. At the time, it just wasn’t interesting to me. I think so outside the box that being inside that classroom wasn’t for me.
When I proposed to Amber, I said the caveat was that I was moving home to farm. She still said yes.
I think it’s important to live away for a time. It allows that dynamic to change so people don’t look at you like they did when you were 12 years old. It gives you time to grow into your own person.
We came home to farm and lived less than two miles away from where I grew up in my grandparents’ best friend’s house. We were so fortunate to get that house. We were going to wait five years to have kids, and she got pregnant right away with Connor. We didn’t have any money. She was working full-time and I was starting to farm. Then when she had Connor, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.
I was scared to fail. I shingled. I built decks. I poured cement. I did that for about three years until we got our feet underneath us. The farm was able to support us at that point, but there was no extra money at all.
SF: Now that you’re a dad, do you think differently about farming?
KG: Absolutely! I have three sons. They’re 23, 22, and 19. Connor, Colin, and Cael. All of them are on the farm. Colin is still in college, but they’ll all be on the farm. I think my dad and I feel like we won the lottery that they all chose to come back. My most important job is to allow them each to have their own spot and not step on each other’s toes.
I look at some other situations and it seems like all the siblings try to fill the same role. That’s when the struggles can come in getting along.
Mom and Dad allowed Amber and me to be partners and gave us an opportunity, but we had to pay our own way. We learned the value of a dollar, work ethic, and commitment. I try to do that with my sons. I don’t want to make it too hard that this life is no good, but I don’t want to make it too easy that they don’t understand the value of things or grow into that role.
SF: What does it take to make space for each of them?
KG: Connor was an agronomy major in college. He is very much into the technology on the planter, on the combine, on the anhydrous bar, and variable-rate technology.
Colin, the next one, is an animal science major. He’s very much into the meat business, and he likes the cows. That retail beef business, he’s very excited about that.
Cael, at 19, is into the cows, running machinery, and the general farm experience like I was.
There’s the trucking business that compliments the farm, and Connor and Cael help out with that as well. We have a large enough operation that there’s room for everybody.
SF: No matter the farm size, working with family takes communication. How do you handle that?
KG: We’re together a lot, so making sure everybody is communicating and understands what everybody has going on is a very high priority. There’s no excuse not to communicate with cell phones and the technology we have now. It’s very important to keep morale high and everybody going in the same direction.
SF: What lessons for bringing your sons back have you learned from watching other folks?
KG: Allow them to make decisions. A lot of times you hear about a 60-year-old guy finally getting to run the planter or make financial decisions for the first time. I very much want to bring them in on all those decisions. I offer guidance, but I want to give them some ownership. I want to have a diverse enough operation that they can spread out and all have their own space.
SF: Tell me how you diversified with the beef business.
KG: I was always kind of interested in it. I think COVID changed the world and people want to know where their food is coming from. I feel that we do a good job raising our beef, and so do all of our neighbors that have cattle. But the entrepreneur in me felt like there was an opportunity to do this and capture more of the dollars and become vertically integrated. We take the animal all the way from birth to your plate. We’re all very excited and passionate about the idea and proud of the brand we are trying to develop. When COVID changed things, we decided to pull the trigger and go for it.
SF: What lessons did you have to learn to get started?
KG: There’s the education of all the different cuts of meat that are available. Then trying to figure out how to ship it inexpensively. Using the website has been a challenge.
Finding processing space was hard because it’s just such a limited supply. Where we’re at now is the third processor that we visited with. It was very nerve-racking when it didn’t work out with the first two. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to accomplish this. But things happen for a reason and I couldn’t be happier with Paradise Locker Meats.
SF: You have an entrepreneurial spirit. What advice do you have for people who may have a business idea themselves?
KG: Identify the opportunity. Obviously you want to make money at it, but is it something that you’re going to enjoy? The financial piece is a priority, but if it isn’t something that we will enjoy or we can accomplish efficiently, it’s probably not something we want to do.
SF: Between XtremeAg, the meat business, and your farm there’s so much going on. How do you manage it all?
KG: I always felt like a control freak, but I have learned to delegate. We have a great group of people. Besides my sons, there’s six core people that I call Seal Team Six because I feel like they would run through a brick wall for me. Without these people, we could not accomplish what we do.
SF: You’re in rural Iowa. How do you find and keep six good employees that you can trust?
KG: You have to grow into it together. A good person will make you more than a cheap person will save you. When you find a talented person, pay them enough to keep them. There will be a return on investment. Then, don’t micromanage that talented person. Recognize there are a hundred ways to skin a cat. If the talented employee wants to skin the cat just a little bit different than you, the end justifies the means. Let them do that.
SF: Is there a growing season that stands out?
KG: I would say the harvest of 2012 because of drought. The corn made 105 bpa [bushels per acre]. It turned out to be a profitable year because of crop insurance, but I relied too much on my agent. He did a great job, I’m still with him today, but it was scary for me not knowing. That’s when I started to educate myself more so I could have peace of mind and security. It’s really what propelled me to where I’m at today. I started seeking that education and have never stopped.
SF: Is that when you started connecting with peers for XtremeAg?
KG: Because of the drought, I educated myself more on the business side with crop insurance and things like that. It made me seek out drip irrigation. With that came the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) yield award. You could really say the drought, then drip irrigation, then the NCGA award is what led to XtremeAg.
SF: Tell me about the relationships you’ve built with the other XtremeAg farmers.
KG: We all come from such different geographic areas and the things that we learn from each other are huge.
Lee Lubbers, up in West River, South Dakota, is doing things with biologicals, plant growth regulators, things like that to keep a crop alive in that harsh environment.
I learn from the plant health that Matt Miles and Kevin Matthews have to go after because of the hot, humid summers in Arkansas and North Carolina. I learned about soybean desiccation from Matt.
Chad Henderson in Alabama has a drag car and mechanical expertise.
The things that you can learn from going into a different area and then bring back to your area make a huge difference. That’s the value in learning from one another. We really use XtremeAg as a peer group to bounce ideas.