Diversification Allows Seventh Generation Ottawa Farmer To Continue Family Tradition

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By Frank J. Buchman

“I’m changing gears. I’m hopping on this machine to get some more work done, but I have time to visit now.”

When one of the farm partners has to be gone on other agriculture business, it puts more work on the ones staying at home.

“It sure cuts into the days when Dad’s gone, but my wife is always anxious to help, yet she has a part time job. And, Grandpa is ready to help, too, if I need it, even though he’s retired, and I try not to bother him that much.

“But, I’m really glad to be able to be part of this family farming operation,” Mark Wray stated emphatically while continuing to work farm ground.

“Grandpa grew up farming. Dad grew up farming. I grew up farming. Grandpa told me I am the seventh generation of the Wray family in farming. I’m lucky number seven,” added the Ottawa farmer proudly.

“We don’t have any kids, yet, but hopefully we’ll have the eighth generation, too. Every farmer’s dream is to have a family member follow in his profession, and I’m fortunate to have this great opportunity,” Wray appreciated.

Wray Cattle & Grain LLC is officially the Franklin County family operation of grandpa Jack, dad John and son Mark, with his wife Lacey.

“We all individually own land, and then rent from the LLC, which limits our personal risk,” Mark Wray explained.

For clarification, an LLC (Limited Liability Company) is not a corporation, but rather a legal form of a company that provides limited liability to its owners in many jurisdictions.

“It’s almost an essential legality of life in agriculture today, but we are still a family operation at heart, and all work closely together,” Mark Wray adamantly clarified.

However, to make the family farm all come together as it is today, and looks to continue into generations, has taken some adjustments, diversifications and expansions from what it was when Mark Wray came back to Ottawa from college.

“I graduated from K-State, in May 2010, with a degree in agronomy, and minor in animal science, moved in with my parents, and started my own seed dealership, to be able to be part of the family farm,” related Wray, who coincidently turned 27, on the day his tight farm schedule loosened enough for a most congenial reflection of his life on the farm.

“I always wanted to be a part of the family operation, but there just wasn’t enough to support us all, without having an additional source of income,” he explained.

When a neighboring farm came on the market, Wray felt fortunate, and acquired it personally to help expand and diversify operations.

“This place with a nice home is just a mile from my parents, has excellent facilities and provided us more grain storage. The cards came together,  just worked out, so it has been a perfect fit for me to become more involved in farming,” Wray admitted.

While diversification was essential, it became more readily viable with the young farmer’s real estate acquisition.

“We’ve expanded the cattle operations, and since Lacey, a farm girl, and I got married two years ago this spring, we’ve pretty much been in charge of the cattle, even though everybody helps out when needed,” said Wray, noting the cattle facilities are at his parent’s place.

A former state FFA officer, and also a KSU grad, Lacey (George) grew up working closely in family cattle operations near Uniontown in Bourbon County, and is now an instrumental part of that phase of the Wray program, her husband credited.

“Lacey is very patient person, and helps a lot,” he added.

“But, when Dad’s gone, it still keeps us busy, with cattle coming in to process, and then  keeping a closer eye on them for the first few days, too,” continued Wray.

“Grandpa owns about half of the land, but he’s gotten out of the day-to-day operations. Still, he always helps with moving machinery, driving trucks during harvest, whenever we need help, Grandpa does a good job, and we appreciate him,” Wray recognized.

While Jack Wray grew up on a farm, the present land holdings have been acquired since the 1960s. “Grandpa was in the military, too, so he was fortunate to have outside income to buy land, when it might have been tougher on some others to acquire property,” Wray evaluated.

“Dad has purchased land, too, but we do rent a lot. Our farmland acreage has varied, especially since there’s been a flex of land investors into the county, and they sometimes change tenants,” Wray said.

Land price spikes have caused neighbors to disperse holdings that have been in their families for several generations. “Some owners had never been personally involved in production, don’t have the feel for the land like we do, and saw higher values as time to make the cash register ring,” Wray critiqued.

While farmers in the past have often preferred to rent acreage by crop share, whereby the landowner pays half of the expenses and receives half of the crop, it is not that way in many operations today, including that of the Wray’s. “We do have crop share agreements with some landowners, and also cash rent land, which is our preference,” Wray said.

“We are sometimes bigger risk takers than the owners want to be, and by paying cash rent, we can market the grain crop when and how we want to, rather than having to confer with another outside party. It’s a whole lot easier for us to cash rent,” he stated.

Concerning his personal diversification, Wray admitted, “I never really thought about being a seed dealer, but it gave me the chance to come home to the farm, and still offers important income for the farm operation. Things have worked out quite well.” Syngenta, Ag Venture and Stine products are offered

“With corn prices down, my seed orders are off a bit this year, but I’m looking for sales to pick up as planting time nears,” he predicted.

“Still, I’ve always focused more on quality, rather than quantity, and try to do what’s right for the farmer. Seed really has been great for me,” Wray added.

With more than 2,000 acres of cropping operations, about one-half cash crop is in soybeans, with the remainder typically divided equally between corn and wheat.

“We also grow forage sorghum, have hay ground and rent a lot of pasture, too. It takes that for our cattle,” Wray informed.

Assessing crop acres, the young farmer tallied, “We have about 30 percent prime bottomland, but there’s mostly upland. It’s all dryland, and we are very conscientious in our management to maximize yields from everything we farm.”

Auto steering and land mapping are utilized for more precise seed, herbicide and fertilizer placement and productive efficiency. “We do use a lot of technology, but there’s plenty of room to improve,” he figured.

“We always try to purchase our inputs as economically as possible, and apply everything ourselves. The high prices make us even more conscious to make sure nothing goes to waste,” Wray contended.

With capacity for about 53,000 bushels of on-farm grain storage, the Wray’s do fill that with  grain at harvest time to be marketed when price levels might advance.

“Crop insurance is essential with all of the expenses to put a crop in the ground, and we contract some grain on the board, and then hedge with the futures market. It’s not a set thing, but we try to follow the fundamentals,” Wray explained.

Marketing decisions are a family matter. “Dad actually is closer to the grain side of it, but we all talk it over before anything is decided,” Wray commented.

Enrollment in the new Farm Program is immediate on most farmers’ minds as meetings are being conducted by Farm Service Agencies throughout the country to attempt to explain the opportunities, how binding they are and possible long term effects.

Like many farmers, most likely the vast majority, Mark Wray evaluated, “We have been to the FCA office, and the program is ‘too confusing,’ to put it as simply as possible. This is a revenue based program that is going to be difficult for lenders.

“Even when a farmer will receive a payment, we won’t get it until a year later. We don’t understand why it can’t be immediate, so farmers can acquire the level of crop insurance they desire, take more risk off the lender, and it wouldn’t cost the government any more, either. This is a complicated Farm Program,” he insisted.

“We have a growing and back grounding program, and feed about a 1,000 cattle a year, so we usually have around 400 to 500 head on hand. They get a higher roughage ration, therefore we  don’t feed that much of our own grain; and then send the cattle to a commercial feedlot to be finished,” Wray related.

Most of the cattle are purchased by Wray personally at sale barns in about a 70-mile radius of the headquarters, along with some purchased through order buyers.

Quality is sometimes not as important as price, but there has to be profit potential. “I prefer the good ones. It’s hard to make a purse out of a sow’s ear,” he commented.

“I do market the cattle to my best judgment, a lot through Superior Livestock, and we’re happy with that. Then, I also do forward contracting and hedging,” he noted.

Again commenting on lower grain prices, even compared to a year or so ago, Wray verified, “The markets have really still been good, at least according to Grandpa and Dad, when they talk  about some of the times they’ve seen and been through.

“These record cattle markets have been appreciated when we’ve sold, but it sure makes our investment, and risk a lot more, too. Impossible to have it good on both ends, it seems,” the young farmer analyzed.

Yet, he readily acknowledged, “Prices are always going to go up and down. That doesn’t always seem the way with inputs, but it’s part of being a farmer.”

Different people have different ideas. “Even with a family farm, there are varied opinions, but we always work it out, because the ultimate goal of everybody involved is to be good to the land and do what’s best for the farm,” said Wray, who also grew up as a leader in 4-H and FFA.

John and Brenda Wray have two other children.

“Erik has graduated from college and works for a senior living arrangement in Kansas City. It’s what he wants to do, but sometimes Erik comes home to help on the farm to get just away from the city life, not too often. Our sister Amanda is just a high school freshman, but she really likes the farm life, is in 4-H, shows livestock and helps out on the farm when her schedule permits,” Mark related.

All members of the family have been active in their community, agriculture and church organizations, serving in numerous leadership roles. John Wray is a member of the Kansas Soybean Commission, and was out of state recently in sessions working for the nation’s soybean growers.

The future of agriculture is positive, according to Mark Wray. “The world population is continuing to grow, and everybody has to eat. Farmers are the ones to produce the food all of these people must have, which is good for my family and our future,” Wray contended.

“Likewise, our intentions are to continue to grow the farm to help meet this food demand. Yet, there are possible limitations in crop acreage for us, because of the outside ownership of land, making availability quite uncertain, at least at the present. However, cattle have treated us very well, and I would expect that part of the program to expand,” he predicted.

Notably humble in his remarks, Wray said, “I’m not much of a philosopher, and I can’t predict the future, or we’d be rich. But, we can’t be greedy; that’s sure our philosophy. A farmer has to be patient, yet it’s impossible to hit the top every time.

“Commodities on the average will be lower, at some point, even though I’m not sure about land values; that’s harder to know.  We’re out to make a profit, but it all depends on what grows. We want to continue to grow, too, and diversification seems to be the way to do it,” he  continued.

“I’m really fortunate to do what I do, and I’m happy to do it,” Mark Wray, the optimistic seventh generation Franklin County farmer concluded.

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