Modern Farm Management: It's a Business

Northeastern Junior College’s Agriculture Business Management program helps farmers and ranchers successfully tackle the business side of agriculture.

September 17, 2021
Drone image of combine in field

The word “math” probably doesn’t feature at the top of too many lists highlighting why people are interested in a career in agriculture. But for Emily Barkey, who coordinates the Agriculture Business Management program at Northeastern Junior College, successful farm management is all about the numbers.

“I'm a huge nerd,” says Barkey. “I just love the finance and the business aspect of starting a farm business and everyday farm management.”

Barkey admits that the numbers side of agriculture is not a passion many of her students share, but she stresses that farming is a business, and if the numbers don't add up, their businesses will struggle.

“Students become farmers and ranchers because they enjoy sitting in their tractors and doing the outside work,” says Barkey. “They don't really like doing the office work. I always tell them, ‘If you don't do this office work, you won't be able to sit in your tractor!'"

Despite Barkey's love of data, graphs, and spreadsheets, she's deeply rooted in the agriculture business. Barkey was raised on a farm near Northeastern’s campus in Sterling. She moved back to Colorado to manage her father’s farm after graduating with a master's in Agricultural Economics from Kansas State University. While teaching at Northeastern, she continues to farm and ranch with her husband, with whom she shares a combined herd of 125 cattle.

Her experience in grassroots farming isn't unusual among her fellow faculty at Northeastern.

“Everybody in this department is somehow directly tied to an agriculture business,” says Barkey. “We're not just teaching you how to do it. We're all doing it ourselves.”

What is Business Farming?

Northeastern’s Agriculture Business Management (ABM) program helps farmers and ranchers tackle the business side of farm management.

The ABM program is a non-traditional certificate program delivered off-campus at the student’s home, farm or ranch.

“It’s so much fun,” says Barkey. “We get them set-up in QuickBooks and help them understand the financial record-keeping system.”

Barkey explains that because they work with raw data taken directly from the individual farmer or rancher’s financial records, students don’t just learn the theory behind farm management; they actually put what they have learned into practice.

“We spend a lot of time looking at cash flow," says Barkey. "We sit down and create a cash flow plan, estimating how much of an operating line they will need based on when money is coming in and when most of the expenses are incurred. This is important because when you only get paid once or twice a year, you’ve got to plan accordingly.”

Successful farm management also means planning for the unforeseen.

“We say, in the good years, plan for the bad years,” says Barkey.

Planning is essential because, in farming and ranching, there are no guarantees.

“This last year, we had a huge drought,” says Barkey. “I personally had to pull my cows off of pasture in July, which normally I wouldn't do until November. In terms of feeding your livestock, that adds a lot of costs. The people who are well-managed plan for the bad times. They set money aside, pay down their debts, and they spend wisely.”

Barkey suggests this good advice isn’t always passed on to farmers and ranchers.

“In the good years, when commodity prices are high, and they are making good money, accountants will often tell farmers and ranchers that they have a tax problem and need to make more deductions,” says Barkey. “So they go out and buy a new combine or a new pick-up, stuff they really don’t need. Then two-years down the road, when commodity prices fall, their equipment and pick-up are not worth as much as they were when they paid for them.”

The consequences of poor financial planning can be catastrophic for farmers.

“I know a farmer who had to sell out because he had so many good years, and then, suddenly, everything was in the tank,” says Barkey. “He had all this brand new equipment that ended up sold at auction where he got pennies on the dollar. It was so sad.”

Agile Farm Management

According to Barkey, successful farmers and ranchers need to evaluate how their business is performing continually.

“As a successful manager, you cannot do the same thing you have been doing every year,” says Barkey. “You cannot make decisions based on the decisions your parents made. You have to constantly be re-thinking your strategy and looking at things like marketing.”

Barkey believes that the marketing piece is something that many farmers and ranchers fail to leverage.

“More than 50% of producers market and sell their products at the lowest price time of year,” says Barkey. “This is shocking to me because there are so many marketing avenues you can take. That's a big challenge —  looking at trends and marketing at the right times.”

Agriculture Business Degree Programs

Alongside the ABM program, Barkey also teaches students in Northeastern’s Agriculture Business degree programs. The college offers an Associate of Science (AS) degree for students hoping to transfer onto a four-year bachelor's program and an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree for students who want to enter the workforce directly after graduation.

According to Barkey, there is an increasingly diverse student body coming to the college and looking for information about how to get agriculture jobs.

“I would say there has been a big shift in people interested in how to get a job on a farm,” says Barkey. “We’re seeing more people from outside of the industry and more people from urban areas.”

Barkey believes the industry's speed of change is attracting more people towards a career in the agriculture business.

“We now have a precision agriculture program where students get to learn about things like flying drones and field mapping,” says Barkey. “I think that is a big draw. There's a huge need in that industry, so I think it’s becoming more attractive to people who wouldn’t have previously looked at a career in agriculture.”

Learn More

Whether you are looking to improve your farm management skills, considering starting a farm business, or examining your options for how to work at a farm, Northeastern Junior College has a program to help you find the right path. To learn more about Northeastern’s programs, visit the Agriculture Business program page on our website.

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