Finding a way to farm
A letter, luck and some strategic planning helped Harrington couple
By Trista Crossley
Josh Steward didn’t know what to expect when he wrote the letter as a sophomore in college. All he knew was that he wanted to farm, and the letter seemed like a place to start.
“At the beginning of my freshman year in college, I tried some different routes (to get into farming) but they didn’t work out,” he explained. “I thought, well, I have nothing to lose, so I wrote a letter to Jim Els explaining our situation.”
The situation was that Josh, who grew up in Odessa, Wash., and Katie (his future wife), who grew up in Harrington, Wash., both came from families involved in dryland wheat farming, but neither one of them were in a position to inherit land or join a family operation. Josh knew of Jim Els, a farmer outside Harrington, who was getting close to retirement and knew there was some question whether the Els’ children were interested in taking over the farm.
“Jim wrote back saying he still had a couple years left,” Josh said, adding that at the time, wheat was selling for $15 a bushel and farmers were generally making enough money to make farming worthwhile. “But there was some positive information in his response that made us think he might consider it someday. Then in 2010, he called and actually offered to lease his land to us.”
Josh and Katie would eventually end up leasing a substantial number of acres from the Els beginning in 2011. In the years since, they’ve been able to acquire more leases, enough to almost double their original acreage. The fact that the couple has been able to transition full time into wheat farming, despite the lack of a family farm to jump off from, makes them an unusual success story. But they haven’t done it alone, and some of the financial decisions they made earlier in their lives ended up playing a huge role.
Back in 2010, Josh and Katie were married and living in Ritzville where Josh worked as a salesman for the Odessa Trading Company. Katie was pregnant with their first child, Jack. Because commodity prices were good, sales were good, and they were saving up money to build a house. When the call from Jim came, the couple had a pretty big decision to make.
“With a baby on the way and a steady job, jumping into a whole new adventure was a little intimidating,” Katie recalled. “It was nerve wracking, but Josh is like a spreadsheet nerd. At Washington State University, he took all those classes so he was able to put those to good use and build spreadsheets, and we went through those a lot. That made me feel more comfortable about it. It was still scary, but we wanted the lifestyle. Just being able to have Jack go to the shop with Josh after school and to go ride on the tractor…that’s all stuff that was important to us, not to mention being able to give our kids the opportunity to farm if they want to someday.” The couple also now have a daughter, Sadie.
“Jim and I went back and forth,” Josh added. “We met the Els at their house one day, went over all the numbers, and what it would require us to do. I just wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to put us at too much of a risk.”
One of the couple’s biggest worries was financial, but since their college days, they had been saving money. They were able to graduate without any college debt, and because they had been saving for a new house, they had a nest egg built up they could tap into. They also had a pretty solid support network they could rely on for help and advice, thanks to Jim Els and Josh’s job as a salesman. For the first year, Josh worked full time during the day at Odessa Trading Company and farmed full time in the evenings.
“I was having fun the whole time,” Josh said. “It went by fast for sure, but because I worked out of the Ritzville area, I was able to go see all the farmers, get the social life during the day…”
“And then go sit on the tractor by yourself at night,” Katie finished for him. “There were times where he’d go back to the Odessa Trading Company at night to finish up paperwork. So just to spend time together, my mom would watch Jack, and I’d go with him and help him.”
“That was our date night,” Josh chimed in. Eventually, Josh was able to quit his day job. They were fortunate enough that Katie has been able to stay at home with their children instead of having to find an off-the-farm job. In fact, things have been going so well for the Stewards that Josh was recently able to hire on his mechanically inclined father full time.
Besides the financial cost, the availability of land is the obstacle that most beginning farmers run into. The Stewards recognize that they were fortunate to have found ground to lease and had the financial ability to make the jump to farming. Over and over, they credit the Els for taking a leap of faith on them, basically giving over their business, which they had spent 36 years building up, to a couple who had never even run a farm.
“I’ve told Katie, depending on how you value acreage, that’s potentially a couple of million dollars’ company Jim and Sue gave to us at 27 years old,” Josh said. “Jim knew of us, but not a whole lot about us. They are the biggest reason this is possible. I don’t know how many people you’d find willing to do that for you.”
For his part, Jim Els knew of Josh’s family, but didn’t know Josh personally. Els recalled getting Josh’s letter and then setting it aside as he (Els) wasn’t ready to retire.
“I kept going until I was 70, and then I reviewed the letter again,” Els said, adding that while he knew other people who were interested in leasing his land, he was drawn to the Stewards because they wanted to raise their family in a rural area. “These little towns are dying, and I thought it would be nice to have another family start up around here.”
Els also saw an opportunity to give a beginning farmer a leg up, acknowledging that finding the land to farm is a major hurdle. But he also credits the Stewards with coming into the situation well prepared.
“They’ve done an excellent job so far,” he said. “Josh has exhibited a willingness to go ahead and do the work necessary. He hasn’t stretched himself out on debt. He knew what too much debt could do to him, especially when you encounter wheat prices like we have now. That’s made a difference.”
The next step for the Stewards is to buy land, and once again, they are doing everything they can to save money. The dream of building a new house is back on the backburner; instead, they live in Katie’s grandmother’s older house. They have worked out an agreement to gradually buy the Els’ used farming equipment instead of buying new. Although they started farming during a period of high yields and high commodity prices, they’ve also planned for the double whammy of low yields and low prices. Josh even sees a possible advantage to the current market.
“Nobody is going to quit at $8 wheat, they are going to quit at $3 wheat,” he explained. “That’s when those 65, 70-year-old guys are going to say, ‘No better time to quit. I don’t want to go through another 10 years of $3 wheat.’ That’s our opportunity. A lot of people get scared away from it, but to me, if we are financially capable, that’s when we need to jump in.”
Both of the Stewards say they’d like to give something back, in the form of possibly mentoring other beginning farmers or providing opportunities for educating the public by providing farm tours. They recently had a group of preschoolers visit the farm and were able to show them the wheat fields and the equipment used to harvest grain. The preschool teacher said the kids had a blast, and Katie said she hopes to make this a regular event.
“We had a blast as well,” she said. “We sometimes take farming for granted being around it all the time.”