Thomas Titus, who farms with his father-in-law, Dave Conrady, and brother-in-law, Brett Conrady, checks some finishing pigs in his and wife Breann’s 700-head finishing barn. Titus, a former Illinois Pork Producers Association ambassador, and his wife left careers in Wichita, Kan., to return home to her family’s grain and livestock farm. They are members of a new generation of farmers who are combining tried-and-true methods of farming, whether in grain or livestock, with a new outlook on running the farm business. Farmers like the Tituses are using new ways to manage risk along with the latest in technology to take agriculture into the next generation.
Thomas Titus, who farms with his father-in-law, Dave Conrady, and brother-in-law, Brett Conrady, checks some finishing pigs in his and wife Breann’s 700-head finishing barn. Titus, a former Illinois Pork Producers Association ambassador, and his wife left careers in Wichita, Kan., to return home to her family’s grain and livestock farm. They are members of a new generation of farmers who are combining tried-and-true methods of farming, whether in grain or livestock, with a new outlook on running the farm business. Farmers like the Tituses are using new ways to manage risk along with the latest in technology to take agriculture into the next generation.
ELKHART, Ill. — These days, Thomas Titus knows what to say — and what not to say.

“There’s not as much anxiety. I’ve got a better feel of what to do and what not to do, probably more what not to do and what not to say,” he said.

His wife, Breann Conrady Titus, is expecting their second child, a girl, in early October. She’ll be welcomed by sister Reagan, now 3.

Keeping their family front and center and taking time from a full plate of farm duties is just one of the challenges facing young farmers like the Tituses.

Though both grew up on family farms, Thomas is the son of Phil and Pat Titus of Arcola, and Breann is the daughter of Dave and Lisa Conrady of Elkhart, they were working in off-farm jobs when they made the decision to return to farming.

Reason To Return

That return was preceded by a family tragedy. Breann’s brother Ross, 18, was killed in an auto accident in February 2006. Breann’s other brother Brett was working on the grain side of the grain and livestock farm and the family had planned that Ross would return to work on the family’s pork production operation, Tri-Pork Farms.

“There was a void in the legacy. There was an opportunity for Breann and I to come back to the farm and Dave and Lisa really wanted us back in the area,” Thomas said.

He was working at Cargill Meat Solutions in the pork procurement division in Wichita, Kan., and Breann was employed, as well.

“Our roots and our hearts were back in Illinois. There was a good time to transition in both Breann’s and my careers so we said let’s just go ahead and do it,” Titus said.

They bought a house and 10 acres at auction, sight unseen, though Breann’s parents did some scouting of the place before the purchase. One of the big draws was the 10 acres.

“We bought the house sight unseen with the intention of putting a hog building out there, right where it’s at. That was one of the main draws to purchasing this property,” Titus said.

Their entry back into the Conrady farm would be through pork production.

Dave Conrady is a district director on the Illinois Pork Producers Association board. His Tri-Pork Farms is a 750-sow, wean-to-finish operation that markets 11,000 to 12,000 head of finished pigs annually.

“We wanted to raise Reagan around livestock. Breann and I both grew up showing livestock and working on the farm so that’s what we wanted to provide for our kids,” Titus said.

Farming Options

While the majority of young people who decide to farm today — whether right out of college or after working off the farm for a few years, as the Tituses did — are going back to family farms, there are other avenues for young people to return to farming and to start farming without a family farm.

“You certainly would be able to but you have to have a solid mentor, someone willing to work with you. It doesn’t have to be a family member. You could work with a mentor, someone who might not necessarily be family but who can help you get started or help you along the way, whether you work into a farming operation or do some type of shared farming operation,” Titus said.

Titus said he believes there are older farmers willing to take on young people who want to return to the farm, but who may not have a farm to which to return.

“Making those connections is probably the biggest struggle for young people, getting to know those people and being in the right position,” he said.

He, Breann and Reagan returned to Elkhart and Logan County and Titus started as what he calls “a foot soldier” on the farm. He said it was one of their big concerns about their return — how his entry into the farming operation, as the son-in-law of the farm owner, would be perceived.

“We were worried about what the reaction would be from the folks who were already on the farm and who had worked on the farm and trying to figure out how the deck is shuffled. … I’m going to come back and be barking orders and I’m not going to have to work the same number of hours they are,” he said.

He said the transition has gone smoothly, since they moved back in 2012.

In addition to building the finishing barn on their property, Titus also took up another family passion — showing and breeding purebred pigs.

Conrady and his son Ross had a purebred Chester showpig operation, RBC Chesters, that Conrady continued after the loss of his son.

“Dave and Ross had a great passion for the Chesters and they had a lot of success. Once Breann and I moved back, it kind of rekindled that,” Titus said. In addition, with Reagan and Brett and Janna’s son Ryder getting old enough to have an interest, the family showpig operation expanded.

The farm breeds all of its replacement female stock. To keep that side of the production pork operation moving forward, they purchased some purebred Yorkshire gilts and sows. That was the start of the Yorkshire side of the showpig operation. Titus remodeled a former poultry house on their farm to house the pigs that are sold in the spring and fall for showpigs.

Family Time

Making time for family is one of the big priorities.

“When we lived in Wichita, when you got off work at 6 p.m., you’re done with work. You have a social life and you have a weekend. The work-life balance is something we really try to focus on, making sure we still make time for our family and are still doing things together and doing things with Reagan,” he said.

Titus said that farming, even the farming methods he grew up with on his family’s grain and hog farm, have changed. Young farmers are more tech-savvy than their older counterparts but they also may take a more business-minded view of farming.

“Farming is not what it used to be. You’ve got to be much more business-savvy than what you once were. You’ve got to spend more time pushing a pencil than dumping a feed bucket in order to maintain your margins and manage your business,” he said.

Titus said that the knowledge base required for young farmers getting into agriculture is more diverse than in the past.

“It’s not necessarily learning just about crop production or livestock production, which is extremely important, but you’ve got to be much more adept at managing a business, more than going out and being the main laborer on the farm,” he said.

Technology also has changed how farming is done by a younger generation — who are themselves being taught by an even younger group.

“I learn things from my 3-year-old about how to use the iPad all the time, it’s embarrassing,” Titus admitted.

“Integrating technology onto the farm, whether it’s automated feeding systems, or an electronic sow feeding system, managing grain drying from your phone or iPad or utilizing a drone, our willingness to accept and embrace technology, as a generation, is much more. We’re much more open to that than what older generations might be,” he said.

One of the concerns voiced by agricultural economists is that a generation of farmers under about the age of 45 or 50 who didn’t farm through the farm crisis of the 1980s has never really experienced a significant downturn in the agricultural economy and is unprepared to deal with another crash.

“That’s definitely a concern. Agriculture is cyclical. We’re going to go through very tough times again. We’re on a downward trend from the peak. … You’ve got to put yourself in a position and know how to manage your business so if things do get tough, you can manage that margin and be able to manage your risk so you don’t find yourself on the brink of bankruptcy or foreclosure,” he said.

For advice from those who survived the tough times, Titus and his brother-in-law Brett turn to Conrady and his father, Ben Conrady.

Community Outreach

Titus said one area where a younger generation of farmers has to focus is reaching out to the non-farming public.

Tri-Pork Farms has hosted the local TV station to film stories about porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, as well as annually hosting local FFA chapters for farm visits.

In addition, Titus has applied to be one of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s new “Faces of Farming and Ranching.” He’s also part of the National Pork Board’s “Real Pig Farming” social media campaign as well as being a Pork Checkoff Operation Main Street speaker.

“With the way social media is today and how prevalent it is, we use Facebook for everything, it’s how we maintain relationships with family a lot of the time and share pictures and news. As farmers, we’re going to have to become much more adept at telling our story and telling what we do. We have to reassure consumers that we are doing the right things,” Titus said.

Like so many young farmers, Titus is looking down that country lane, not just for himself but for Breann, Reagan and the new member of the family who will arrive in another month.

“Raising kids in a farm setting around livestock, there’s no other way I’d want to bring up a child,” he said.

Jeannine Otto can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 211, or jotto@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at AgNews_Otto.