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
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
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.
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
“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 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
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
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.
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
“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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at AgNews_Otto.