E64: Technology, Transition and Family at Triple B Farms

Monday, November 18, 2019

Today I'm talking with Brandon Batten of Triple B Farms, a sixth generation farmer in Johnston County, North Carolina. Brandon's passion for agriculture comes from growing up on the farm and learning the ropes from his late grandfather. A graduate in biological and agricultural engineering from North Carolina State University. He advocates for using farm level research to make sure that the latest technology and advancements in all aspects of agriculture to reach the farmers that need them.

Technology, Transition and Family at Triple B Farms

Welcome to the Leading Voices in Food podcast, an educational series produced by the World Food Policy Center at Duke University. I'm Deborah Hill. You're listening to a segment in our Voice of Farming series.

Today I'm talking with Brandon Batten of Triple B Farms, a sixth generation farmer in Johnston County, North Carolina. Brandon's passion for agriculture comes from growing up on the farm and learning the ropes from his late grandfather. A graduate in biological and agricultural engineering from North Carolina State University. He advocates for using farm level research to make sure that the latest technology and advancements in all aspects of agriculture to reach the farmers that need them.

My name is Brandon Batten and I farm with my father and uncle at Triple B Farms, Incorporated. The operation was started by my grandfather and grandmother in the late seventies. My grandfather was one of the youngest sons of a family of nine born to sharecroppers. And by the time he came along, there wasn't any farm left for him. So he started a public job and after serving some time in the military he decided to farm full time.

The farm was incorporated in 1985 the same year that I was born. So that's kind of coincidental. I met my wife at NC State, Jessica. She was in the environmental engineering while I was in Ag engineering. So we kind of crossed paths through that department. She is a storm water engineer for the county. So while she is a good sounding board and I guess kind of a shock absorber for me dealing with the stress and the everyday struggles of the farm, she does work off the farm primarily. But she does bring a different perspective to me as kind of what the public's seeing, and what the environmental issues are she's facing through her job that will eventually affect agriculture. So it kind of helps me stay abreast of the industry and the trends that the people that make the rules, the commissioners and the lawmakers and the legislatures, what rules are they passing for development will eventually affect agriculture.

We have three small children, a son, Camden, who is three years old and twin five month old baby girls that are very exciting.

In a family farm with multiple generations working side by side, figuring out who does what and transitioning roles when younger sons and daughters step into leadership is part of the challenge. It's a test of a family's personal relationship dynamic. But matching up skills, interests, and expertise helps bring out the best in everyone.

Like I said, I farm with my dad and uncle. We a farm right around 800 acres total, tobacco, flue-cured tobacco, corn, wheat, soy beans, grass, hay, and beef cattle. This year we're also experimenting with some industrial hemp. So you know, that's kind of an emerging crop and will say a very, very hot topic right now. Everybody kind of has their specialty, you know, we just divide up naturally. Generally I do a lot of the planning and how much, you know, how many acres of what crop makes sense based on markets and market trends, and what the futures forecasts look like. I do a lot of the grain marketing, and just by virtue of being involved and being in touch and having the technology to look at the markets and decide if I think, you know, is this a profitable position to sell at? Not necessarily is this as high as it's going to get, because that's a very hard target to hit. And so I do the business accounting. I keep our checkbook, budgets, cash flows, income statements. All the boring stuff that nobody wants to do, I get to do.

You know, probably the most important work I do is in the farm office. It's not always the most entertaining, but it's the most important for the business. It's almost a full time job just to keep records and paperwork up, in addition to the farming and everything else we do.

Primarily my uncle and dad kind of handle the, I guess the delegation and the overseeing of the field work. But we all work together. We talk daily, multiple times a day, my father and uncle and I, about planning, kind of where we are, what are we each doing that somebody may need to know about. And it works. It's sometimes a challenge to get it all done and sometimes one person has more to do than they can do, so they'll get some help from somebody else. But it works for us.

Brandon credits the local food movement with driving a Renaissance in farming in many ways, particularly for millennial farmers. But in impoverished rural communities, food price remains the top concern for consumers. This means farmers have to weigh profit margins against a desire to do local good in their communities. The bigger markets lead to economies of scale and more profit. Focusing on local markets can actually mean higher prices for consumers and less return on investment, the profit after expenses and labor for farmers.

My grandpa had a saying, if you can't pencil it out in the shade, you can't plow it out in the sun. So we're very conscientious of that and try to get a good, a realistic budget on the front end and figure out will this work if everything works good. And then what if everything doesn't work good? How's it going to work then? Because you certainly don't want to work hard to lose money. So that's really the question and the struggle right now, especially with the Ag economy like it is.

Along those same lines of local markets, you know, there's a lot of demand for local produce. There's a lot of supply of local produce. You know, it's a struggle though because in a market that's already so established and so saturated, it seems to me like it's almost the race to the bottom. Because you have big produce growers that can do it cheaper than a husband and wife can, for example, in their four acres or whatever. But at the same time they have to make money too. So it is a struggle to when you pencil out, okay, I'm going to have to work this much and make this much. And then at the end of the day I'm going to have 50 cents a pound profit. It's tough to take on all that new work for basically nothing.

So our beef cattle are primarily just feeder cattle. We have around 50 head of cows on the farm and that that's the bulls, the mama cows, and the calves. Right now we're primarily just selling feeders, feeder calves, steers, and heifers to market. We occasionally keep some and feed them out for our own personal consumption. That's the market that I'm looking to expand. You know, with the local food movement as I mentioned earlier, I feel like there's opportunity there for some farm raised beef. Especially maybe in my extended community we'll say, because one thing that I communicate with people when I get a chance is we still live in a very impoverished area as far as the standard of living goes. We're doing okay, I mean.

But as a whole Eastern North Carolina is very, very poor area and people that are struggling to feed their family don't care a whole lot about what's on the label other than the price. You know, they're not necessarily looking for grass fed, organic, whatever. For me as a farmer, if I could supply people in my community with a sustainably produced, humanely produced product that was good for them and good for my farm, I think that would be an excellent opportunity. But it's just a struggle at the same time because of the added regulations in licensing and things I would have to do to enter that market. I'm not sure that I could pass that cost on to my customers without going to Raleigh or a more urban area to sell my product.

Brandon's operation sprawls across 28 miles and three different counties. He works with surprising variability and soil type and quality. He uses high-tech drone surveillance in fields where internet is available and old school sampling and surveillance in areas where the internet does not yet reach. Brandon's focus on efficiency and his love of technology are part of how he manages the farm.

So our operation is spread out, technically, over three counties. We have one farm that splits the county line, so we're three county farmers. But generally speaking from our center of operation we go about 13 to 15 miles kind of in every direction. We're not a very large farm by today's standards, but the opportunities for growth just weren't right here where we are. So we had to kind of expand and go out seeking some other other land in other places. Geographically, I think from furthest point we're about 28 miles kind of as a crow flies. But this is a variety of soil types and a variety of challenges. You know, some fields we tend are in city limits of small towns, and some are very remote that don't have cell service. So we kind of have the gamut of infrastructure so to speak.

As far as commodities, right now on our farm, we have five commodities growing, being the tobacco, the corn and soy beans, and the hay, and the industrial hemp. We'll plant our winter wheat probably starting in October. So anytime we have three to four things in the field to be harvested or awaiting harvest. So we're kind of a year round farm. We don't really have a slack season anymore. It seems that used to we could kind of take a month off in the winter and kind of slow down and just do some shop work, but now there's something to do all the time.

So I'm a kind of a self-proclaimed tech geek, I guess. So a couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to purchase a drone for our farm. And that kind of led to me starting my own drone business on the side. But living where we live is kind of a challenge because I can go and I can scout so much more efficiently. I can fly a field in just minutes and generate a tremendous amount of data. But because of our internet connection, it'll take a whole day to upload those pictures to be processed. And 10 miles away in Smithfield, I could get all the internet I want, but here it's just the shade better than dial up. So you know, a lot of our technology and our tractors have GPS that get cellular correction for RTK, real time kinematic, you know, self auto steer within an inch. But I have fields that don't have cell phone service. So you know, there's a challenge. We can't take our row markers off yet because you may lose signaling. As long as you have that backup you can still work.

So I've done a lot of things like that. We were on a cloud based record keeping system now. We all have smart phones and it's kind of been admittedly kicking and screaming to get my dad and uncle to put down their little pocket notebooks and go to this system. But it's made my job a lot easier by having those records in real time and where everybody can put them into one central location, instead of when I need to do a report I have to go find everybody's notes and compile them. Now I kind of have it centralized where I can just pull it up and look at it. But they've been very open to the technology. They see the benefits of it, and they see that the importance of it going into the future, especially for my future. So they have been very supportive. It's just been somewhat of a challenge to kind of get that started. But it's going okay.

Millennial farmers, like Brandon who grew up with technology as a part of their daily life are stepping out on Facebook, blogs, Instagram and other avenues and communicating with passion and honest transparency about their farm story. He feels that it's critical for people to become more connected to their food, and for farmers to tell the story of how they work, and why they do what they do on the farm.

Technology is very crucial to what we do because I can't ... You know when my grandfather was taking care of the tobacco barns, he could stay there and he could check them four and five times a day and do exactly what each one needed, for example. Now my uncle does a lot of the curing but we kind of tag team it. So I may check them in the morning and then it may be that night before I get back to them. So we've added automated curing controls to kind of control that environment through that time that I'm not there. So it's helping me manage it better and allowing me to be somewhere else to do something else. You know as technology changes and improves ... You know with fewer farmers we're going to have to become more efficient, and technology allows us to do that.

A lot of the crops that we plant now are GMO, and I know that's a taboo word these days, but the benefits of GMO allows me to use less chemicals, less water, less inputs, and less time to produce more output on the back side. Especially in times with depressed markets like we're in right now, that yield becomes ever more critical. And with the technology I have, I'm able to kind of put exactly what I need, exactly where I need it, and when I need it, through the use of GPS and other technologies that we have on the farm to be as efficient as possible.

In the next decade, I have no idea. I think that, you know, the local food movement is huge right now. I don't see that going away. I think we're kind of in a Renaissance, if you will, of the generation, say the millennials or the generation my age and just younger, that are kind of really interested in where their food is coming from and what's involved in getting that food because they have no clue. Maybe their grandparents had a farm but most likely not. And they really just have no clue about what's involved in putting that food in the grocery store.

And I think as this generation grows and becomes more enlightened and involved ... It's not that they're anti agriculture. I think they're just thirsty for knowledge. And agriculture, in my opinion, has really failed to tell the story and tell how important these technologies are to us, and how we're trying to do the best we can with the least we can. And you know, our opponents are a lot more efficient at this and a lot louder than we are. So that's kind of one, I guess, torch I've picked up. It's just trying to tell the story of agriculture. I'm trying to tell John Q Public, you know, I'm not trying to kill you when I'm driving the sprayer through the field. And we're putting just such a small amount of product that it allows us to have less labor and it's safe.

You know that's the biggest challenge, is just getting that message out there. So one thing I do, I have a weekly, right now it's on Facebook, but eventually it will be hopefully housed on its own blog. I call it Farm Facts Friday. So every Friday I'll put up a post about what's going on in our farm, whether it is safety or labor, immigration, tariffs, whatever challenge we're facing. And just indicate, give people an idea of what agriculture is facing from a farmer's perspective. And it has been way more popular than I ever thought it would be. You know, some of my posts have reaches of over 15-16,000 which just blows my mind that that many people would see what thoughts I'm putting down.

So I think that's going to be the story for the next decade, is just farmers have to do a better job at telling people what we do and why we do it, and being receptive to what they want to hear. I get frustrated sometimes. You see it often, you know, thank a farmer. And I think that's fine, but I'm doing my job, I'm doing what I love to do, and I'm doing my passion. I don't really need thanks for doing that. I just need an opportunity to tell you why I'm doing it and for you to be able to listen to me tell you why I do the things I do.

Brandon also believes that farmers telling their stories can help consumers make more informed choices when dealing with misleading or confusing food marketing tactics.

GMOs are genetically modified organisms and there's only 10 crops certified in the United States for GMO. So you see a lot of misinformation in non-GMO project and GMO-free on things like orange juice or tomatoes. And there's no such thing as a GMO orange or GMO tomato. So it's just marketing. You know, marketing is a great thing, but you need to be informed about what you're buying and what options are out there. And GMO-free does not always mean healthier. I'm a firm believer that if a person has an organic market and somewhere to sell that product, they should absolutely do it. But I'm also a firm believer that organic will not feed the world. So I think there's a place for both in agriculture, and I think that we need to stop fighting amongst ourselves in agriculture, and just kind of unite and tell our story together. That there is a place at the table for everybody

Despite the many farm and family responsibilities on their plate, Brandon and his wife Jessica volunteer extensively in their community and in statewide organizations. He says such work is an important part of keeping rural communities vibrant and showing young people there are still many opportunities in agriculture and rural North Carolina.

We're involved in a lot of stuff. We're involved in our local church where my wife and I attend with our kids. I'm a member of the local volunteer fire department. I serve on various boards and appointments, such as our county extension advisory board, a member of the board of directors for our local agricultural heritage museum. Currently my wife and I are members of the State Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Committee, and there's probably a lot more.

But it's very important to me being from a small town, from a small community, really an agricultural community, seeing that agriculture is the fabric that kind of holds that community together. And without agriculture then there's no community. Even the small towns around here wouldn't function without agriculture, be it the business that they provide to the workers or whatever. So with the exodus of people we're seeing from rural North Carolina especially, it's very important for me to stay involved and keep life in the community by giving back and giving my time. Because when I was a kid we had 4H and things like that, and there were adult leaders that had a lot of influence in how I turned out coming through those programs, learning leadership skills and public speaking, and things that you're going to use in the real world but you may not find very important at 13 to 17 years old. So I hope that I can kind of step into that role for some kids now and help them see that there is a future in agriculture and in rural North Carolina.

Thank you for listening. If you would like to subscribe to the Leading Voices in Food podcast series, you can do so at Google Play, Stitcher, Radio Public, or Apple podcasts, or by visiting our website at the Duke World Food Policy Center. This is Deborah Hill.

 

Brandon Batten of Triple B Farms is a sixth generation farmer in Johnston County, North Carolina. He is a graduate in biological and agricultural engineering from North Carolina State University.