READY TO GROW:SCCC agriculture enterprise budget manager crunches the numbers for start-up specialty
Monday, April 18, 2016
Natalya Lowther still remembers the first plant she helped grow: a cherry tomato that towered above her head.
“From my perspective at four year old, it was as big as a tree,” she said. “I still have a special affinity for tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes in particular. Being able to pick and eat something that yummy, watch it grow, see the flowers turn into fruit — I never got over the miracle of that.”
Lowther, the newest member of the agriculture team at Seward County Community College, still marvels at what happens when we put seeds in the ground. But her job at SCCC is grounded in practicality. As Enterprise Budget Manager for Specialty Crops, Lowther focuses on numbers that tell the story of profit and loss for farmers.
“I put together data about how much time, energy, and money it takes to grow crops such as fruit, vegetables and nuts in Kansas,” Lowther said. “These budgets are going to show how much money per acre a grower might earn, and that in turn enables them to look at their own production plans and say, ‘Wow, that bottom line sure looks different than it does for corn.’”
In short, enterprise budgets serve as a useful tool for farmers and investors alike.
“It helps us understand specialty crop production, what to invest, what to expect,” she said. At a recent conference, Lowther said, she met an investment banker who observed that “banks know exactly what a start-up restaurant looks like at each phase. There’s so much data, and we can evaluate the risk, know what’s normal. You come talk to a banker about vegetables, and he’ll say, ‘I know nothing.’ They need data to complete due diligence.
“So that’s what I do, bring the data together into a format where it’s accessible to people.”
Most existing enterprise budgets for specialty crops come from radically different geographic areas — Washington state, Iowa — and thus are not accurate for Kansas farmers.
“Even looking at the eastern and western parts of the state, we see radical differences,” Lowther said. “Water costs out here will be higher, but you don’t have to worry about mildew as much.”
Regular travel across the breadth of the state gives her a unique perspective, she said, and serves to strengthen the information she collects from growers who have already ventured into new ag territory. Lowther will be contacting growers across the state to collect the data, especially for labor inputs and prices received for her target crops.
Lowther, a Kansas resident since childhood, did not grow up in a farming family. As an adult, she gravitated toward the agricultural life, working for agriculture service businesses and as a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency. In keeping with her early affinity for gardening, she has also raised sheep and vegetables at her farm near Lawrence for two decades.
“I grow a wide range of produce to sell at farmer’s markets — pretty much everything except sweet corn and melons,” she said. “I see vegetable growing as a huge opportunity for individuals and for Kansas as a whole. Specialty crops can seem small, but that’s a good thing. There’s a way in for people who don’t have the family connection to a large farm with acres of land. You can start in your back yard, or a vacant lot.”
Specialty crops have another advantage for traditional, row-crop farmers who dominate Southwest Kansas farm operations.
“It’s a way for a younger generation on a family farm to start a small side business,” Lowther said. “So, Dad’s got the drill out, doing the row crops, still going strong in his enterprise, and here’s a place for the young person to stay on the farm and use entrepreneurial skills, energy and passion to start something of their own.”
Trends across the nation have increased public demand for specialty crops, Lowther said.
“We see chains like Dillons and Hy-Vee really promoting locally grown crops at their stores. You can see the faces of Kansas growers on the display bins,” she said. “That’s growing by leaps and bounds.”
Lowther loves to see Kansas heading “back where it used to be, at the heart of fresh food production in the nation,” she said. “Historically, Kansas was once one of the major vegetable exporting states, before California, up through World War II. We used to have canneries. Vast acreages of potatoes and peas and crops like that. Now, those are considered specialty crops.”
With the help of new technology, information-sharing, and the access for farmers created by trucking, Lowther said growers can make the most of high-value crops. The enterprise budgets generated through the SCCC ag department will play a key part.
“This can create real opportunities for economic development in rural communities,” she said. “I really believe we’ll put Kansas back on the map as a major vegetable producing area, where we used to be.”