A businessman, a civil engineer and a physicist walk into a barn – but this isn’t the introduction to a joke. In the 1970s, three brothers decided to forego their very different professional careers and return to the family farm. Montague Farms in Essex County is an old one, established in 1905. The 1980s, however, were a challenging time for farmers with low commodity prices, high interest rates and no crop insurance. The Taliaferro brothers overcame those challenges with a value-added product and an eye for worldwide customers.
They began exporting specialty soybeans cleaned in one of their two facilities to Japan and other countries in Southeast Asia, and they offer some words of advice to today’s young farmers who are also facing challenging times.
“Success is not an individual result, so surround yourself with team members to help you achieve your goals,” says Tom Taliaferro, a fourth-generation farmer. This could include bankers or government services from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. “We were aided in our progression by the Virginia Department of Agriculture’s marketing representative in Tokyo,” Tom says. That representative, David Wong, introduced the initial concept of exporting their product to Tom’s father, Bill Taliaferro. When Tom and his brothers, Brian and David, took over farm operations, they decided to do just that. It turned out to be a pivotal decision. “We have sent soybeans to Japan every year since 1987. We may have never found that market opportunity on our own,” Tom says.
Attention to detail also figures into the success of Montague Farms. “Ours is a farm-to-table process,” Tom says. “It’s just that there are many miles of water in between.” Tom has made the trip to Asia many times, giving individualized attention to each client. “Every customer’s needs are unique, so finding the right product and best fit for that customer is the most important thing. A food-grade customer in Indonesia or Vietnam has different needs and expectations compared to customers in Japan or Korea.”
The farm works with Virginia Tech to develop specialty soybean varieties for its overseas markets, presenting a premium opportunity for its contract growers in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. With careful management, these growers can increase their per-acre gross margin compared to regular commodity production.
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Fated to Farm
While the Taliaferro brothers returned to farming after pursuing other careers, Amelia County farmer Colin Whittington’s fate was seemingly determined at birth. On the day Whittington was born, his father left the hospital to buy a piece of special equipment to grow seeds, a legacy that Whittington has continued to this day.
The young farmer works on Featherstone Farms Seed, the family’s large diversified operation. He is a soybean replicator and grows crops for seed.
Whittington adds value to his product by growing both traditional soybeans and soybeans for seed. He grows different varieties for one company and processes those in his own facility. He also grows seeds for another company, which are processed in North Carolina. “Adding value to your crop line is good for the budget, but it can be a lot of extra work,” Whittington says. For example, he has to keep the two types of beans completely separate. “Everything we raise, we raise hoping that it will be good for seeds – soybeans, barley, wheat, oats, plus some barley for malting. To further our diversification, we have 100 commercial beef cattle,” he says.
His advice for younger farmers is to diversify and then find a niche. Even with livestock, he recommends marketing your own brand as a way to increase the bottom line.