Part one of four: Here, we introduce you to Maria and Ethan Cox of White Hall, Ill. Maria came back to the farm after a successful career in agribusiness. Find links to additional 'Make room for Maria' installments at the end of this story.
Farmers who bring sons back to the family farm often say it takes time and patience to learn how to work together.
As Ethan Cox can attest, the same is true – maybe more so – for daughters.
But he's not complaining.
"Since Maria came on board, she asks plenty of questions," says Ethan, who grows cattle and raises crops and hay near White Hall, Ill. "I keep thinking, 'Well, that's the way Grandpa did it.' But Maria really opened my eyes."
Like many young people, Maria Cox is among a flood of millennials returning to the family farm after successful careers in agribusiness. She brings along a unique perspective and financial skill set, just as agriculture heads into what could be a prolonged downturn.
Maria graduated from University of Illinois in 2006, and then worked at ADM before getting a master's degree in ag economics at Purdue in 2008. In 2009 she started with Diversified Crop Insurance Services, working in Illinois and Iowa as a field rep. Now she's home to help Ethan manage 3,000 acres of corn, 700 acres of hay and 700 head of cattle.
And she's bringing more analysis into management decisions. Finance, marketing and risk management have all gotten a fresh look, thanks to Maria. Ethan couldn't be more pleased.
"Maria's the best thing that ever happened to the operation," he says proudly.
In the past three years, Maria and Ethan have wrestled over whether they should adapt enterprise accounting to get a better handle on which areas of their diversified operation thrive and which need help.
"It's been pretty easy for the cattle, because I know what they eat and rate of gain, and I know what we're going to get for them," says Ethan. "The hay enterprise is not as easy to analyze because of the weather."
Maria is a member of a marketing group and has done a breakeven cost analysis for the grain. Even so, the answers don't come easy.
"It's really difficult if your cash rent is different for each field you rent, and it's very time-consuming," she says. "We have different crop agreements — some cash rent, some 50-50, some two-thirds/one-third — and all that plays into the breakeven analysis. For corn our breakevens varied by as much as $1.20 per bushel, and for beans, by $2.50 per bushel."
Maria's return to the home farm was sparked by a conversation with a business colleague three years ago.
"I liked what I was doing in crop insurance," she says. "But one day I was calling on an agent who asked me, 'Why aren't you farming with your family?' I couldn't give him a good answer."
Even though she had nice benefits and a 401(k) savings plan, she turned in her two-week notice and hasn't looked back.
"It was difficult at first, but then I saw that I had an opportunity to run the family business," she says. "It was a big risk, but I didn't want to look back 20 years from now and wonder why I didn't take that risk."
As it turns out, her off-farm agribusiness experience helped shape her attitude back on the farm.
"A lot of farmers who go farming straight from school, they seem too focused on the day to day, and they forget it's a business," she says. "There's so much more to farming than driving a tractor."
Not to say her indoctrination back home has been simple. As a youngster, Maria drove four-wheelers and checked calves, but she also did more traditional childhood activities, like dance class and piano lessons. As a result, "Maria's learning things about farming at 30 that she should have learned as a 10-year-old," says Ethan.
In part two, the partners take a closer look at how their farm relationship will benefit the business.