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Farm4Profit Podcaster Tanner Winterhof Shares Lessons Learned From U.S. Sugar

The crops in Iowa’s heartland may differ from those in tropical South Florida, but agriculture pros like Tanner Winterhof know the challenges in tilling the soil — and nourishing a nation — can be remarkably similar, a fact reinforced by the “Farm4Profit Podcast” co-host’s recent visit to Clewiston, Florida, known as America’s sugar capital.

Winterhof is an Iowa-based finance and agricultural expert. He’s the founder of Farm4Profit, a trusted media initiative that focuses on helping professionals in the agricultural space enhance farming profitability using domain-specific insights and information on improving operational practices. A highly respected and outspoken proponent of adopting better ways of doing things and a long-time advocate of cross-industry collaboration, Winterhof’s farming philosophy can be summarized as “seek, trust, and adopt expert advice, but be sure to first verify.”

“Farms are typically run as a family, and they typically run their farm the way grandpa did it, and the way great-grandpa did it, and the way dad did it,” notes Winterhof, who also co-hosts the “Farm4Profit Podcast.”

“And so one of the things that we first ask all of our listeners to do is, you’ve got to stop thinking of it as ‘somebody in your family’s going be disappointed,’ and you have to think about it as a business. You got to take the emotion out of it, and you need to focus on what good businesses do.”

Tanner Winterhof, Farm4Profit, and the Intersection of Technology and Agriculture

In other words, while your soul may be rooted in the soil, farming is a business and needs to be treated as such. Consider the following: New technologies such as precision farming and biotechnology have greatly impacted the industry in recent years. Precision farming uses data and sensors (such as temperature, humidity, and weight sensors) combined with satellite imagery and other data points to improve operations. This can be anything from irrigation to fertilizer use to maintenance schedules. With the right investments, these changes can considerably increase yields and savings. Biotechnology has also played a significant role in improving crop resilience and yield growth. Farms that fall behind in making investments in these and other high-impact areas may find themselves struggling to survive.

Many notable macro changes have also had a significant effect on farms, farming decisions, and farm profitability. Obvious examples include climate change and rising prices, but equally important are political instability, changing consumer preferences, and trade policies.

Additionally, hiring the right people for the right job is essential. Tanner Winterhof says that, while farmers can be experts in multiple areas, it is simply too much of an ask to expect them to be experts in everything.

Winterhof notes, “You can’t be an expert in accounting and in agronomy and in livestock nutrition and in mechanics. You can be good at those things, but experts are experts in their field because that’s their focus.

“So we suggest putting an advisory team together. Sometimes it could even be paid positions, but getting those experts on your side, make sure they understand your missions and your goals, and then rely on them to have the latest information or the answers to your questions in their specific field of expertise.”

What this does is provide farmers with a vetted team who can corroborate opinions or help avoid making bad decisions with operational changes, purchase decisions, or otherwise. With profit margins and bottom lines relying on so many multifaceted factors, from a farm’s IT infrastructure, weather preparedness, and the physical layout of a farm’s buildings and equipment to the mental health of its teams, its access to capital, and more, it makes sense to bring on subject-matter experts who can help decision-makers choose the optimal path forward in each of these areas. The only stipulation to this Tanner Winterhof makes is to ensure that the advice being given makes sense and is feasible based on the unique goals, capabilities, and systems used by the farm in question.

Tanner Winterhof at U.S. Sugar

On a recent trip to Clewiston, Florida — often referred to as the sugar capital of the U.S. and the global headquarters of U.S. Sugar company — Tanner Winterhof said that, to his delight, he saw that the company enacted many of the forward-thinking farming processes that he advocates in his work and on the “Farm4Profit Podcast.”

Delivering quality sweetness involves many meticulous processes across field irrigation, harvesting, and refinement, not to mention the controlled burning of sugar cane (which reduces transport volume) and the use of specialized equipment custom-built for sugar production. “Take the dike,” Tanner said after the visit. “It is a crucial component in the sugar production process. U.S. Sugar company actively reduces nitrate and phosphorus levels from water in their fields, and this is needed to maintain the high water quality needed for sugar production.

“By making improvements wherever possible across the sugar production process, U.S. Sugar showcases its commitment to environmental stewardship.”

Most of the world’s food comes from family farmers, and U.S. Sugar — which employs 2,500 workers who work on a whopping 245,000 acres — is not a family farm. However, given the highly competitive nature of the global farming industry, it’s interesting to see even well-established concerns such as U.S. Sugar leveraging expert advice and recommendations to remain competitive against global players. For U.S. Sugar and others, this can come in the form of partnerships with other farms and farmers, collaborating with research institutions and governments, and working with other stakeholders such as banks, city councils, and professional associations to share knowledge, technology, and best practices — something Farm4Profit seeks to facilitate via media outreach and cross-industry collaboration.

When done right, this type of cooperation and collaboration can lead to cross-functional synergies, economies of scale, improved learning curves, and lower costs — all of which benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Tanner Winterhof says: “Over the next decade, you’re going to see larger farms get larger just for the pure business sense. Margins are getting tighter, there’s going to be a division of types of farms because you’re going to have large-scale business-run farms that are going to work on thinner margins. And then you’ll see more smaller farms that start up and sell direct-to-consumer products. Others will try to do more value-added, high-value type products.”

Coming full circle, it seems both small and large farms can benefit from Tanner Winterhof’s recommendations and the real-life case study of U.S. Sugar. By relying on subject matter experts, looking into new technologies, asking the right questions, and making changes — however small — that are geared toward improving profitability and efficiency, today’s farmers can be better positioned to thrive and deal with uncertainty whenever and however unexpected changes or challenges come along. For consumers, producers, and American agriculture as a whole, the long-term benefits of being able to do so are virtually incalculable.