Ask anyone associated with an agricultural trade association what one of their goals is and undoubtedly, the answer will eventually point to the next generation of farmers. Yet the path to get younger people involved with farming, on-farm or otherwise, is becoming more difficult.
For Andy Bensend, involving younger farmers started out with his own path to transition away from the farm. A Pioneer seed dealer since the early 1990s, Bensend also built a custom farming operation alongside his farm operation.
“People look back at what I used to do and say, ‘How the heck did he get it done?’ I look back on it, and I wonder how the heck I ever got it done.”
The years of farming can take a toll on many things — mind, body and soul. In 2013, at 55, Bensend realized he was a lot sorer than he used to be, so he set a 10-year plan to transition out of his operation.
“To facilitate transition, we had to separate the seed business, the custom farming side and the farm,” he said. “It was just too big for anyone to take on the responsibility to make it work.”
In the transition process, Bensend formed AB Seed and Consulting, where he hired Tanner Johnson.
A unique path to agriculture
Johnson, 29, didn’t grow up on a farm. In high school, he didn’t have much interest in agriculture other than growing up with farms around him.
What he did have interest in, though, was a girl.
“The honest to God’s truth is I followed a girl into dodgeball, then followed that girl into FFA, and I just kinda fell in love with agriculture because of it.”
Johnson attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he majored in agriculture education.
“Ag Ed was the broadest I could choose from to learn about ag,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a teacher, but then I found I liked learning about row crops more. Being able to work with farmers still scratches the teaching itch.”
The two eventually met through the UW-River Falls Alpha Gamma Rho chapter, where both are fraternity brothers.
“We were just a few years apart there,” Johnson joked.
Bensend’s brother, Steven, is the advisor for the chapter, and introduced the two at an alumni function. Quick on his feet and never afraid to share his thoughts, Bensend was easy to listen to, Johnson said. And as it turned out, they shared a lot of commonalities.
“When I did the internship with Pioneer, we were already on each other’s radars,” Johnson said. “When the opportunity to go to work for him full time came up, I jumped at it right away.”
For Bensend, Johnson was the perfect candidate to take over the seed business, but Bensend also realized there was some maturing that needed to happen.
“I said to him, ‘Tanner, I’ve got opportunities here if you want to come chase them.’”
That’s what Johnson did.
More than he bargained for
Long before buying AB Seed and Consulting was an option, Johnson was simply a young employee learning from Bensend. Johnson appreciated how involved Bensend was outside of the farm. He watched as Bensend volunteered for different boards, including the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board, where he currently serves as vice president.
Eventually, Johnson applied for the Corteva-American Soybean Association Young Leader program and was selected. In reflection, Johnson didn’t really know why he applied for the program, other than he wanted to experience media training, and he wanted to build his network.
“I applied to be a Young Leader with very little idea of what it actually entailed,” he said. “Andy said this is what the best of the best do. They get involved in an organization like the American Soybean Association.”
Bensend said Johnson was a natural for the leadership program and encouraged him as he explored his new path.
“Young Leader whetted his appetite,” Bensend said. “He’s the kind of guy who makes friends really easily. He exists in that quadrant, and that makes him the kind of person people want to spend time with. It was a natural fit.”
Despite not knowing what he was getting into, he did receive his media training, and the network started to grow as well.
“I was 23 and single,” Johnson said. “Being able to talk to people in the farming community around the country sounded like an awesome opportunity. It exceeded my expectations tenfold.”
Six years later, Johnson credits Bensend for pushing him to do more in agriculture, including Johnson’s current role representing Wisconsin on the American Soybean Association.
“He cares about the person in front of him,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s a stranger on the sidewalk, people walking by at a trade show or fellow neighboring farmers or people on the boards he sits on. He cares about people. He wants to know why people are doing what they’re doing and what’s going on in their life.”
Lessons in business
Bensend admits that for all the love he has for what he built – not only as a farmer but with his seed sales and custom-farming business – pouring himself into all of it has taken a toll. He hopes by separating the three businesses, he will give people like Johnson a chance to succeed.
“Everything comes at an expense,” he said. “And as a result of some of the personal failures in my life, all of those things happen because you are burning the candle at both ends. You have no margins in life to incorporate adversity. Unfortunately, you learn that through experience.”
Bensend is hopeful Johnson and his business partner, Kyle Zeman, enjoy many years of success. In the fall, Bensend will finalize a sale on the remaining operations. And as he moves toward the final transition, he can’t help but think one thing.
“I wonder what I would do if I got up in the morning and I just didn’t have anything to do.”
About a girl
If it was a girl that led Johnson to agriculture, then certainly it had to be a woman who helped guide Johnson’s business decision regarding AB Seed and Consulting, right?
Johnson laughed at the suggestion, but quickly got serious about Brittany Johnson, his wife.
“She was a huge proponent of Kyle and I buying the business because I’d never owned one before,” he said. “Getting her approval and getting her thoughts on it was really important to me.”
With that, Johnson feels at home working with farmers who are looking to try new practices. He likes to be there in the “thought stage” all the way through to planning and implementation.
“Seeing legacy farmers who have done a very good job year-over-year but adopt new practices and then succeed, that’s awesome,” he said. “That’s like winning the Super Bowl for me. And luckily, we get to do that every spring.”