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Houin family hosts farm tour

June 26, 2012

BREMEN — Watch out for robots in Bremen, Indiana! That’s right—robots right out in the cornfield of the Marvin Houin Farms at 7563 Plymouth-Goshen Trail near Bremen. This state-of-the-art farm was honored as the last stop on the Indiana Farm Management Tour June 20 and 21.
The annual tour, presented by the Purdue Agricultural Economics Department and the Cooperative Extension Service, focuses only on cutting edge farm management operations in the state. This year, Marshall County was chosen to highlight four different businesses. Farm management and economics is a vital topic in today’s agricultural industry. In witness to this, the Purdue Department of Agricultural Economics currently has 520 students enrolled in this major. This correlates directly with the rise in farmland value.
The Houin enterprise is certainly no slacker in contemporary methods as technology has come to the forefront of farm operations. Unlike many farms today which are inherited from ancestors, Marvin and Diane Houin began by buying 88 acres of land in 1978. They were not novices, however. Both had grown up on family farms, and both were teaching in the Bremen Public Schools, where Marvin was the Ag. teacher for 15 years. On this small farm they were able to raise hogs in a farrow-to-finish operation while still teaching, which sustained the farm in the early years.
In the 1980s they suffered a major fire which destroyed a barn, a tractor, and a number of livestock. Using this event to reorient their future, they moved toward crop production. At the same time, hog prices were beginning to take a downturn. They were able to exit the hog industry before the worst of the decline.
At this point, Marvin left teaching to focus on full-time crop farming. The business was able to expand on rented acreage and share cropping land that his brother, Dr. Herman Houin, purchased near their base of operations.
Enter now their son Charlie, who graduated from Purdue’s College of Agriculture five years after Marvin retired from teaching. Charlie came to the management team with fresh ideas on technology in agricultural systems, including newer machines available and genetic and information technology.
The key to the Houin’s success on their 3,000 acre corn and soybean operation is precision farming. Instead of planting the same seed and fertilizing it the same way on every field, modern GPS technology has made specialization possible. Area farmers are aware of the variation in soil types which can occur in a given field. The Houins use “subfields” (portions of a field) of five acres each. In cases where the soil varies greatly, the subfields are only 2.5 acres.
Now, using a smaller subfield area, soil can be tested for chemical composition. With GPS technology, each 5-acre or 2.5-acre subfield can be located both on a map and on the ground. Computer programs and past experience provide formulas for ideal planting density, spraying needs, and fertilizer application. Yield analysis from previous years on each subfield allows individual corrections on the formulas to maximize yield in each subfield.
Of course, information is useless if it cannot be implemented. Here is where the “robots in the cornfield” are essential. While there are no actual robots, the farm machinery operates in the same manner through computer programming. The planting, spraying, fertilizing, and harvesting machinery is all equipped with computer-assisted functions and GPS location technology. It could not operate without human intervention, but the machines are not manually controlled. This enables variation in the application rate of each product from subfield to subfield. Precision farming is dependent upon testing analysis and a prescription (computer program) for each subfield. Modern farming has definitely progressed from the “by guess and by golly” method. As Charlie describes it, it is nothing more than putting a portable drive (“smart stick”) into the port of each farm machine and letting it do its thing.
Precision farming began at the Houins upon Charlie’s return from Purdue. He manages soybean production as well as information technology for the entire farm. Besides the obvious value to crop production at the subfield level, the variable-rate equipment and software have been a boon in terms of information gathering for two reasons: It enables the Houins to conduct analyses of performance and design their own experiments; and it allows them to form a baseline for expected yields and returns when they begin planting on newly-rented ground.
Marvin, on the other hand, manages the corn production on the entire farm and primarily runs the farm’s Beck’s seed dealership started in 2006.
Other family members are essential to this family farm operation also. Diane continues to teach and bring in a steady, dependable income. She also combines during harvest season. Charlie’s wife Betsy maintains the farm’s internet presence with a Facebook page, runs numerous farm errands, and actively rears the next generation of Houin family farmers. Marvin’s brother Herman competed in farmland auctions near the Houin’s farm and purchased acreage as an investment, which allows the farm additional acres to share crop. In addition to their full-time employee Herman Ginther, family members work part-time during peak seasons. Marvin’s step-brother Bob Bules has done this for eleven years. Other, younger part-timers are closely connected as well. The Houins say: “Our employees are our neighbors and family, and the more we work together the better our productivity and profit become.”
Educational sessions on the farm during the tour were well designed and presented. Craig Dobbins, professor of agricultural economics, led a session on “Alternative Cropland Leases,” in which he compared the pros and cons of cash rent, crop share lease, and flexible cash lease. Interestingly, he is of the opinion that cash rent and flexible leases provide about the same return if the cash rent price is set appropriately. This is because in the flex lease percent of gross, the owner is usually guaranteed a minimum return (as in cash rent). In the flex lease trigger model, the owner is guaranteed a minimum rent and the producer also gets a guaranteed minimum fee, with the remaining profits shared by the two parties in some percentage. There are minimum guarantees involved in each lease model.
While Marvin is an effective speaker having stood in front of students and taught for fifteen years, Charlie also proved his ability to communicate clearly and concisely as he gave his breakout session on precision farming. The Houin farms not only test soil, but also take compaction samples, he pointed out. The latter help to determine in each field what kind of till is appropriate, from a deep rip to no-till. All forms of tilling are employed based upon the varied test results. He also pointed out that the biggest savings result from the auto shut-off systems and seeding systems.
Marvin, the final presenter, talked about family succession and the continuation of the farm after he retires in about ten years. Charlie is the only child who is interested in participating in the management of the farm operation. Marvin and Diane have discussed this matter with all of their children. One step has been to encourage Charlie to buy/rent his own acres as finances permit. The farm operation, including equipment purchase and maintenance, is shared by the Houins and would presumably pass to Charlie as the “business” part of the operation which he is instrumental in fostering. The owned land, then, is a separate issue from the operation. The Houin family continues to explore the best ways to divide or pass on these assets to future Houins. This is a similar challenge for many farm families today.

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