City-born Tom Jones never accepted the argument that you have to grow up on a farm and inherit land to become a farmer. Today Mr. Jones farms 3,000 acres in central Illinois where the topsoil is six-feet deep. He's turning a profit in the good years and surviving the poor ones even though his roots are in the bustling town of Bloomington, Ill.
Perhaps because his background is business, not farming, Tom Jones has worked his way through bad years without relying on federal farm price supports. Still bitter about President Carter's Soviet grain embargo, which President Reagan ended last month, Jones hopes that the new administration will remove other restrictions and encourage all farmers to operate in a free market.
The twin-university town of Bloomington constantly edges closer to the Jones fields each year with a fresh crop of factories, shopping centers, and fast-food restaurants. Jones himself has brought some of the city with him. Given his city background, it doesn't surprise the neighbors or Tom's farmbred wife Janet that Farmer Jones does things his own way.
It seems natural that Jones runs his farm from a modern office in Bloomington. There, his busy secretary keeps track of a business that began with 50 acres just seven years ago and swiftly lost its first barn to a tornado. But today the business operates on 3,000 acres woth $40,000 an acre and is about to expand with the purchase of another farm.
Expansion could mean switching from running a grain farm with a small herd of beef catle on the side to operating an even larger grain farm but one balanced by major cattle and hog production units. Contemplating such a switch from three or four generations of grain or livestock or dairy farmers. For him, market conditions determine which type of farming is most needed at any particular time and therefore most profitable.
Very likely he will switch from one type of farming to another just as easily as he has switched from the traditional soil-turning moldboard plough to modern minimum-till techniques.
Switching ploughing techniques cut down substantially on his fuel costs and on soil erosion. But since the change also brings higher costs for soil-treatment chemicals and for new equipment, this was a business decision based on careful cost-benefit analysis.
Jones uses a wide variety of modern soil-conditioning equipment to prepare his soil, matching the combination he picks each year to the particular conditions in each field.
Then each autumn Jones hires a private testing company to sample soil in each field at $3 per acre. He could receive a similar service from the government -- but he prefers to pay for the work and figure the costs into his overall production expenses. This way, not only can he shop around for the best service , but he can be sure that his farm actually turns a profit on its own.
His approach doesn't come cheap. Equipment for the Jones farm is as expensive as it is extensive, adding up to about $750,000 altogether. I took the wheel of his immense 425 horsepower articulated Ford/Steiger tractor, now worth $110,000. Hitting a single lever, I dropped a $20,000 soil finisher into the rich earth behind the tractor. Moving effortlessly at eight miles per hour to ready a field for planting soybeans, the tractor pulled a 30-foot-wide, beautifully geometric array of discs, cultivators, and harrows through the soil. Two switches activated spray nozzles to mix a carefully calculated amount of herbicide into the churning earth.
Later that afternoon, we switched to Jones's smaller 160 horsepower International Harvester tractor to pull an ultramodern $24,000 planter -- so modern that by breaking down constantly it proves the rule that "if it works, it's obsolete." With a computerized monitor keeping constant check on the number of seeds being planted in each of 12 rows, we planted the final 15 acres to complete spring planting of 2,000 acres of corn followed by 790 acres of soybeans.
But even with his sheds filled with planting, cultivating, spraying, and harvesting equipment, Jones at times calls for outside help.
He was working full-time with his two hired men to complete planting. So when Ken Curry reported that cutworms were attacking an 80-acre fields of three-week-old corn, jones headed for a neighboring town, consulted about the latest persticide mixes, and put in a verbal order to have a commercial rig spray the field immediately. That quick order for chemicals added $920 to Jones's production costs for that field. But we checked the field and found black cutworms doing their deadly work, leaving small but telltale gaps in the neat rows of corn.
In a neighbor's field, the gaps had gone unnoticed and grown into 50-foot diameter circles of bare ground. Cutworm damage like that quickly makes it worth checking each field daily and spraying immediately at $11.50 an acre to prevent a drastic loss in yields.
The payoff for Tom and Janet Jones is average yields of more than 145 bushels of corn and 50 bushels of soybeans per acre. "Theoretically," says Jones, "if everything worked perfectly, we could have 220-bushel corn this year, but we'll probably get 100." Even 100 would be a welcome improvement over last year's drough-decimated 80-bushel average.
Farmer Jones doesn't only invest in the latest equipment to maximize yields. He and his farm workers regularly attend university courses to hone their agricultural skills.
He also makes use of his seat on the grain-trading Chicago Board of Trade to keep track of where prices are heading and to hedge against price fluctuations. He has just planted his seventh crop. But already he has locked in a price for himself by selling 70 percent of his expected crop through futures contracts at the Board of Trade.
Jones is confident about the future, figuring that world demand for food is bound to increase and bound to create a good price for his products. As for the government, he says, "I just wish they would let the market float, stay out of it, and let farmers get on with their work like any other business."