Feature

Masters of metal

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

 

They’ve been mastering this skill for nearly 50 years, ever since Kenneth and Barbara Carr established a metal fabrication shop in 1970 in Lebanon, Mo. They named their company Carmeco—an amalgamation of Carr Metal Company—and began making agricultural equipment in a 6,000-square-foot facility. Today, Carmeco has grown to nearly 100,000 square feet and handles a wide range of metal products, from appliance components to semi-trailer parts.

Both Kenneth and Barbara have passed away, but their descendants carry on Carmeco. Their son, Jeff, his wife, Janet, and their sons, John, Jared and Joe, run the company.

“This is all I’ve ever known,” said John. “This place started before I was born, and I grew up here—my brothers did, too. All we know is how to make things out of metal.”

Joining the family business full time in 2000 after college, John is the company’s chief visionary officer and has helped expand Carmeco’s identity as a “job shop”— manufacturing metal products for others—to include self-contained businesses of its own. In 2003, the Carr family branched out and bought Osagian Canoes, a popular brand of aluminum watercraft, which are now made in Carmeco’s Lebanon facility.

“My brothers and I decided we needed to diversify because we’d lost some business to China, and we wanted to have control over a product that we owned,” John said. “Since then, we’ve gotten a lot more productive and gotten some of that business back, but we’re still looking for other ways to grow the company.”

In 2006, Carmeco returned to its agricultural roots when the family purchased a bulk feed bin business, TOBB Products, from its owner, Steve Ennis. The product line was the perfect fit for Carmeco, John said. Not only was the factory outfitted to handle the fabrication, but the Carrs also raise cattle and know firsthand the positives and pitfalls of feeding equipment. They started a cow/calf operation 25 years ago, and the brothers and their dad recently partnered in purchasing another 330 acres adjacent to family land. They are removing timber and renovating pastures with plans to expand their beef operation, which currently numbers 60 head.

“The gentleman who was making the product wanted to get out of the business and approached us with an opportunity to buy his company,” John explained. “We knew we could make these bins. We had the equipment, and it was something that interested us as farmers ourselves. We understand that when it comes time to feed livestock, farmers need to be fast and efficient. And we know that they’re always looking for ways to save some money.”

TOBB products fill a niche between small-scale producers with only a few head of livestock and large cattle operations, John said. Stationary bulk bins are available in capacities of one, two, three and five tons along with two-ton and three-ton portable models.

“I know farmers are looking for ways to save money wherever possible,” he said. “We fill a need for producers who want to buy feed in bulk at a lower cost per ton but don’t have enough head to need a great big grain bin. They can safely store their feed in our bins and take advantage of price breaks when they can. Plus, it saves the waste and hassle of dealing with feed bags.”

After acquiring TOBB and bringing the manufacturing process in house, Carmeco adapted the design to make it easier to manufacture, which helped with quality issues, John said. For example, Carmeco’s team added flanges to the edges of the steel components to streamline the welding process. And they listened to customer feedback and devised a convenient handle that allows the lid to be opened from the ground rather than having to climb to the top of the bin.

TOBB bins are not only made in Missouri, they’re made almost entirely with Missouri materials, from steel to tires, John said. It’s a point of pride for the company and for MFA Incorporated, which officially added TOBB Products as a Farm Supply vendor in February 2017. MFA and its affiliates are the main Midwest distributors for the product line.

“Given TOBB’s location in south central Missouri, their affordable prices and quality of product produced, it was a no-brainer for us to grow a relationship with them to better service our stores and producers,” said Eric Allen, MFA farm supply product manager. “The folks at TOBB Products are very easy to work with and keep customer service to a high standard.”

This customer-centric focus helps set TOBB apart from the competition, said Sales Manager Kris Deitz.

“Simply put, we take care of our customers,” Kris said. “We take pride in manufacturing quality products that serve their needs, and we stand behind those products.”

Bins are made of 14-gauge and 16-gauge steel and feature an all-welded construction to contribute to their longevity. Portable models are designed with full axles and leaf-spring suspension for smoother hauling.

“TOBB bins are built to last, but they’re not over-built,” Kris said. “There’s a balance between manufacturing it to be quality while also making it affordable. That’s why you see competitive pricing on TOBB products.”

All the bins are painted in standard colors such as gray, blue, red and green, and they can also be custom-painted upon request.

“We’ve had farmers who wanted a bin to match their barn and distributors who wanted a specific color to match their logo,” Kris said. “That’s another way to be a leader in customer service—give the customers what they want.”

The company’s 55 employees also embody that spirit of customer service, John said. Monthly small group meetings allow the staff to share concerns and ideas with management to not only improve the work environment but also the products.

“We want employees to be involved in the process because they are the ones making these products every day,” he said. “We feel like we have the best employees in the world, and they tend to stay around here awhile. As a matter of fact, we have a gentleman, Glen Mebruer, who’s worked here for 48 years. He was the first non-family employee, so he’s been with us from Day 1.”

In 2016, Carmeco expanded the TOBB line to include creep feeders with 162-bushel capacity. Other products are in the planning stages, John said, including metal bunk feeders and a smaller pull-behind bin designed for an all-terrain vehicle. The proverbial wheels are always turning, he said, looking for the next niche for his family’s company.

“One of our goals for Carmeco is to get into other product lines or create something we can manufacture that makes feeding cattle easier or saves money for farmers,” John said. “We’re working toward taking the business to the next level. Between me and my brothers, we have 10 children, and we want there to be a future here for at least some of them.”

For more information on TOBB bins, talk with the farm supply specialists at your MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location, or visit online at www.tobb.biz.

Critical care

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Health care coverage is a considerable concern these days—especially if you’re self-employed. Farming remains one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, and finding the right coverage can be critical. This tale of two farmers gives different perspectives on how they handle health insurance.

When row-crop farmer Kyle Marcum of Centralia, Mo., learned his family’s annual health premium would reach $15,000 for 2017, he dropped coverage for himself, his wife, Tina, and their daughter Megan, 15.

“I’m not working my tail to the bone to make money for doctors and insurance companies,” Marcum said. “We just hope and pray nothing major happens with our health.”

Marcum is not alone. Of 330 million Americans, approximately 28 million remained uninsured in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares to about 48 million who were uninsured when the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also called Obamacare, was first adopted in 2010. Initially, individuals were required to have insurance or pay a penalty, but that mandate will be repealed in 2019. The scrapping of the requirement was part of a new tax law President Trump signed last December.

Fellow Centralia farmer Randy Ridgway, on the other hand, unfortunately knows firsthand the value of having health insurance. His wife, Angie, died in 2014 after a battle with breast cancer. She had health coverage through her job as a school teacher.

“My wife’s experience showed me it’s important to have health insurance,” Ridgway said. “If we didn’t have Angie’s insurance, it would have broke us. She fought cancer for nine years, and the medical bills would have totaled $3 to $4 million without insurance.”

Ridgway, a full-time farmer, was never on his wife’s plan—he purchased his insurance separately. At first, the ACA lowered his insurance costs compared to his previous plan but kept increasing in price until it became unaffordable. When his annual policy skyrocketed to $18,000 a few years ago, he sought alternatives. He now has a private short-term plan that lowers his family’s premium to $4,428. The plan covers Ridgway and his 23-year-old son, Grant, who farms with him.

“I’m now paying $369 per month for both of us,” Ridgway said. “It’s affordable.”

The ACA remains controversial, and it continues to shape insurance markets. Here’s how it works. You can go through a broker or obtain ACA coverage online at marketplace.gov. The federal government doesn’t provide the insurance—private insurance companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield offer the coverage. The government makes the platform and the rules that insurers must follow.

Depending on income, you may be eligible for federal subsidies or tax credits that lower costs.

“Farmers are often described as being land rich but cash poor,” said Shoshanah Inwood, a rural sociologist with Ohio State University who conducted a 2017 study of farmers and health insurance. “The ACA benefited some farmers because subsidies were based on income rather than assets like land. A lot of farmers got health insurance for the first time through the ACA.”

However, commercial farmers often generate too much income to qualify for subsidies, and without them, the insurance can be expensive. Also, the ACA requires you to predict next year’s income to determine your eligibility for a subsidy, and it’s difficult to forecast income that varies with weather and commodity prices.

“2018 might have been a good year to sign up,” Marcum said. “We’re in a disaster area due to a drought. We were already feeding hay to our cattle in August, when our pasture dried up. Our corn yield will probably drop in half over last year. And tariff threats have lowered the price of soybean futures by $2 a bushel.”  

Another problem farmers find with the ACA Marketplace is that often only one insurance provider offers coverage in rural counties. That includes Audrain County, where Marcum and Ridgway live. Long distances to health care providers can present further problems for rural residents, and doctors and hospitals are becoming more selective about plans they’ll accept.

That’s why many people, including farmers, are seeking private insurance coverage outside the ACA Marketplace. However, it’s often difficult to obtain coverage without belonging to a group. Most farmers are self-employed and don’t qualify for group coverage offered by employers.

Ridgway purchased his short-term health plan from Stan Cuba of Cuba Insurance Agency in Liberty, Mo. Cuba specializes in insurance for rural people in six states, including about 600 farmers.

“There’s a huge market for short-term health coverage in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri,” Cuba said. “This is a great option for people who don’t qualify for ACA subsidies and are in good health.”

As Cuba explains, a federal law passed during the Obama administration allows for short-term health insurance lasting 90 days. Missouri now allows short-term insurance to renew automatically for a year. Cuba said that the Trump administration is working toward allowing coverage to extend up to a year as in Missouri. However, after the year is up, policy-holders must answer questions about their health, and if they report a problem, the company may refuse coverage.

Ridgway’s National General Accident Health policy comes with an annual deductible of $5,000, which means generally, after that level is met, insurance covers some remaining expenses.   

Not everyone loves short-term plans. Sidney Watson, a St. Louis University law professor and health care expert, expresses caution.

“I worry that we’ll see a return to what happened before the Affordable Care Act,” she told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in an Aug. 2 article. “People will buy a short-term plan thinking it offers good quality coverage, and then be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills when they get pregnant or sick and find out their short-term plan doesn’t cover the care they need.”

Cuba, a broker for the ACA Marketplace, offers hope for ACA improvements in 2019.

“Overall, states in the Midwest will see much lower increases than in previous years,” he said. “In Missouri, companies like Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield and AmBetter are requesting significantly lower increases. In some cases, customers will see decreases. The market is stabilizing, and that works in favor of farmers and small business owners. There has never been a better time to explore health care options in the ACA.”

One of the benefits of the ACA, Cuba pointed out, is that coverage is guaranteed even if you have a pre-existing condition.

That’s one reason the Marcums said they took the risk of dropping their health insurance.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if I have a heart attack or if one of us gets cancer,” Marcum said. “But since the ACA can’t refuse coverage to anyone, I figure we can sign up during the year-end enrollment period if we need coverage.”

So far, going without health insurance has worked out, he said.

“When we tell doctors we don’t have health insurance, they drop the price of a visit from say $150 to $75,” Marcum said. On the other hand, he pointed out, Tina’s thyroid medication went from $45 a month to $75.

There are other options, Cuba said. Instead of insurance, some of his customers are enrolled in health care cost-sharing ministries.

“People are hearing about these Christian plans from friends and neighbors, and they’re flocking to it,” Cuba said. “Christian Medishare is huge in Missouri—I have 70 customers on it. The plans I work with pay well, and the administrators are friendly, knowledgeable and patient. I’ve heard no complaints.”

These plans are not insurance, Cuba explained. Participants don’t pay premiums—they pay a standard monthly share into a pool. For example, one of Cuba’s customers pays $560 a month in a monthly family share. Administrators provide funds to pay medical bills after they arise.

Still, some farmers delay purchasing health insurance until they turn 65, when they become eligible for federal Medicare coverage. With Medicare, you must continue to pay premiums and deductibles, but plans are generally more affordable than what is available to those under 65.  

In the health care debate, Americans disagree on solutions, and farm organizations reflect that divide.

“We hope to see America’s health care laws changed to provide more competition and bring costs down,” said Eric Bohl, director of public affairs and advocacy for the Missouri Farm Bureau. “Allowing farmers to band together and form their own insurance pools would go a long way toward sharing the risks inherent in farming. Top-down governmental control hasn’t brought down costs. We need more transparency and more options, not more restrictions and mandates.”

Missouri Farm Bureau recently began offering a member-only group health plan for small businesses, including farms, but you need at least two employees to qualify. Cuba Insurance Agency offers similar group health plans for small businesses. However, Inwood said forming farmer pools may prove difficult.

“The average age of farmers at 58.9 makes them subject to higher-cost ratings,” Inwood said. “This, along with farmers’ high risk of injury, will likely make insurance rates high in a farmer-only pool.”

No one can predict what will happen with health coverage—whether the ACA Marketplace will continue, or whether new options will arise for those who can’t find affordable solutions. Congress is considering options to include health coverage in the Farm Bill that expires at year-end 2018. Led by Texas, 20 states are launching legal challenges to the ACA.

In the meantime, Kyle Marcum said he isn’t optimistic about the future of health care for his family and fellow farmers.

“We may look at health coverage again for 2019,” he said, “but we’re waiting for the industry and the politics to settle down.”

For more information, visit the ACA Marketplace at healthcare.gov, or get Medicare info at Medicare.gov. Keep in mind that many health plans require you to make a decision by Dec. 15 for 2019 coverage.

Birds of a feather

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

On a county road, just before the town of  Loose Creek, Mo., the hills of the surrounding landscape give way to deep valleys only to rise again into another sloping arch. It’s a familiar hallmark of this region of the state.

“On the right, you’ll pass a road called Turkey Hollow Lane,” directed John Stegeman, owner of Stegeman Farms. “That takes you down into the homestead.”

Continue past the lane, and turkey houses start to come into view. John pulls a tractor into a shed across from one of the houses. He’s in the midst of readying equipment for harvest on this October afternoon.  

John bought the farm in 1999 and his son, Chris, began working with his father full time in 2015. Though they also raise row crops and cattle, turkey production is their main source of income. They just finished cleaning one of the houses—tilling the existing pine shavings used for bedding and adding new.

“Our family has been raising turkeys on this farm since probably the late ’30s or early ’40s,” John said. “When my uncles decided to retire, I thought I’d give it a try.”

John is the third generation to “give it a try.” Chris will be the fourth. In the early decades of the farm, the family raised range birds. Now, several large turkey houses dot the landscape.

“Back when my grandfather raised turkeys, they raised 300 birds a year,” John said. “That was enough. Now we raise 90,000 a year when we’re in full production. It’s what it takes now to make a living.”

John and Chris raise toms. While hens are typically raised for roasting, like the kind you might find on your Thanksgiving table, toms typically go to facilities where food items such as deli meat and frozen meals are processed and packaged.

A typical day for Chris starts around 7 a.m., while John takes care of phone calls and paperwork. John will join him shortly thereafter.

The turkeys have to be checked three times a day, seven days a week. At any given time, the Stegemans will have between 30,000 and 45,000 birds on their farm.

“We check for all the basics—mortality, water leaks and feed,” John explained. “As we walk through the barns, we also check to make sure the equipment is working.”

Like other poultry, turkeys thrive in different temperatures at different stages of their lives. The temperature is mild on this day in mid-October, brisk even, one of the first cool days of fall. A thermometer inside the building detects temperature changes, and a computer controls automatic curtains on the outside of the house, raising and lowering them to let in air for cross ventilation. When the curtains are fully closed, exhaust fans turn on, bringing in fresh air.

“There’s an optimum temperature for the turkeys, and it varies throughout their lives,” Chris said. “There’s a guideline we go by. When we get them, they are a day or less old, and they start out at 92 degrees. They will finish out at 19 weeks around 55 degrees. As the birds get older, they like to be cooler.”

Because of this, weather is one of the greatest adversaries for turkey producers, just like other farmers.

“Summertime can be pretty hard,” John said. “The heat and humidity is rough on them. Someone is here all the time in the summer. If we had a power outage or a well fail, we have to be on top of that right away. Disease can also be a challenge, but that’s something most producers have to watch for, no matter what kind of livestock you raise.”

Chris and John are independent turkey growers. In Missouri, there are six independent growers who raise birds for West Liberty Foods in West Liberty, Iowa, a meat-processing company owned by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative. Five of those growers are located in Osage County. As independent producers, John said he and Chris have more control over their farm and management practices than vertically integrated operations that produce birds for a larger corporation.

“We get to choose what breed we raise, and we get to try different and new things that come on the market,” John said. “We get to work with our own nutritionist to develop our own feed. That’s probably the biggest thing about being an independent grower—we have more choice.”

The MFA feed mill in Gerald, Mo., delivers feed to the farm two to three times per week. Over the course of its life, a turkey will eat about 100 to 110 pounds of feed, John said. The Stegemans worked with their feed nutritionist to formulate the turkey ration, which starts as a crumble and transitions to a pellet as the birds grow.

“By the time a turkey is 19 weeks old, we expect him to weigh around 42 to 43 pounds,” Chris said. “That fluctuates a little bit seasonally. In the summer, they tend to weigh 1 to 2 pounds less, whereas in the winter they may weigh a little more.”

At 19 weeks, the birds are loaded onto a truck for shipment to West Liberty Foods. The facility mainly produces food items for customers to sell under their own brand names. When they reach the plant, the turkeys are extensively tested for food safety requirements.

“Everything is checked and double-checked before that bird ever goes to market,” John said. “Blood is tested two weeks before slaughter, and fat is tested seven days prior. All meat is antibiotic-
free, even if it doesn’t say it on the label, and we as farmers have done a poor job of promoting that to consumers.”

Currently, Missouri stands as the fifth-largest producer of turkeys in the U.S., behind Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and Indiana. In 2017, Missouri produced 624 million pounds of turkey, according to The Poultry Federation. Nationally, turkey production has remained relatively flat since 2012, typically somewhere between 5.5 billion and 6 billion pounds, according to the USDA. However, there’s more meat being produced overall, John pointed out.

“Right now the markets are a little depressed,” he said. “There’s a lot of meat out there, whether it’s cattle, hogs or poultry. The market is saturated, but it’s showing signs of getting better.

In 2017, the U.S. exported an estimated 611 million pounds of turkey meat. That’s up from 569 million pounds in 2016, but down from 797 million pounds in 2012. However, USDA reports that domestic consumption has seen steady increases, from 5.03 billion pounds in 2012 to an estimated 5.39 billion in 2017.

Like other sectors of agriculture, the turkey industry is cyclical, John said.

“About every eight to 10 years, it seems to cycle,” he said. “We’ll have one or two bad years, then it works itself out of it and gets good again.”

And like other sectors, John and Chris have experienced a lot of changes over the last 20 years—namely in technology. Feeding and watering systems are more advanced. Temperature regulation is now computerized. Ventilation structures are better and more efficient. Even the litter is sold as fertilizer to organic farmers. There’s little room for waste.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is in starting turkeys,” John said. “We used to have round brood stoves with a cardboard ring around each one. Now we have infrared ceiling heat that provides nice even heat. It cuts down on a lot of labor. That’s one of the top improvements I’ve seen in my career.”

In other ways, however, turkey production is timeless. In one of the Stegemans’ barns, 7-week-old birds form a kind of runway. They huddle together on one side of the barn and take off one by one at a full sprint toward the other side, wings flapping.

“That’s how they play,” Chris said as he watched.

In another barn, 15-week-old toms strut around fanning their feathers to make themselves appear large and boastful. And in three more weeks, the Stegemans will have new poults, beginning the cycle again.

“I’ve always had a love for this, a love for farming of all types,” Chris said. “I was by Dad’s side as soon as I could be. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Chris now has two children of his own, 4-year-old daughter Cora, and a 2-year-old son, also named John. Already, they follow their dad around the farm as he did with his own father.

“If my kids want to go into farming, that’s great,” Chris said. “If they don’t, that’s okay, too, but I hope I get the chance to work with them like I’ve had the chance to with my dad.” 

In This Issue

Written by webadmin on .

River, rail & road (Cover Story)
Click to see un-printed photos
How MFA manages the mechanics of moving grain
by Kerri Lotven

Season of extremes
Record heat, widespread drought spell trouble for farmers
by Allison Jenkins

Consider these steps to ‘drought-proof’ your farm
Proactive moves can help producers prepare for future weather challenges
by Matt Hill

Supplemental solution
New MFA Performance First tubs are first to include Shield Technology
by Allison Jenkins

MFA’s stewardship spectrum
Responsible use of resources spans all aspects of agriculture
by Allison Jenkins

Feed to fuel your hunt
Working dogs need proper nutrition for peak performance
by Brandon White

Intake matters when maximizing feed efficiency
Monitoring consumption helps assure accurate nutrition, optimum production
by Dr. Jim White

Do you know your soil?
Understanding variability in your fields leads to better management decisions
by Jason Worthington, Thad Becker, D.J. Vollrath

Country Corner
Want to believe in something? Try agriculture
by Allison Jenkins

UpFront
Farmers lead the way in fighting food insecurity
MFA Project Premium Program is a win-win for livestock exhibitors
Gala upsets the apple cart

Markets
Corn: October report should estimate final crop size
Soybeans: Trade negotiations continue to cause uncertainty
Cattle: Cattle inventory is largest since 2008
Wheat: Decreased stocks support potential price strength

Recipes
Marsh Madness

Marketplace
BUY, sell, trade

Viewpoint
To manage change, lead it
by Ernie Verslues

 

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