Originally written and published in Spring 2015 Money Matters Magazine
Teaching or farming? Mark Ruff had a choice to make. He studied to be a teacher in college, graduated, and jumped into his own classroom. But he just couldn’t ignore an itch to leave the hustle and bustle inside for the land and soil outside. Mark followed his instinct and has never looked back.
To ply his new trade, Mark needed capital, and a lot of it! There were start-up costs for equipment, fertilizer, seed, and a host of other operating expenses. He and his wife, Marcia, relied on their excellent reputation (and not much else) to borrow almost 100% of the funds necessary to launch their new business venture, Ruff Farms in Circleville.
By way of 30 land partners, today he successfully farms almost 4,000 acres of corn and soy beans in Pickaway County. This diversified farming operation provides value to his land partners through outstanding management and stewardship. “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies responsibility in planning and management,” Mark said. “We are focused on being good stewards of their property.”
Mark rents most of this farmland in order to concentrate his capital expenses on what it takes to operate a farm rather than own it. He touts the major benefit of land partnership as the accountability he can provide to each of the land owners. They regularly share chemical and fertilizer application information, harvest data and the results of bi-annual soil sampling. The farm also utilizes yield monitors, an electronic tool combined with GPS technology, that collect data on crop performance for any given year. The yield information allows the farm to be more environmentally conscious and scientific about what treatments are applied to the fields. “Landlords who know what’s going on and understand current expenses and practices might be more supportive of the renter’s management,” he said.
In order to improve land value and productivity on his rented land, Ruff Farms provides surface drainage improvements and has expanded their equipment inventory to allow the installation of systematic tile drainage. They’ve added gravel driveways to farms that needed improved access for machinery as well as routinely maintaining the aesthetic value of each property, including perimeter and waterway mowing and fence row maintenance. Mark displays a “Proudly Farmed by Ruff Farms” sign on each property and shares that those simple sign advertisements bring in approximately 65% of their business.
Fiercely protective of the Ruff Farms brand, Mark and Marcia firmly believe in annual communication, face-to-face meetings, and the use of best practices as they develop relationships with their land partners. Every September, the family hosts an annual ‘Thank You Dinner’ for vendors, land partners, employees and neighbors. While the majority of the evening is certainly social, another is focused on educating the guests about the farm and the business’ future. Additionally, Ruff sends an annual newsletter updating landowners on the business of the farm – sharing crop imaging maps, soil test results and cropping plans, as well as personal family and employee updates.
Mark and Marcia also have a busy life outside of farming. Marcia is celebrating her 20th year of teaching at Westfall Elementary School in Williamsport, Ohio. Since 2000, they have awarded the Ruff Farms Scholarship to Westfall High School students pursuing a career where they can advocate for, educate about, or promote agriculture. Mark has served on the Pickaway County Farm Bureau board for 18 years, is a member of the Westfall Board of Education and was proud to be named one of five “America’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers” by DTN (a national farm media company) in July of 2013 (the selection is based on a number of factors including management practices, innovation in agriculture and community service).
Farming and teaching are about as far apart on the business spectrum as farming and banking. Fortunately, Mark and Heartland Bank have brought both closer together and Mark continues to foster the relationship as an integral part of his success.