Originally written by Dan Miller and Published in The Progressive Farmer/February 2014 issue
Eagerly on in their first-generation farming career, Mark and Marcia Ruff understand the value of integrity, service and stewardship.
A visitor doesn’t get too far into a conversation with Mark Ruff before he begins to talk about the brand he and his wife, Marcia, have built for their first-generation farm. Their Ruff Farms is more than 3,000 acres and headquartered outside Circleville, Ohio, in Pickaway County. But even in 1997 when the farm was founded, the couple, fresh out of college, understood the power of the “integrity, service and stewardship,” a phrase that would come to stand for their business and success. And those words were nearly all the couple had to offer back then. Both Mark’s and Marcia’s families had farming experiences, but none of them actively farmed. Mark and Marcia, newly married, both teachers, borrowed almost 100% of the capital they needed to purchase equipment and pay their operating expenses.
“I enjoyed being a teacher,” Mark recalls. “But stuck in a building for 180 days a year was not my cup of tea. Still, this was a huge leap of faith.” Mark taught one more year and worked three years at the Ohio Farm Bureau before full-time farming.
“Our brand is reinforced and strengthened each time we follow our mission and core values in our interaction with others,” Mark says. “Our land partners…see our brand focused around integrity and stewardship. We are focused on being good stewards of their property.”
He puts the Ruff brand to work. On each field he rents, Mark posts, not seed variety signs, but one that announces to landlords and competitors that this ground is “Proudly Farmed By Ruff Farms.” Mark’s phone number is clearly displayed. “At the end of the day, our brand is our reputation,” Mark says.
The business of leasing land is not about beating the competition by $10 an acre, he says. “I don’t want to do something, or manage something halfway,” Mark says. “Bigger is not better. If I won’t place a sign on a field, then I won’t rent that field.”
Leasing Benefits. Mark doesn’t send landowners bills for mowing grassed waterways, clearing fence lines and trimming trees, or hand-pulling weeds. In fact, with a long-term lease, Mark generally agrees to apply lime and install drainage at no charge to the owner.
“I figure we both win,” he says in an earlier interview with The Progressive Farmer. “I get better yields, and the owner gets a more valuable property.”
Mark works with 15 landlords who range in age from their mid-40s to their 80s. He lost ground only once when the owners sold he property.
Mark admits not all his competitors are excited with the farm’s sharp growth. “But we do not allow them to have a legitimate reason for disliking our approach to business. That is why protecting our brand is so important.”
Ruff Farms has grown steadily in its 16 years. In the beginning the farm was heavily invested in forage production and bailing straw. The conversation to row crops-corn, wheat and soybeans-came later.
One overriding philosophy for running the farm came from his father, Luther. “Protect against the risks you can’t afford to take,” he told Mark. Luther is a retired insurance agency owner and trusted advisor.
The business is designed for reasonable profit and to provide income that “sustains the lifestyle and personal goals that Marcia and I want,” Mark says. He adds, too, that both are making plans to create farming opportunities for their three children. Matthew, 10, is the oldest. They have another son, Mitchell, 7, and a daughter, Mae, 2.
“We want to position ourselves to accept their return, but they will have to work to make a spot for themselves,” Mark explains. “That may mean additional acres or additional value-added profit centers to our core business.”
Building Blocks. Mark’s general business direction has been to build one segment of the business on top of another. Prior to each farm expansion, in acres or in capacity, Mark performs a cost-benefit analysis. He follows a list of questions. How does it fit into the operation, now and in the future? What are the costs and income opportunities? If an expansion saves money up front, does it create new costs down the road?
The straw enterprise led to a seeding and erosion control business, for example. The business basically markets straw through the farm’s straw blower. Mark treats waterways, lawns and institutional and institutional facilities, such as schools. He worked a large section of natural gas pipeline laid through Ohio.
Ruff farms has followed the same approach with crops. Mark stopped paying for the applications of crop chemicals in 2000. He began applying his own fertilizer in 2008, made possible with the puchase of a used TerraGator and tender truck. An unused cattle shed and feedlot became storage for dry fertilizer. The addition of variable-rate equipment for the TerraGator made all the earlier investments more valuable.
Mark purchases dry fertilizer throughout the year. “I won’t write checks for prepaid fertilizer anymore,” he says. “It’s like a deferred price contract on a $200,000 item. I don’t want to be an unsecured creditor.”
Ruff Farms is adding storage capacity. Its growing granary was laid out for expansion. It can hold three additional bins. The farm now has 250,000 bushels of storage. The infrastructure for it all was installed in the first phase of construction.
It has excellent capacity. A driver can dump a semi-load of grain in seven minutes. “The goal is to turn that truck. The grain leg can handle [my] harvest, and elevator hours don’t affect my operation,” Mark explains. The leg and pit move 8,000 bushels per hour.
The farm has recently purchased a self-propelled plow and trencher, as well as the technology to survey, design and install systematic drainage for all its land partners. Mark and his staff began installing tile last month.
“Our goal for that equipment will be to grow our business internally. This is a way to raise wheat, corn and soybeans more effectively. The return is to grow 40% more beans and corn year after year.”
Ruff Farms owns very little land. Mark has little interest at this point in joining the bidding wars.
“We plan to grow internally,” he says. “That is to increase our yield and profit per acre, but also to increase externally by developing new relationships with landowners.” The farm is working toward 10% year-over-year rates of growth.
Mark manages the farm through employees-something he wasn’t always comfortable doing. His practice has become to what he describes as “pushing responsibility down to them.” He has learned, he says, “to manage a management team of individuals rather than to manage every portion of the operation myself.”
Adding Expertise. This is an operating philosophy with practical applications, he finds. When Mark saw he was missing marketing opportunities due to lack of time and information, he hired Mike Hack with Futures One. Hack”understands our goals and concerns…[he will] execute those recommendations…[avoiding my] emotions of the moment.”
When Mark became frustrated with some of his cropping management results-yields, weed control, costs, incorporating new technology-he hired Carl DeBruin of United Landmark. DeBruin is “research driven and one with practical experience; he is what I consider part of my research team.”
While Mark pays close attention to his team employed on the farm, they all work directly for Chris Sawyer. Sawyer, 28, is good with a wrench and has a good, grounded philosophy for managing people. He has worked with Mark for seven years. Sawyer has oversight of daily operations, provides leadership and even input for employees’ reviews. He has a broad latitude for making decisions, Mark explains.
“The transition for him to handle daily operations has been more problematic for me than for him,” Mark admits. “I have had to learn to let go, and focus on oversight and process improvement. You don’t have to manage good people. And sometimes letting go shows you new opportunities.”
The entire staff gathers on Wednesday mornings to discuss the past week and coming week. It’s during these meetings that tasks and schedules are discussed. Training may also take place. But an important part of the meeting is for all the employees to discuss their areas of responsibility. If there is a problem, they’re expected to raise it. They don’t necessarily have to provide a solution, Mark assures them. He simply expects them to give voice to their concerns about processes and operations that might be done more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Employee Relations. Quarterly budgets and financial results are shared with all employees. Mark believes it’s important all have a sense of the farm’s financial standing and direction.
Mark is giving thought to adding a chief financial officer to Ruff Farms. He sees this person as someone who would closely manage the farm’s margins-and who may just see opportunities beyond the farm.
“There might be opportunities we are missing,” says Mark, explaining the potential promise of adding executive talent to the farm. “There are things we don’t know, because we don’t know.”
Part of Ruff Farm’s brand is in the value it contributes to the community. Mark served on the Pickaway County Farm Bureau board for 17 years, three as president. He has testified before legislators as Ohio created a Livestock Care Standards Board. He is president of the Westfall Board of Education.
He finds off-farm work rewarding. “It allows me to bring some farm culture and my agricultural background to those organizations,” he says.
Mark and Marcia give to their school. They offer an annual scholarship to a Westfall High School student planning an agricultural-related career.
Their success is their reputation. “It is a culmination of decisions on how we treat people,” Mark says. “That is all about relationship building. Our relation to the land. Our relationship to the people who own the land.”