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Clafin Farms' success comes through self-sufficiency and having the right key players.

By: Joann Pipkin

Claflin FamilyAs the Ozarks hills fade in the distance, the four-lane opens to the world of big tractors. Barren land lay in waiting, though, on this early spring day. Mother Nature’s mark is left by way of standing water and parked equipment.

Turning west toward the Kansas line, rural Missouri brings with it a sense of calm. Family and farming go hand in hand on the prairie in southern Vernon County near Sheldon. Here, three generations of Claflins find success amid a myriad of enterprises, each one a complement to the other.

At the helm, the somewhat soft-spoken Charles Claflin, is quick to credit his “team” for keeping the ball rolling on this multi-faceted family farm.

The Team
Perhaps Charles Claflin’s farming philosophy is best described by words he once read from Warren Buffett.

“Don’t ever invest in something you don’t understand,” Claflin recites. “Don’t get involved in businesses that are not going to complement your core business.”

Today, Claflin Farms encompasses “enough acres to keep us busy,” according to Charles. The rented and owned acreage grows corn, soybeans, wheat and milo. A commercial cow/calf operation, as well as custom litter application, trucking and rental properties complete the farm’s diversity.

The Claflin team includes Charles’ wife, Michelle, parents Tom and Janie, nephew Justin Hancock and niece Kelsey Hancock. A staff of both full- and part-time employees completes the 13-member roster.

“We do everything in-house except for really technical stuff, like overhauls,” Claflin explains. “There are times that it stretches us pretty thin. We start to feel like a rubber band.”

Claflin calls himself a product of the 1980s, an era he remembers well. Farmers did everything themselves back then with little cash on hand for extra expenditures.

“Everything we do in terms of custom work complements the farm so costs can be spread out,” Claflin notes. “We have one guy that just does dirt work like building terraces, waterways, clearing timber.”

And, the farm hauls its own grain and chicken litter. A spreader is owned for litter application. Soil sampling, prescriptions, fertility and spraying are all completed in-house as well.

“That’s how we’ve been able to bring more family members back into the operation,” Claflin says. “Everybody kind of has his or her own little piece of the operation, so there’s not so much of a conflict.”

Bringing Kelsey and Justin onboard has allowed Claflin to turn over the cattle component of the operation to them. Both have degrees in animal science.

“The livestock have been a good complement to the operation,” Claflin explains. “I laugh because we run the cows where we can’t get a tractor. We have built miles of fence to (close off) odd-shaped pastures.”

Some pastures might only house 15 or 20 cows, while others 45 to 50. “It’s not a very efficient way of managing the cows, because it takes more bulls, but that’s the most efficient use of the grass,” Claflin explains. “Otherwise, it would just be wasteland.”

Michelle joined the operation in 2004 when youngest daughter Carly started school. The former schoolteacher logs more than her share of tractor hours and helps out with data entry. Middle daughter Caitlin, a student at Oklahoma State University, thrives in the soil sampling and prescription environment, and helps out when she’s home on break.

Claflin's truck Claflin Farms not only markets corn to George's Poultry and Opal Foods, an egg business, but also custom applies litter for the company.

Charles’ father, Tom, keeps the road hot, running errands and picking up parts for the operation, in addition to spraying and running a combine during harvest. Mom Janie manages the rental property.

Having ownership is crucial, Claflin says, to the overall success of the business.

While Justin already has some cows of his own as part of the operation, Kelsey earns her own set of keys, so to speak, with a group of replacement heifers kept specifically for her.

“If you don’t give ownership, those coming in start absorbing the operation,” he says. “That’s what stretches you thin. You’ve got to have some skin in the game.”

Hence the reason expansion must complement the existing business, according to Claflin. “Otherwise, you are taking on extra debt for something you can’t spread out,” he reasons.

Changing Roles
A self-proclaimed dirt farmer, Claflin’s attention to everyday business is perhaps what most sets him apart from others in the industry.

Networking with friends and other FCS Financial members is paramount. Michelle explains, “Attending the FCS Financial conferences and networking, those people are just like us. They endure the same struggles we do, from farm transition to employee management.”

Unlike other producers when it comes to charging through communication challenges, both Charles and Michelle know the key workers are also the key managers.

“You’ve got to all be on the same page,” Michelle says.

“And, moving in the same direction,” Charles chimes in.

In a day and time when so many farmers find each other needing to switch to a more hands-off work and hands-on management role in running their operations, Claflin says the switch hasn’t been easy, but it was one he had to make.

In August 2014, about 10 days before harvest, Claflin went to the doctor at the urging of a cousin. He hadn’t really been feeling well for months. He was out of breath just from walking to the shop, and was scared to check on irrigators for fear of passing out.

In the end, that doctor visit sent him straight to the hospital in Kansas City with a heart attack. Although stents were an option, open-heart surgery was the better choice.

“We had to have a pretty major family discussion in the hospital as to what we were going to do,” Charles explains. “I told (my dad), ‘we’ve got a really good ball team.’”

The Claflin team trudged ahead managing a bin buster harvest while Charles was recovering.

“It was a wake up call,” Claflin says of the heart attack. Doctors told him it would be a year before he was over the soreness from the surgery. At 46, Claflin says it’s been tough to keep the pace he once did.

Still, relying on his team put his mind at ease. “I have spent a lot of time trying to find people that will work well with the other employees,” Claflin explains.

“We don’t have a high turnover rate,” he continues. “We’ve got (a good team) because of the people. We all work well together. Everyone understands that working long hours during planting and harvesting are part of the job.”

While Michelle still says the farm needs three of Charles, the operation can be more successful with him sitting right behind the desk.

Business First
When Charles and Michelle returned to the farm after graduating from OSU, the Conservation Reserve Program was in full swing; there was very little land to rent.

Charles took his hand at doing dirt work and other farming elements for a while.

Claflin's with Jay Sloniker FCS Financial's Jay Sloniker (left) works closely with Michelle & Jay Clafllin on real estate & equipment purchases as well as crop insurance.

Since then, land rent has exploded and $7 corn has made that easy to justify. Now commodity prices have reversed and profit margins have narrowed very quickly. Managing input costs is a top priority. Making money with $7 corn was easy, Claflin says, while $3.50 corn is a challenge.

Claflin’s degree in agricultural economics with an option in farm and ranch management makes his farm manager hat fit well.

According to FCS Financial’s Jay Sloniker, “It’s a huge challenge to take the producer hat off and put on the financial planner, manager hat. These guys have done an extremely good job of doing that. Simply one of the reasons is because of the hours they’ve put in.”

Growth within the operation has evolved out of shear necessity, Claflin says.

While today corn comprises nearly 90 percent of the farm’s crop make-up, it hasn’t always been that way. His dad was never one to grow corn, and Claflin recalls a time when the seed dealer inquired whether Tom knew of his son’s intentions to plant the golden kernels.

“We had always planted milo,” Claflin explains. Weed control issues and yield reduction pushed him to make the switch. “That was about the time much of the poultry industry changed its feed rations over to predominately corn.”

The farm now not only markets corn to George’s Poultry and Opal Foods, an egg business, but also custom applies litter for the company, mostly within a 50-mile radius of Sheldon.

Claflin also uses litter on his own operation and credits that natural fertilizer with helping to reduce hay consumption per cow and improving pasture fertility.

Cover crops are planted on the farm’s crop ground. “Turnips can be grazed through the winter,” Claflin explains, “so the only time we really need a lot of hay is when we have snow or ice. We just don’t feed a lot of hay anymore.”

Realizing money comes from the ground up, profits per acre began to go up when soil sampling became an integral part of the operation, Claflin says.

Adds Michelle, “We have made leaps and bounds in terms of profitability, because we are applying the nutrients that the crops need.”

Rental property became part of the farm’s business entities over the years with land purchases. Over the last twenty years, the rental property has turned into a full-time business with the purchase of more houses in town.

“(Charles) makes sure that every penny is accounted for,” Michelle says. “He doesn’t make any kind of decision without knowing how much it’s going to cost and how much it will make the operation.”

Sloniker adds, “Really, they do an excellent job of separating emotions from business decisions and a lot of people fall short in that area.”

Those delicate family-business decisions come in black and white for the Claflins, Sloniker says. “These guys are well ahead of the curve in terms of using factual information to make business decisions and separating it from the emotional components.”

For Claflin, working with FCS Financial just made business sense. Attractive interest rates first led him there. The client-customer relationship has blossomed from there. Today, the Claflin’s work with FCS Financial for real estate and equipment loans as well as crop insurance.

They realize the true value of relationships. “(Jay) is easy to work with and get a hold of,” Charles says. “And, if you can’t reach Jay, he’s got a good ball team, too.”

Michelle credits her husband with finding people who know the answer when her husband doesn’t know something. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know, but I should find out.’”

“He’s got a knack for finding the people who have the answers,” Sloniker adds.

Still, Claflin says he’s found success simply because he’s surrounded himself with successful people.

All in all, self-sufficiency is the driver in the success of Claflin Farms. “They are constantly striving to make sure they are self sufficient and gain that competitive advantage, especially in recent years when earnings have been good,” Sloniker notes. “A lot of people have gotten pretty complacent and relaxed in their risk management and marketing during these times. This operation is run even in good years just like’s it’s run in lean years.”

While it’s been said that bigger is better, for the Claflins its “better is better before bigger is better.”

“There’s an effort here to make sure they are doing as good a job as they can on every acre before they take that same resource and use it to cover more acres,” Sloniker adds.

“Our pattern isn’t any different than other successful farm operations,” Claflin sums up. “Every operation our size has diversified, but they’re doing almost everything in-house. If somebody else is making money at it, why can’t you, too?”
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