Not your normal farm succession

NAPOLEON, N.D. -- Like other area farmers, Jody Horner and Jason Ryum are in the midst of another busy summer dominated by crops, prices, weather, field work and family.

Jason Ryum
Napoleon, N.D., farmers Jason Ryum (left) and Jody Horner check hay to see if it's dry enough to bale. The two work together closely; Jason farms what had been the farm of Jody's father. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

NAPOLEON, N.D. -- Like other area farmers, Jody Horner and Jason Ryum are in the midst of another busy summer dominated by crops, prices, weather, field work and family.

But Horner and Ryum -- who have known each other for 20 years and whose farmsteads near Napoleon, N.D., are a mile apart -- have an unusual farming arrangement that sets them apart from other area ag producers.

Jody is farming what once was his grandfather's farm. Jason, who had been a hired man on Jody's parents' farm, bought that farm and is running it.

What's more, Jody and Jason work together closely. Though each has his own land, livestock and equipment, they routinely help each other with daily farming operations.

"It's a very unusual arrangement," but one that the people involved are pulling off successfully, says Mark Sand, a Steele, N.D., banker who works with the Horner family.


Jody, 37, is a fourth-generation farmer who began farming in 1993. He rented his grandfather's farm in 1995 and bought it in 1998. He and his wife, Dawn, and their four children live on what had been his grandfather's farmstead.

His parents, Mike and Marge Horner, continued to run their own farm.

Jason, 33, moved to Napoleon in high school and began working as a hired man on Mike and Marge's farm in 1993. Later, Jason drove truck for the Coke company but continued to help out on the Mike and Marge's farm when he could.

Mike and Marge began to think about retirement a few years ago.

"I always teased him (Jason) about someday selling him the farm. Four years ago, he asked me if I was serious," says Mike, now 63.

He notes that it's virtually impossible for people to start in farming today without help from an established farmer.

"That was our goal. I wanted to see him (Jason) make it," Mike says.

Jason rented the farm "for one year to see if everything would work, if we could all work together. It only took one year" to decide the arrangement would work and that Jason would buy the farm, Marge says.


Jason and his wife, Tawnya, and their three children -- the third was born this summer -- live on Mike and Marge's farmstead. It's the farmstead on which Jody grew up and which Mike and Marge purchased from Mike's uncle and lived on for 37 years.

Strengthening the family ties even more:

- Marge grew up in a Napoleon farm family, and she and Mike bought the land owned by her parents when they retired.

- Jody farms some land owned by his father-in-law, who's also a Napoleon farmer.

Mike and Marge now live in Napoleon. Mike still owns some cattle and helps out regularly on the farm.

Jody, for his part, says he once was asked whether he had wanted to buy his parents' farm.

His answer: "I (already) had a farm to take care of. "

Just about everyone involved with any family business acknowledges occasional challenges.


It's no different in farming.

"Some days are better than others," Mike says. "We all have our ups and downs, but we just keep going."

He stresses the importance of good communication.

"If we have problems, we talk about it," he says.

Communication is particularly important because of how closely Jody and Jason work together.

"We have our own crops, we have our own cows, we all have some machinery. We're separate, but we're together, too," Jody says.

The two routinely help on each other's farms, often treating the operations interchangeably.

If there's pressing work on Jason's farm, Jody will help. If Jody needs help on a given day, Jason provides it.


"We just run back and forth. It's not that far" between the two farms, Jody says.

The two buy inputs together, too, splitting the cost based on how much each farmer uses in his own operation.

To an outsider, the close working relationship might seem problematic. Let's say, hypothetically, that Jason and Jody each has a wheat field that needs to be harvested and that there's time to combine just one before a heavy rain begins.

Whose field gets harvested?

"It comes down to where the (harvest) machinery is at and when the fields were planted," Jody says. The decision "isn't a problem."

New blood, new ideas

The rolling hills around Napoleon lend themselves to both cattle and crops.

Mike and Marge once grew mainly wheat and barley and corn for silage, and had both beef and dairy cattle. Like many other diversified farms in the area, they eventually quit the dairy business, as economies of scale pressured dairy operations to get bigger.


Jody and Jason, more recently, have brought changes to the operation.

"What one doesn't think of, the other one does," Marge says of Jason and Jody. "They keep him (Mike) on his feet."

Now, instead of just the wheat and barley that Mike and Marge once grew, Jason and Jody raise wheat, corn for grain and silage, sunflowers and, for the first time this year, soybeans.

Mike was reluctant to get into sunflowers.

"I always said I was never going to have sunflowers for the simple reason that the combine will sit out in snowstorms" with some sunflowers still unharvested, Mike says.

"Lo and behold, (one year) I combined sunflowers on Christmas Eve," he says.

Still, Mike says, "I have to admit, they (sunflowers) have done well for us."

Jody is on top of agricultural trends and advances, and Jason is working hard to learn more as well, Mike says.


"I give the guys credit," Mike says.

Happy where they're at

Jason and Jody say they're committed to both agriculture and the Napoleon community.

"That's the plan," Jason says.

Both men are active in community affairs, and their wives both work for Napoleon businesses.

One difference between the two men that might raise a few eyebrows in ag circles: Jody has been involved in the Farm Bureau, Jason in the Farmers Union. The two organizations often have differing views on politics and agricultural policy.

Jody and Jason say their respective affiliations aren't a problem.

Grain farming is more enjoyable than cattle, while cattle are more labor-intensive, they say.

This spring, blizzards during calving made the cattle even more work than usual, they say.

"Calving season was rough," Jody says.

But cattle prices are OK, and it's been an excellent summer for both hay and pastures. The wheat, corn and soybeans look good, too.

Going into harvest, everyone involved in the operation will continue to communicate, as they've always done, Mike says.

He's reluctant to advise other families in which the farm is passing to the next generation. But he does pass along one insight from his own family's experience.

"We always talk everything over. Communication is the key," Mike says.

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