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By David Knopf, News Editor
Jon Dana had an earlier taste than most of the challenges in being a farmer.
He was barely a teenager when his father J.W. died, leaving a wife and son a half-tillable farm in the hilly Knoxville area.
“His dad passed away when he was 13 and he took on a big load early,” said Jon Dana’s son, another Jon who goes by that name or the same initials as his grandfather.
“There’s as many people that call me that as Jon,” the younger Dana said.
Whatever he’s called, the latest in a line of Dana farmers is awed by what his father went through and later managed to accomplish
“I’m so proud of dad,” his son, now partner with his wife in the farm his father helped build. “I might be biased, but he’s a heck of a man.”
Today, the Danas – father, son, daughter-in-law and four full-time employees – oversee farms in four counties that contain 2,250 acres of corn and 3,600 acres of soybeans, as well as some pasture for cattle.
The changes in 50-plus years are too many to list, but no one would’ve predicted the growth that’s taken place since a shaky start.
Like most boys their age, both Dana boys helped their fathers with work around the farm. In the mid-1950s, the elder Jon Dana had helped his father with chores, but when the father died he was suddenly the family’s responsible male, facing a mountain of bills, hilly acreage and the challenge of being a high school student.
“We were fixin’ to lose the farm because we had too much debt,” said Dana, now 71. “We tried to sell it, but we couldn’t get as much as we owed on it.”
Early on, the youngster learned a valuable farm lesson: how to balance farm debt and expenses with an often-unpredictable income.
Dana not only managed to graduate from Richmond High School in 1959, he found a new source of farm income. In those days, investment firms would buy cattle the way people today buy stock or grain futures, or invest their money as start-up capital for new businesses. Cattle investors wouldn’t care for the animals themselves, but would hire farmers who could provide pasture and the expertise to bring the animals to maturity.
Dana entered into an agreement with the investment firm of Oppenheimer & Co., which put cattle on the Danas’ untillable land and provided the family with some much-needed income.
But it wasn’t just the boy’s ingenuity and industriousness that saved the farm.
There was a family angel that helped mother and son keep their home place and stability.
“I had an uncle who laid down his life and helped me and my mom get by,” Dana said.
The man, a Methodist preacher, helped with the herd and crops so Dana could manage his juggling act of school and home responsibilities.
It was that initial struggle – and a subsequent inflation-fueled financial crisis in the late 1970s and early ‘80s – that Dana survived and used to lay a foundation for an almost-60-year farming career that continues today.
“My son came along then,” Dana said of the younger Jon. “From about 3 years old he knew he was a farmer. The two of us, we built it back up together.”
In the early 1990s, the time was right for the son and his wife, Erin, to become owners of Bar 7 Inc., Dana Family Farms.
The father was no slouch when it came to the business and science of row crops and livestock, but his son was from a generation that was comfortable with computers and understood their value as accounting, tracking and marketing tools.
“I went to college two years, but most of what I learned has been through experience,” the younger Dana said. “Technology is changing so quickly that I think it’s very important to stay ahead of the curve on that.”
With the help of sophisticated planting and harvesting machinery, the Danas track fertilizer placement and yields – as well as input expenses and income from crop sales – on software that Jon the son tailors to the needs of Dana Farms.
“He’s built spreadsheets that I know he could sell for big bucks,” his father said. “I know he’s got just about everything on them.”
The younger side of the father-son equation carries a briefcase with him, even when he’s running a combine through a cornfield. There’s so much to keep track of when it comes to expenses and income, printouts and current data are invaluable.
“Marketing’s a very important part of the business because of the volatility of the markets,” the son said. “Prior to 2008, a 50-cent move in corn could take quite a while to get to. Now, there can be a 20-cent move in the morning and another in the afternoon.”
To ensure some predictability, the Danas prepay inputs and play the futures markets. Genetic advances in seed have helped, as has crop insurance – particularly in a year-long drought that cut the farms’ corn yield from around 140 bushels an acre two years ago to less than 40 this year.
“In my memory, it’s the most severe we’ve ever had,” the senior Dana said in mid-August. “Weather-wise, this is the worst we’ve ever had. But with the genetics, this corn has put on ears,” whereas in the past plants would be completely barren.
While good planning, insurance and high market prices should mean the farm will break even this year, the drought is likely to leave its mark in years to come, the father said.
“It has a long tail, you know,” Jon Dana said. “The elevators that don’t have enough grain, the guys who haul it, the ones who sell tires to them, it’s going to hurt everyone.”
Quick reversals are the name of the game, his son said. Coming up, this year’s harvested corn crop looked to be the best he’d ever seen. But then the extended heat and dry conditions brought a change in fortune.
“But that’s farming,” Jon the son said. “It’s not the first time that happened and it won’t be the last.”