Growing the Family Business

This Alabama farmer navigates the uncertainties of tariffs, COVID and unpredictable weather.

Farm owner Larkin Martin of Courtland, Alabama, stands in a field holding a plant while posing for a photograph
Larkin Martin, 57, is a farm owner and manager in Courtland, Ala.
(Image credit: Photograph by Cary Norton)


Who: Larkin Martin, 57 What: Farm owner and manager Where: Courtland, Ala.

How big is your farming operation? We have about 12 employees who help farm owned and rented land. I am the seventh generation of my family to manage a continuous operation. We grow cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat, although the size and crop mix has changed many times over the years.

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Who are your buyers? The corn we raise tends to have a very local market, to the people who supply the poultry industry. Most of our wheat is barged out to New Orleans to be exported. And a lot of cotton is exported in raw form to manufacturers of yarns all over the world. Asia—especially China—is the largest region of textile manufacturing. We sell soybeans mostly to a big industrial facility close to here.

Has the pandemic affected you? Farm work was deemed essential, so we’ve had to change very little about our operational procedures. And the nature of the work is socially distant—although I’ve had a member of my family come down with the virus, and I had to isolate from the employees. Luckily, we haven’t had an employee come down with the virus so far. But the pandemic disrupted trade and supply-chain patterns that were already under strain. Preceding COVID, we had a downturn in prices for most of the commodities we raise. And in some cases, this downturn was exacerbated by COVID’s impacts on trade.

Did tariffs imposed by the Trump ad­ministration affect your production in recent years? The tariffs disrupted trade patterns—significantly with China. And China’s purchases of U.S. commodities declined dramatically in response to them. So there was a price downturn. But recently, China’s purchases have come back significantly in volume, and there has been a positive price impact.

Have farm bill programs supported your operations? They have helped to offset the negative implications of the price declines. While we’re grateful for the taxpayer assistance, we would expect that cannot continue. I’d much prefer to have prices that offer profitability for our operation, and most farmers would probably agree.

Has severe weather like we’ve seen in Iowa and elsewhere had an impact on your crops? Variable weather always has an impact. This year has been very wet. We’re inland enough that we haven’t had too much impact from wind, which can be devastating closer to the coasts, but we have had rain from the hurricanes. And in Iowa, because so much crop was lost in that weather event, corn prices went up.

You have advocated for more technology for family farmers. What’s holding that back? The ability to use technology widely is inhibited by a lack of internet connectivity and access to broadband in rural areas. And it’s a very fractured and splintered customer base for someone developing farming technology; it can be very hard to reach. Most of the data is coming in from various machines or sensors or service providers and is in multiple file formats. Combining it in a way that helps you assess cost and profitability is like piecing together a difficult jigsaw puzzle.

What are your hopes for the coming year? That Washington will work to improve the disruptions from COVID and the tariffs and rebuild a system of predictable, multilateral trade. It’s very difficult to build confidence in supply chains when the political system disrupts them in a random manner.

Emma Patch
Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Emma Patch joined Kiplinger in 2020. She previously interned for Kiplinger's Retirement Report and before that, for a boutique investment firm in New York City. She served as editor-at-large and features editor for Middlebury College's student newspaper, The Campus. She specializes in travel, student debt and a number of other personal finance topics. Born in London, Emma grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Washington, D.C.